Morally Vacuous and Poisonously Dogmatic?

Don't blame libertarianism for Republican failures


Last week, The Weekly Standard ran an article by academics Benjamin and Jena Silber Storey praising the rise of Sen. John McCain in the Republican presidential primaries.

The Weekly Standard has long been a McCain supporter, going back to the 2000 election. The magazine adores McCain's rugged, Theodore Roosevelt philosophy of governance, one that emphasizes American might, exalts public service, and believes that so long as the right people are governing, government can be a transformative, transcendent, almost mystical force for good in the world.

The Weekly Standard began in the mid-1990s, on the heels of the dramatic GOP takeover of Congress. What's odd is that the 1994 takeover was driven in large part by the libertarian wing of the party, and was animated by libertarian ideas. The "Contract With America" did include some nods to the Christian right, but it was mostly a call for a transparent, accountable, dramatically limited government.

But almost immediately thereafter, The Weekly Standard rose to high prominence in the Republican Party, and began nudging the GOP away from its libertarian influences toward a broader, more collectivist vision—what neoconservative leaders William Kristol and David Brooks would come to call "National Greatness." A cynic might call it socialism for conservatives.

The Storey article, then, not only exalts John McCain, but takes some ugly swipes at libertarianism—though they tend to be as uninformed as they are ad hominem. I should note, here, that the article attacks reason magazine, where I'm a senior editor.

Here's part of the offending passage:

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.

reason's editor-in-chief Matt Welch already posted an excellent rebuttal to this passage. But there's a broader lesson here, too. The passage drives home just how far the Republican Party has drifted from the Reagan-Goldwater movement that swept it into power.

One problem with the Storeys' attack on libertarianism is its historical ignorance. If there have been actual Republicans who have stumped on the message that "greed is good," I sure don't remember them (the slogan, from the movie Wall Street, is also something of a caricature of libertarianism).

The GOP's lone flirtation with the principles of limited, accountable, transparent government lasted from election night 1994 until about the time newly minted GOP committee chairmen started slamming their gavels. The party has since been dominated by a White House and Congressional leadership that has stood firm on issues like flag burning, gay marriage, and abstinence-only education, while dramatically growing the federal budget, inventing new entitlements and cabinet-level agencies, and generally bloating the size, scope, and influence of the federal government.

Libertarians, these ain't.

And what about that "bridge to nowhere?"

The term refers to the pork barrel project in Alaska that came to represent the problems with the corrupt earmarking process in appropriations bills. But there's nothing remotely libertarian about the three Republicans responsible for the "bridge to nowhere."

Sens. Ted Stevens and Frank Murkowski and Rep. Don Young were mainstream, big government Republicans. Earmark darling Sen. Trent Lott hasn't exactly been a libertarian standard-bearer, either. As for the party's problems with corruption, disgraced Rep. Duke Cunningham was a Christian Coalition darling. Ohio Rep. Bob "Freedom Fries" Ney was an anti-trade, America-firster. Rep. Tom Delay was a moral-right conservative who's most notable accomplishment was the disastrous prescription drug benefit, the largest new federal entitlement in 40 years.

These weren't champions of the free market and limited government meddling. They were big government conservatives.

In fact, the few actual libertarian-leaning Republicans left—Reps. Jeff Flake and Ron Paul and Sen. John Sununu, for example—have led the charge to reform the corrupt earmarking process.

The Storey article next says we shouldn't expect politicians to "risk their self-interest for the sake of the public good, which our economist friends tell us is impossible."

That's exactly right. This is the basis of public choice theory (an area of study dominated by libertarian economists), which tells us that public servants aren't altruistic, all-knowing philosopher kings who govern with wisdom and restraint. Rather, just like people in the private sector, they're more likely to act to further their own interests, not the interests of the public, or the interests of addressing the problem the agency was created to solve.

So yes, the fall of the GOP and all of the corruption, abuse of office and power, and bad governing that went with it is exactly what we would expect. It's what politicians do. Which is exactly why libertarians believe in limited government. Libertarianism acknowledges the trappings of power. Libertarians understand that people are generally selfish, and behave selfishly. The free market harnesses self-interest in ways that are productive and positive for everyone. People looking to further their own self interest in positive, productive ways generally are rewarded. People who go too far are generally punished. Consumers at least have choices, and transactions are voluntary. That isn't the case with government.

It's in the pages of The Weekly Standard that you'll find paeans to "great works" projects, odes to Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt, grand schemes to remap and democratize the Middle East, and a general fetishization of politics and public service. The kind of "national greatness" envisioned by Kristol and Brooks requires a faith in the altruism and selflessness of politicians and government agents that's wholly at odds with human nature-or human history.

The moral failures of the Republican Party have nothing to do with libertarianism. They're the inevitable, entirely foreseeable failures of men given too much power and not enough accountability. Neoconservatives like those at the Weekly Standard believe in giving government more of the former and, judging by the magazine's ceaseless defenses of the Bush administration, less of the latter.

At the urging of the neoconservatives, the GOP has drifted further and further away from libertarianism since taking power in 1994. It takes considerable gall for them to now blame libertarianism for the Republicans' failures.