Laissez Fear

Left and right agree—the market is their enemy.


The backlash has begun. Political itellectuals of all sorts are lining up to bash libertarians in general and markets in particular.

On the right, William Schambra of the Bradley Foundation blasts "an unholy marriage between the marketplace and radical individualism," while The Weekly Standard sprinkles the word libertarian about almost randomly, as an all-purpose epithet. "Absolute liberty corrupts absolutely," proclaims Adam Wolfson in that magazine's review of David Boaz's Libertarianism: A Primer, dinging Boaz for failing to ground his arguments in theology. "Decadence is brought to us by the marketplace," says communitarian conservative Don Eberly, quoted in a National Journal article titled "Rethinking Capitalism."

On the left, William Greider and Robert Kuttner have published tomes refashioning their usual anti-market arguments for a global age. Reviewing them in Newsweek, Michael Hirsh writes, "Free-market fever has given a new, savage look to the American corporation as well: Downsizing. Deregulation. Decimated trade unions. 'Employability' over employment. All are symptoms of the jostling, desperate grab for markets that rules the day." Left-leaning Netizens are positively apoplectic at the prominence of libertarian ideas (often, admittedly, of a less-than-sophisticated variety) in their domain. The BrainWave project, a joint venture of four major Web sites, devotes its first effort to a discussion-of-cum-attack-on libertarian ideas. Salon's Gary Kamiya concludes his setup posting with the declaration that libertarianism is "dangerous."

At first, this sudden outburst seems weird. From the rhetoric, you'd think we were living in a laissez-faire country. In real life, however, the last Congress increased the minimum wage, slapped content controls on the Internet, and passed a telecom "deregulation" bill that was anything but. Efforts to mitigate the extremes of environmental regulation or pay property owners for regulatory losses died a horrible death. The tax code is as complex and manipulative as ever—and likely to get more so this year. The president is demanding that every employer give parents time off for PTA meetings. Meanwhile, the closest approximation to actually existing laissez faire, Hong Kong, is about to be swallowed by Communist China.

No, technocracy is still very much the order of the day. But both the general public, in an inchoate way, and (some) intellectuals, more clearly, are losing faith in the rule of experts. The world of policy has not yet changed all that much, but the world of ideas has changed a lot. Where ideas go, policy eventually follows. And against the claims of central authority, free minds and free markets are the obvious alternative. After all, concludes even Newsweek's Hirsh, "Whom do we really want at the wheel of the world economy? Just having Alan Greenspan at the Fed is scary enough. Isn't capitalism, in the end, simply the best way of maximizing people's freedom? To paraphrase Churchill on democracy: it may be a terrible system, it's just better than any other."

That Churchillian argument may be good enough for people like Hirsh, who like freedom but distrust big business. It isn't, however, good enough for those who crave authority.

What irks them about the market is that, in Greider's words, "no one is at the wheel." The market has no boss. It's unpredictable and contradictory. It lets Americans spend $8 billion a year on pornography and $3 billion in Christian bookstores (not including sales of Christian books in secular chains). It permits both The Book of Virtues and Nine Inch Nails to find their niches. It allows parents who think children should be encouraged to use their imaginations to coexist peaceably with those who think imaginative play is dangerous and sinful. "Socially conscious" mutual funds, both right and left, are as much a part of the market as the companies they shun. So are Rush Limbaugh and Mother Jones, Hooters and Ben & Jerry's, Jews for Jesus and Chabad.

The market is not a place or a person or a conspiracy. It is a process—a continuously adapting system of trial and error, experiment and feedback, freedom and responsibility. It rewards both discipline and risk taking, creativity and deferred gratification, foresight and learning from the past. The market process makes possible not only commercial activity but the countless voluntary associations that arise spontaneously when people are allowed the freedom to form their own bonds. Because it depends not on predetermined status but on contract—on choice and consent—the market is liberating. But it is not, as its critics charge, "atomistic," except in the sense that atoms have a tendency to form molecules, which in turn create larger structures.

