The Liberalism of Naifs

With a sizable chunk of the American public under the belief that a center-left President pursuing what are, by international standards, center-right policies, counts as a socialist, it is appropriate to ask what, exactly, is the alternative that appeals to them, this thing called "libertarianism."   I would borrow a phrase from the 19th century German social democrat August Bebel.  "Anti-semitism," he famously said, "is the socialism of fools."  To my mind, libertarianism is the liberalism of naifs.

As Neil observed on Friday, the spotlight that comes with being a major-party nominee for Senate may turn Rand Paul's principled opposition to basic civil rights into an opportunity to jettison a principle or two.  But Paul is, of course, mostly a vehicle for the tea partiers rather than a phenomenon in and of himself.  Thus, the more apt question is why now.  We can grant that the public are angry, and understandably so, but at a time when our most severe challenges are matters of under-regulation---insufficient attention to mine safety, cozy relationships between industry and regulators regarding offshore drilling, laws that permitted bankers to pocket hundreds of millions while bilking pension funds and taxpayers of trillions, etc.---why would anger manifest itself as a call for less government?

The answer, I think, is that libertarianism, like other ideologies, provides a single ready answer to all questions: Government is the problem.  Communists (real communists) believe that poverty and other social ills are all the product of the exploitation of the poor by the rich; Nazis say everything is the fault of the Jews; and radical Islamists blame the social and economic problems of most Islamic societies on the ruling elite's corruption by Western culture.  Of course, in 21st century America, one can hardly found a viable political movement on communism, Nazism, or radical Islam.  By contrast, libertarianism is a kind of extreme form of core American values themselves.  Goldwater was tapping into something authentic when he said that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice."  Authentic but nonetheless wrong in its zeal to oversimplify.

Consider the core gripe of the tea partiers: TARP.  It's one thing to have been against TARP in the fall of 2008.  At that time, it wasn't clear it was going to work and if it didn't, we would have had a second Great Depression and we would have blown $700 billion.  But most responsible economists---across the ideological spectrum---thought something like TARP was necessary.  And they were right.  Again, it's hard to be certain about these things because we can't run a controlled experiment, but it appears that the combination of Bush's TARP and the Obama stimulus averted an economic catastrophe.  Given that, it's downright perverse for Republican primary voters to have tossed out Senator Bennett based on his support for TARP.

Now I am sure that if polled on the question, just about every tea partier would deny that TARP or the bailout averted a catastrophe and indeed, would claim that they made things worse.  But these denials would not be based on data.  They would be based simply on the ideological predilection to believe that government always makes things worse.  I'm not saying a respectable economist couldn't contest claims about the efficacy of the bailout or the stimulus; I'm saying that the vast majority of people who doubt their efficacy do so for ideological reasons, not empirical ones.  Thus, they will say that the housing bubble itself was the product of government interventions to promote home ownership by people who were previously priced out.  (The bubble surely was inflated in that way, but that's only a piece of the puzzle.)  It took me all of 3 seconds on Google to find a libertarian blogger who thinks the lesson of the BP disaster (and Hurricane Katrina) is that we should minimize government because government does a bad job with everything.  Name the problem and you can find a libertarian who will say that government is its cause.

I'll close this post with a disclaimer and an anecdote.  The disclaimer: I don't think that everyone who calls himself or herself a libertarian is naive or a nut.  The term is often used as a shorthand for fiscal conservatism combined with social liberalism.  There are thus a whole range of positions that would be conventionally classified as "libertarian" that are perfectly defensible.  What I have in mind by "libertarianism" is libertarianism as an ideology, the sort of message spouted by 15-year-old boys carrying copies of The Fountainhead---and increasingly, by angry adults voting in Republican primaries.

That brings me to my anecdote.  Early in my teaching career, I said in the course of a con law lecture that the dormant commerce clause is principally a doctrine of federalism, and only secondarily a vehicle for the promotion of capitalism (the reason why is not important for present purposes).  A student objected that the DCC did not promote capitalism at all.  After a little back and forth, it became clear that the student thought it improper to use the word "capitalism" to describe an economic system in which there was any regulation of the economy.  I thanked him for his comment and moved on.  He persisted after class.  Curious as to what he meant, I asked whether regulations designed to make the economy more competitive---such as antitrust law---would be permissible in his view.  No, he said.  What about the bare minimum of courts to enforce contracts?  Surely that's okay, right?  No again.  He was committed to the proposition that any government action respecting the economy polluted it.  Eventually I tried to give up.  I said that when I used the words "capitalism" or "free enterprise," he should understand me to be talking about regulated markets or "fake capitalism" or whatever term he thought appropriate for this debased economic system.  But even that didn't satisfy the student.  He insisted that it was wrong for me to use the words in the way I was using them.  Eventually I had to just tell him I had to leave.

I'm willing to grant that this student went beyond the teachings of his masters, but I tell the story because of what happened later.  That night I received an email from the student explaining his persistence.  He gave me a revealing analogy.  If a Holocaust denier were giving a speech, he asked, wouldn't I, as a Jew, feel obligated to challenge him?  And, my student went on, as an "objectivist" (a term for followers of Ayn Rand, for whom, alas, Rand Paul is not named), he was equally obliged to challenge misstatements about capitalism.  I read the email three or four times, and showed it to a colleague, to verify that the student was equating a semantic disagreement over the proper use of the terms "capitalism" and "free enterprise" with Holocaust denial.  He was.

Was my student representative of all libertarians?  No.  But the experience leads me to think that those among the tea party movement who draw Hitler mustaches on Obama because he supported Mitt Romney's version of health care reform are not completely unconnected to the core philosophy of their movement.