Politics

Brink Lindsey on the Libertarian Center

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Up at Cato Unbound is an interesting, lengthy and detailed new essay from reason contributing editor Brink Lindsey, author of our July cover story "The Aquarians and the Evangelicals" (derived from his great new book The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America's Politics and Culture).

It's called "The Libertarian Center." In it, Brink presents evidence for his thesis that the U.S. has turned significantly more libertarian in the past fifty or so years:

Compare conditions now to how they were at the outset of the 1960s. Official governmental discrimination against blacks no longer exists. Censorship has beaten a wholesale retreat. The rights of the accused enjoy much better protection. Abortion, birth control, interracial marriage, and gay sex are legal. Divorce laws have been liberalized and rape laws strengthened. Pervasive price and entry controls in the transportation, energy, communications, and financial sectors are gone. Top income tax rates have been slashed. The pretensions of macroeconomic fine-tuning have been abandoned. Barriers to international trade are much lower. Unionization of the private sector work force has collapsed. Of course there are obvious counterexamples, but on the whole it seems clear that cultural expression, personal lifestyle choices, entrepreneurship, and the play of market forces all now enjoy much wider freedom of maneuver. The many and complex reasons for this trend can be boiled down to one sweeping generalization: in an age of mass affluence, economic development and individualism go together.

But of course it is not all good for libertarian influence in the U.S. of A.:

There are some obvious objections to the idea of a libertarian center. First….there is no libertarian political movement to speak of. Accordingly, there is no organized libertarian-leaning constituency that could ally with either conservatives or liberals to alter the balance of power. Rather, at best libertarianism exists as a diffuse, inchoate set of impulses that operate, not as an independent force, but as tendencies within the left and right and a check on how far each can stray in illiberal directions. Second, as I conceded in an earlier essay for Cato Unbound, American public opinion is noticeably unlibertarian in many important respects. In particular, economic illiteracy is rife; much of government spending – especially the budget-busting middle-class entitlement programs – remains highly popular; and the weakness for moralistic crusades, long an unfortunate feature of the American character, remains glaring (though today's temperance movements direct their obsessive zeal toward advancing health and safety rather than virtue).

Brink goes on to argue, at length and with much fascinating evidence, why both traditional left and right will have a hard time in modern America making any strong changes in their preferred directions. Read the whole thing, and look to Cato Unbound for future commentary and rebuttal from Matt Yglesias, Jonah Goldberg, and reason contributing editor Julian Sanchez.

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  1. (though today’s temperance movements direct their obsessive zeal toward advancing health and safety rather than virtue)

    Same Fucking Difference

    Is Lindsay dim or disingenuous?

  2. Unionization of the private sector work force has collapsed.

    That’s funny, I thought libertarianism was a philosophy of government, and took no position on how private individuals chose to organize their economic lives.

    Mr. Lindsey, your hand is tipping.

  3. The simple fact that blacks have full civil rights now its a huge, huge leap for freedom vs. 50 years ago.

  4. advancing health and safety rather than virtue

    Lindsey

    I can say nothing I read today will piss me off more than this statement. It is all about forcing morality on others.
    Health and safety are concerned with metaphorical virtue while virtue is a matter of
    metaphorical health and safety. Actually, you could strike the “metaphorical” and it is still true.

  5. Unionization: 51% of the employees coercing 49% to pay dues so they can further coerce the employer.

    This is not volunteerism. It is persuasion via the threat of force. If you are an employee, you must obey or you will lose your job. If you are the employer, you must obey or the NLRB lawyers will shut you down. Engage in civil disobedience by hiring replacement workers, and have your tires slashed, cat poisoned and kneecaps broken.

  6. “there is no libertarian political movement to speak of.” Then this means there is no demand for such a movement, at least as expressed through third-party politics.
    But the LP keeps trying, as it walks away from “libertarian education” in order to “field better candidates and campaigns.”
    Could it be that was is lacking, but worth trying, is non-political libertarian grass-roots organizations from which, perhaps someday, a viable libertarian political movement could be assembled?

  7. Brandybuck,

    Corporation: 0.001% of the employees coercing the other 99.999% (move around the decimal point depending on the size of the business) to accept whatever pay and conditions they want.

