Ron Paul’s strong showing in Iowa and New Hampshire has spurred media attention to his campaign, which in turn will undoubtedly increase interest in the libertarian creed he espouses. Paul has some good positions on foreign policy and civil liberties issues; if those positions get a real hearing as a result of his candidacy, he will have made a positive contribution to our national discourse. Still, whatever attraction some of Paul’s views may have for progressives shouldn’t tempt us to look too kindly on libertarianism. There are four broad reasons why progressives should firmly reject it.
1. Libertarian values are repellent--Libertarianism celebrates greed and selfishness. Of course not all libertarians follow Ayn Rand in saying that openly, but that’s really what it’s all about. Am I being unfair? After all, libertarians sincerely believe in the wonders of free markets, and it just happens that greed and selfishness work well with free markets. So, you might argue, libertarians don’t necessarily have different values from you and me, just different beliefs about what works and what doesn’t. I don’t buy that. The plain fact is, libertarians by and large are simply not much bothered by social and economic inequality: their hearts bleed for the rich and successful, not for the underprivileged. I’m not saying that libertarians are actively hostile toward or contemptuous of the poor, only that they don’t much care about them. (There are some notable exceptions, proving the rule.) Of course, libertarians will and do argue that their ideas will benefit all strata of society, including the poor, but let’s be real: concern for the underdog is just not a libertarian priority. People are most often attracted to the left, rightly or wrongly, because of a sense of social justice--an appreciation of the unfairness of existing inequalities and an interest in helping the less fortunate. Do you really think that anybody ever became a libertarian motivated primarily by the conviction that that was the best way to help the underdog? Asked and answered.
2. Libertarianism is intellectually myopic--Libertarians cherish freedom above all, but their concept of freedom is constricted and myopic. They understand freedom almost exclusively in terms of freedom from government, not recognizing that unfettered capitalism--the libertarians’ beloved free market economy--can be as great a threat to freedom as government action. In a country like the United States, quite possibly more so. How many people do you know who have ever been forced to move from their home town by government? Surely, none (other than convicted criminals). Now, how many people do you know have been forced to move long distances in search of decent jobs? Chances are, you do know such people--living demonstrations of the power of markets to constrain individual behavior. Libertarians also refuse to recognize that poverty and hardship make people unfree, and that often, government action is necessary to mitigate the oppression inflicted by markets. Is a gravely ill person free if she lacks access to decent health care? According to libertarian Ron Paul she is free--to look for a charity to help her. Most other people wouldn’t find it hard to understand that the prospect of death imposes severe limits on freedom.
3. Libertarianism is utopian--An active state is a universal feature of advanced societies. The minimal government society that libertarians envision doesn’t exist anywhere in the industrial or post-industrial world, and never has, for good reason. Advanced capitalism simply doesn’t function without a fairly active, interventionist public sector. Now, that doesn’t mean that libertarians can never have any valid public policy ideas at all: libertarians are constantly proposing “market based solutions” to everything, so it’s inevitable that once in a while they get something right. Even more than once in a while, they will be right on their own narrow terms--they will come up with proposals that technically work more or less well while neglecting larger issues of equity and public good. But as a broad philosophy of governance, libertarianism cannot work. Almost no one these days believes in traditional orthodox socialism--public ownership of most means of production. Libertarianism is as distant from real world possibilities as traditional socialism, and should be taken no more seriously.
4. Libertarianism is politically hopeless--You might well agree with me on the three preceding points but still feel that libertarianism has to be reckoned with politically--hasn’t Ron Paul shown that his creed has real popular appeal? My short answer would be that Paul’s ability to garner the vote of 20% of Iowa and New Hampshire Republican Party enthusiasts says very close to nothing about libertarianism’s mass appeal. My longer answer is that libertarians can never achieve mass appeal because libertarians, unlike conservatives, are hobbled by their principled consistency. Libertarian and conservative economic programs basically serve the interests of a relatively small portion of the population. Conservatives understand that--they understand it in their bones even if not in their brains. That’s why conservatives have come to realize that they can only win elections by using wedge issues--anti-communism, racism, family values, anti-terrorism, etc. And they have been quite successful with wedge issues. Most of the wedges, though, are unattractive to libertarians, who really do believe in freedom. So, attacks on civil liberties or abortion or gay rights or calls for a garrison state to fight foreign enemies aren’t part of the libertarians’ political arsenal. (Paul, who opposes abortion rights, is a partial exception to this generalization.) Unwilling to resort to wedge issues, libertarians are left basically with an elitist economic program plus some sensible proposals, like ending the war on drugs, that just don’t do the job that wedge issues do for conservative Republicans. They don’t have a faux populist social agenda to distract people from their elitist economic agenda. Politically, that puts them close to nowhere.