'The moral vacuity of dogmatic libertarianism is poisonous to public life'


Now that John McCain has re-emerged as a Time coverboy and GOP frontrunner-by-acclamation (if not by actual, um, delegates), The Weekly Standard—the magazine that has historically supplied the maverick presidential contender with hefty chunks of his ideology, historical antecedents and even staff—has finally decided that the water's warm enough again for some full-throated 2000-style cheerleading. First came a defense of McCain's role in the "Gang of 14" business that some conservatives will never forgive him for, next came a mash note from new New York Times columnist Bill Kristol in which we are dared to love McCain for his manly ability to recite poetry from the Victorian era (ah, the jolly old days of empire!).

Then the cherry was placed on top today in a bizarre yet oddly compelling attack on libertarianism by academics Benjamin Storey and Jenna Silber Storey. Here's their two-headed strawman of a thesis:

The ire against McCain contains elements of two of the greatest fallacies of modern political thought: the notion that ideology can replace virtue as the mainstay of a decent regime, and the cynical assumption that virtue is not real but vanity in disguise.

See how that works? If you disagree with McCain's policies, and don't buy into his straight talk, why, you're an ideologue who doesn't believe in virtue!

Let's go straight into the broadside against reason:

The problem with absolute faith in any ideology, including that of the free market, becomes evident with a glance at the flagship publication of the libertarians, Reason magazine. It is no coincidence that Reason publishes hagiographies of Milton Freedman [sic] as well as pleas for drug legalization and appreciations of cartoon pornography: economic libertarianism, elevated to the status of inviolable first principle, leads to moral libertarianism.

The moral vacuity of dogmatic libertarianism is poisonous to public life. By teaching that 'greed is good,' strict free-market ideology holds out the promise that private vices can be public virtues. Recent congressional history has laid bare the fallacy of this argument. Republicans who proclaimed from the stump that greed was good turned out to believe it when they got into office, amassing earmarks and bridges to nowhere by means of their newfound powers. Why should we be surprised? To expect them to do otherwise would be to expect that men sometimes risk their self-interest for the sake of the public good, which our economist friends tell us is impossible. Conservatives who forget that the free market is properly a piece of policy rather than an ideological end-in-itself not only obscure the importance of individual virtue, they undermine it.

Without attempting to untangle the mess of that second graf—seriously, read it again—my question is this: Exactly where and how has libertarianism poisoned "public life"? Certainly not in the modern, Weekly Standard-approved national GOP, which has shot federal spending through the roof, created mammoth new entitlements, rammed through panicky regulatory nightmares, got the feds deep into local education, and lived out the doctrine of pre-emptive war. Of all the many, many things to complain about the party that has run most of the federal government for the past eight years, "dogmatic libertarianism" has to rank somewhere near the proliferation of Esperanto.

It's always flattering that libertarianism—almost uniquely among strains of modern political thought—is constantly challenged to defend itself against its most theoretical extremes.  (As a comparative thought exercise, try to take Weekly Standardism to its "logical conclusion" … National Perfectness, maybe?) But I suspect what's really going on here is a Weekly Standard campaign, more than a decade old at this point (see Walter Olsen's reason take way back in July 1997), to purge principled libertarianism out of the GOP. This crystallized into National Greatness Conservatism, and found a willing vessel in John McCain. As David Brooks wrote, in a moment of McCain euphoria back in 2000, "the Goldwater-Reagan ideological message needs to be overhauled."

After the maverick insurrection hit the rocks, National Greatness dwindled to a movement of four or five members and flirted openly with bolting the GOP altogether, before finding a new audience in the Bush White House post-Sept. 11. By the 2004 presidential election, David Brooks was celebrating the "death of small-government conservatism" as we know it. While Storey & Storey fret that conservatives are "marginalizing anyone who does not toe the doctrinaire line of their free market ideology," four GOP presidential contenders are busy trying to out-stimulus package one another and dole out welfare to energy companies and homeowners, while a marginalized fifth guy gets the eye-rolling treatment for talking about aggressively slashing the scope of government. Thank God the culture is significantly more libertarian than the Kristol/Brooks GOP.

As for reason's particular flavor of poison, I looked in vain for an "appreciation of cartoon pornography," and the only thing that came remotely close was Tim Cavanaugh calling a graphic porn novel "flaccid" and "as subtle as a Ron Jeremy money shot." Turns out there's a pretty important difference between wishing the government out of people's free transactions, and assuming those transactions are wonderful (let alone wanting to force them upon the rest of society). There's a similar difference between preferring free markets and being some kind of libertarian People's Cultist. As Cavanaugh wrote just today, regarding a completely different matter:

I love all attempts to imply that belief in a free market is some kind of revealed religion, unmoored from any ocular proof. Sure, a member of the irrational capitalist religion might say there's actual evidence for the effectiveness of economics. Maybe by noting that, in the period after lending at interest and common-stock corporations came into regular use, human beings went from not wiping their backsides to landing people on the moon, expanded their population by orders of magnitude, abandoned slavery and serfdom, etc., all in about a third of the time it took the tale of Huckabee's savior to travel the token distance from Jerusalem to Oslo. But hey, that's just theology.

Virginia Postrel (and James Glassman) were on to National Greatness from the git-go. I've got a chapter about the curious ideology in my book. W. James Antle, III wrote about The Weekly Standard after its 10th birthday.