What's the Matter With Libertarians?


If you've already read Thomas Frank's new Washington tome The Wrecking Crew, you might have seen this observation. Or you might see it for the first time in the New York Times review.

The reason that we have so many well-funded libertarians in America these days is not because libertarianism suddenly acquired an enormous grass-roots following, but because it appeals to those who are able to fund ideas. … Libertarianism is a politics born to be subsidized.

Having not read the book yet, but being familiar with the Frank style, I know that he sees this to be ruinous, terrible: Millionaires endorsing a philosophy that could make them richer! Businesses supporting the work of people who say they can privatize the functions of government. The nerve of these people, the-the-the self-interest, meddling with the baroque beauty and efficency of the state and the civil service, which when funded fully and given maximum power obviously performs better than any profit-driven company. Obviously.

Frank blames libertarian ideas for the corrupting of Washington and the creation of modern Washington, with its Abramoffs, DeLays, and other fungi. Reviewer Michael Lind sets us straight on that.

[T]he father of Washington lobbying was Franklin Roosevelt's former aide Thomas Corcoran, known as Tommy the Cork, a private figure so powerful that President Harry Truman ordered the F.B.I. to wiretap him. Dan Rostenkowski, the powerful and corrupt Democratic chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee in the 1980s and early 1990s, preceded Jack Abramoff into prison. Frank holds up a minor Indiana congressman, David McIntosh, who pushed lobbying reforms before quitting government to become a lobbyist, as an example of conservative hypocrisy. But Fred Dutton, Robert Kennedy's campaign manager in 1968 and the champion of a "new politics" uniting suburban idealists, college students and racial minorities (sound familiar?), went on to become a lobbyist for Mobil Oil and Saudi Arabia, earning the nickname "Dutton of Arabia."

Sure enough, someone could write an interesting book about all the rent-seeking and misuse of public money that transpired between the New Deal and the rise of Frank's naive Beltway libertarians. That stuff doesn't have a party, or a philosophy. Assemble all the evidence and I don't think the Cato Institute or oil company donations to the Competive Enterpirse Institute will play much of a role.

If Frank is arguing that libertarianism is less naturally popular than his brand of populism, that can be debated. Certainly libertarian arguments about tax rates appeal more to the lumpenproletariat in Johnston, Ohio than populist arguments, but you can't say the same about their arguments on, say, so Social Security. But if the argument is that modern libertarianism breeds more graft than old liberalism…

Jesse Walker reviewed Frank's opus about how you rubes should all be Democrats back in 2005. A decade ago, Brian Doherty lampooned Frank's old style of pop culture-focused corporate criticism.