    This is not volunteerism, either. It is persuasion via the threat of force. If you are an employee, you must obey or lose your job, too. Does this same power only become “force” when applied by those of similar economic status?

    I repeat; I thought libertarianism was a philosophy of government, and took no position on how private individuals chose to organize their economic lives. If you wish to argue that economic incentives provided by those whose private-sector positions put them positions of influence is “force,” then good for you. But I doubt you do. Steeing aside your off-hand references to fourth-hand anecdotes about how terrible the people whose politics differe from yours behave, all you’ve done is argue that the existence of economic influence is now “force,” when practices by people who aren’t management.

  8. Censorship has beaten a wholesale retreat.

    He has to be shitting us on that one.

  9. The rights of the accused enjoy much better protection.

    Unless you are caught with dugs, or even misidentified as having them (see everything Balko has written about SWAT).

    Of the first four sentences quoted, two are flat out baloney. Think I’ll skip the rest of it.

  10. Or caught with drugs.

  11. That’s funny, I thought libertarianism was a philosophy of government, and took no position on how private individuals chose to organize their economic lives.

    One can assume Unions in the private sector arose out of inequality….and presumed institutionally enforced…if that enforcement was relaxed one would expect Unions to fall to the way side.

  12. Same Fucking Difference

    Is Lindsay dim or disingenuous?

    and

    I can say nothing I read today will piss me off more than this statement. It is all about forcing morality on others.
    Health and safety are concerned with metaphorical virtue while virtue is a matter of
    metaphorical health and safety. Actually, you could strike the “metaphorical” and it is still true.

    Wow! Did i read that differently then SIV does…i think Lindsey agrees with you buddy. I don;t think he is defending the change of tactics by the nanny state…only an observation of it and how it is still allowed by the general voting population despite their libertarinish attitudes.

  13. Unionization of the private sector work force has collapsed.

    That’s funny, I thought libertarianism was a philosophy of government, and took no position on how private individuals chose to organize their economic lives.

    There are two more charitable ways to read this:

    1. He means that state legislation and administration artificially supporting union power have declined considerably in the last half century.

    2. He means that the fact that unions have collapsed is de facto proof that people are better off and more free in their economic relationships: They no longer need to seek shelter in collective bargaining to the extent they did before.

    Both of these are true statements. I would be interested in knowing which he meant.

  14. joshua corning,

    I don’t wanna obsess about this.

    But none of his other measures were about the outcomes of policies.

    Maybe he’s happy about changes to the NRLB. Maybe he loves “right to work” laws – the ones that limit the labor contracts employers can sign with their employees. We don’t really know what wonderful, liberating reductions in activist government he’s applauding, because he didn’t mention any.

    He just wrote that America is a more libertarian place because fewer workers are in unions. That’s not a statement about there being less government and more (libertarian definition) freedom. It’s a statement about the relationships between employers and employees being different.

  15. MikeP,

    I’ll just note that all of Lindsey’s other benchmarks are about the government. He even makes sure to put the word “Official govenrment” at the beginning of “discrimination against blacks no longer exists,” to make sure it’s clear that he’s talking about government policy and not real-world conditions.

  16. joe,

    Then I’ll come back and say that your statement…

    That’s funny, I thought libertarianism was a philosophy of government, and took no position on how private individuals chose to organize their economic lives.

    …is not exactly precise.

    Strictly speaking, libertarianism is not a philosophy of government. Rather, libertarianism is a philosophy of social order where association between persons is mutually voluntary and force is precluded except in response to force. This imposes limits on any government that might be around. But it also imposes limits on any union, mafia, Pinkerton wannabe, enforcement agency, and any and every individual or organization.

    If Lindsey’s perception of unions is that they are institutions that involuntarily impose themselves on their members and employers — true for some, but I would say not generally true at all — then his statement is defensible on those grounds.

  17. MikeP,

    I know. I don’t actually think libertarianism is just a philosophy of govenrment, or strictly neutral on how people organize themselves. They want people to organize themselves, or not, in ways that promote the values of entrepreneurship, individual expression, and market competition. They don’t like markets just because there is no government interference, for example, but because they like markets and the effects they have on the world. Similarly, they don’t dislike unions because of the government or private-sector coercion that is supposedly involved, but because they don’t like collective bargaining and employees having influence into business operations, regardless of the role government or private coercion plays in the process.