The market does, however, undermine central authority. Though the organizations created within it may contain many hierarchies and authorities of their own, the market process does not establish one best way. So if your central political value is authority, if you take tradition not as an evolutionary process but as a settled decree, if you see choice and liberation as inherently evil, you will necessarily be driven to oppose the market. And you will launch a last-ditch effort to salvage the power of technocracy and, if possible, its political legitimacy. You will declare that the era of big government has not in fact ended, that all the regulatory state needs is a change of personnel.

That explains why authority-seeking conservatives are suddenly bursting with anti-market fervor and why, also, they are so gloomy. (See "Slouching Toward Phoenix," page 37.) They have suddenly awakened to find their once-useful libertarian allies posing an annoying obstacle to their ultimate goals. Having spent a half century taking on the best arguments of statists of all parties—and with the wreckage of socialism and technocracy as empirical evidence—libertarians are pretty damned persuasive these days. A few die-hard leftists are flopping about, still trying to make arguments, but they've mostly been reduced to pushing crass interest-group appeals and lamely noting that the market can't deliver utopia. Meanwhile, for many social conservatives—who know they are in the minority and so mostly want to be left alone to raise their own children, run their own businesses, and follow their own faith—the libertarian non-aggression pact is an acceptable compromise.

We are winning, in other words. And that drives the authority lovers crazy. That is why the Standard has become the New Democrats' best friend, a promoter of "better," not necessarily smaller, government. Reviewing Charles Murray's What It Means to be a Libertarian there, Daniel Casse asserts that big government is no big deal, and besides, we need it to deal with big problems: Farm programs haven't hurt agriculture, regulation hasn't stopped the computer and software industries (bad examples, since they're largely unregulated), and Social Security is just the greatest thing since sliced bread. Echoing turn-of-the-century Progressives, he writes, "The sheer magnitude of the problems that government now fumbles with may militate against the voluntary and private solutions that worked during the early part of this country's history." If you want to see Lamar! Alexander's real platform, there it is. Casse was his head policy adviser.

On a more serious note, Bill Kristol proclaims in Commentary that "conservatism's more fundamental mandate is to take on the sacred cow of liberalism—choice." He follows this declaration with a very telling discussion of abortion: "But the truth is that abortion is today the bloody crossroads of American politics. It is where judicial liberation (from the Constitution), sexual liberation (from traditional mores), and women's liberation (from natural distinctions) come together. It is the focal point for liberalism's simultaneous assault on self-government, morals, and nature."

What is interesting about Kristol's discussion of abortion is what he does not say. Nowhere does he make the traditional argument against abortion: that it takes human life. Rather, Kristol completely concedes the pro-choice philosophical (as opposed to legal) case. Abortion, he says, is about women's lives and women's choices. It constitutes rebellion against nature and tradition. That's why it's bad.

It may seem odd to omit the most potent anti-abortion argument. But there's a good reason for this seemingly self-defeating rhetorical tack. Pro-life arguments apply only to abortion and possibly, though much more problematically, to suicide and euthanasia. You cannot invoke dead babies to stop gay couples from living together, record companies from selling songs you don't like, women from pursuing careers, Wal-Mart from building new stores, developers from putting up condos, biotech companies from selling life-extending drugs, black men from marrying white women, farmers from leaving the land, companies from moving plants overseas, or any of the myriad choices one or another stasis-craving conservative has condemned as untraditional, unnatural, and immoral. To attack markets, to preserve central authority, you must attack choice. You must ally yourself with the Kuttners and Greiders of the world.

"But let us have no illusions about the compatibility of the conservative and libertarian moral visions," writes natural law theorist Robert George in National Review. "There simply is no tent big enough to accommodate both visions." George is right, at least about his brand of conservatism. There is no end to the argument from authority. Once choice has been obliterated as a value, power has no stopping point. We are back to the world of status, our fates determined by our birth or our betters. That may be a heady prospect for intellectuals accustomed to the corridors of power, but the rest of us—most of us—will, if pushed, take our chances with the market.