    If Lindsey’s perception of unions is that they are institutions that involuntarily impose themselves on their members and employers

    …then Lindsey is engaging in deliberate self-deception. It would be very convenient for someone who wanted to get rid of all the Republicans to “perceive” that all Republicans are child molesters, but that would be a fundamentaly dishonest and self-serving act of deception.

    I’ll note that he didn’t mention the decline in sexual harrassment in the workplace that women have experienced over the past few decades.

  18. That’s funny, I thought libertarianism was a philosophy of government, and took no position on how private individuals chose to organize their economic lives.

    That is true. And the random comments of a random libertarian that aren’t 100% consistant with Libertarian philosophy don’t say anything about that philosophy.

    But it is not suprising that a Libertarian could have a confused and inconsistant ideas about unions. While unions are totally compatible with Libertarianism in theory, most unions as they exist in todays reality are hardcore totalitarians.

    A Libertarian might get confused between a labor union as a voluntary construct for collective bargaining (which is what labor unions are for in theory), and as a state-protected monopoly created to provide activism for more that control (which is what most labor unions are in reality)… and therefore mistakenly think that unions are an anti-libertarian institution.

  19. I know. I don’t actually think libertarianism is just a philosophy of govenrment, or strictly neutral on how people organize themselves.

    Since Libertarianism as an ideology is an abstract concept, is *IS* strictly neutral on how people organize themselves.

    Of course Libertarians as people naturally make value judgements – as that is what human beings do. You, I, everyone has our own opinions on what a perfect world would be like: Where Libertarians disagree with people like you is the extent the government should use violence to force people to conform to those value judgements.

  20. Rex Rhino,

    There is plainly more than individual value judgements going on in the broad loathing of unions that exists among almost all libertarians.

  21. There is plainly more than individual value judgements going on in the broad loathing of unions that exists among almost all libertarians.

    Absolutly not. The dislike of labor unions by Libertarians generally reflects the dislike of labor unions by Americans in general. When I was a memeber of a labor union, hating on the union was a passion for the very non-libertarian union memebers. There is definitly a skeptism and disatisfaction with our current system of organized labor that is much much larger than the libertarian movement.

    It is not unusual that Libertarians, as Americans, would share the skeptism.

  22. First off, talking about Unions as being monolithic is too general. There are different kinds of “shops”, some tending to be more “free”, or having fewer legal advantages then others. I think joe pointed that out. Some Labor laws, and hence Unions, are simply not libertarian, any more then cartels are. But not all are.

    The first thing that comes to mind when contemplating unionization rates as a measurement for a libertarian society is their politics, and their presence in that marketplace. Everyone knows that most Union political contributions go to the political party that favors free markets the least. In addition, most of the laws that favor unions are not libertarian. That said, someone’s choice to join a union is their own and perfectly just within the a libertarian framework, and I don’t think Brink’s usage of union membership had anything to do with that concept of unionization

  23. My guess is that most Americans also prefer to work 5 days a week, 40 hours or so with a bit of time off too.

    We’re not exactly pinin’ for the Fords (or the Carnegies or the Fricks).

  24. We’re not exactly pinin’ for the Fords (or the Carnegies or the Fricks).

    What about Ford Frick? There seems to be a lot of hatred for the baseball players union.

  25. Rex Rhino,

    I would be surprised to find as many as two articles about unions in a mass-circulation, general consumption magazine like Time, yet hating on unions is a perennial obsession of libertarians.

    Mmm, people complained about the union. Did they ever vote to abolish it? People bitch about their circumstances, and their labor agreements are no exception. That’s not nearly the same thing as the ideological antipathy you find towards collective bargaining among libertarians.

    I mean, seriously, are you going to pretend that your button didn’t just get pushed by that term, “collective bargaining?”

  26. but because they don’t like collective bargaining and employees having influence into business operations, regardless of the role government or private coercion plays in the process.

    This libertarian doesn’t think that way, and neither do any other libertarians I can think of.

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