Libertarianism in an Age of Economic Crisis

Why being truculent, oppositional, and hard to pigeonhole are not signs of ideological death


Many aspects of America's future are at risk as politicians and public intellectuals respond to the current economic crisis. The politicians are shaping how (far too much of) Americans' money, resources, and precious bodily fluids will be expended, both now and in the very far future. Beyond the (completely insane) spending explosion per se, the specifics of how banking and technology policy will be dealt with, along with the detailed shopping list of Washington spending, show that D.C.'s strength in shaping how agents in the "free market" (that is, us human beings out here) move through the world is growing at an alarming rate. The incentives—and yes, even whims—of free individual choice are increasingly losing out to the commands and decisions of special interests in Washington. That will prove more dangerous in the long term than even the spending.

That this crisis is changing America in ways as significant as the Great Depression and the New Deal appears to be the settled opinion of both those who cheer that fact and those who lament it. But the real sea change arising from the crisis—if a sea change is really at hand—is more a matter of ideology and perspective than one of government action.

After all, though the partisans of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama have muddied our view of this, the Bush years (indeed most of the American postwar experience) have been a time of constant stimulus and deficit spending, and a gradual (sometimes stop-and-start) centralization of the control of resources and decision making.

Which is why what the politicians are doing right now isn't the most significant thing that might be changing. Centralizing power is what they always do and have always done. But in a crisis that was largely caused by government yet is being sold as largely a crisis of markets, libertarianism (hell, any vestige of market freedom at all) is seen by public intellectuals on all sides as staggering on the ropes, moments from the sort of embarrassing face plant that its detractors just find too delicious to look away from.

The disdain for, or doubts about, libertarianism in the Current Crisis comes from different directions and for different reasons. Leading the chorus was Jacob Weisberg of Slate and Newsweek. Substantively, he hasn't got much but unregulated derivatives to blame on "libertarian" thinking. He otherwise ignores everything from Federal Reserve policy to "too big to fail" bailout thinking as possible contributors to the mess. Rhetorically, he's trying to drive anyone who questions the wisdom of any particular government action from the the "serious debate."

The libertarian preference for hands-off policies during times of perceived crises, both domestic and international, is often parried by pointing to the fecklessness and irresponsibility of hand-sitting when confronted with serious problems—even whan those problems were caused by years or decades of government not having a hands-off policy. (It's still worth remembering that it is not yet clear that the Current Crisis will end up much worse than other recessions most adults have lived through).

It's not an indictment of libertarianism that it's hard to see a quick and clean noninterventionist, nonactivist solution to the terrible dilemmas libertarians warned about (and predicted) when they advised nonintervention and nonactivism in the first place—whether it be in Afghanistan or Iraq or the money supply or mortgage markets. The one area where government programs unerringly succeed is in legitimizing more government programs.

While some are happy to declare libertarianism crisis-hobbled, others, often more sympathetic to the generic small-government message, take a different tack on how the crisis wounds the philosophy. They are stressing not intellectual irrelevance per se, but libertarianism's supposedly inherently contradictory and confused basic stance on modernity—or its obvious electoral and coalitional fecklessness.

Conservative writer Austin Bramwell has pointed out that different temperaments show through in different writers and activists within the rough libertarian coalition. Some of them (for example, Reason's Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie) have an optimistic sense that the manifest benefits of even the relatively free markets and technologies of the modern West have created explosions of options and choices that are worth celebrating on their own terms, and that likely presage social and political change toward a greater appreciation of individual autonomy and unbridled choice, in both economic and personal lives.

Some libertarians, however, (the Mises Institute-associated writers gathered at LewRockwell.com are good examples of this) are more apt to stress the various nightmarish problems and crises that government action creates, whether overseas or at home.

Of course, libertarians are not required to justify, defend, or make sense of everything other self-described libertarians may say. But even within the rough limits of "sees a much more limited role for government force in social decision making than we currently see," it's silly for Bramwell to suggest that something contradictory or merely emotive lies at the heart of the libertarian worldview.

For instance, there is no inherent contradiction between celebrating the fact that we live in a country where almost everyone has incredibly cheap access to communications and information tools of wild depth, breadth, and speed, and noting that some people's Internet stock option fortunes in the 1990s might have been based on mistakes and misjudgments by either the Federal Reserve or by pros and amateurs buying and selling stocks.

That is, it does not indicate confusion or contradiction to celebrate the liberatory aspects of modernity while recognizing the ways in which government mucks up, complicates, or limits such liberation, or embeds it in ethical conundrums and crimes. That wide libertarian worldview is, rather, a properly nuanced and full-circle vision of what quasi-capitalist modernity really looks like.

However, having that balanced view of the modern condition doesn't make you "politically relevant," either. Especially not in a world where the dominant political and ideological forces are convinced that every failure and problem, from economic slowdown to health care expenses to weight problems to educational failures to regimes we don't like overseas, can and ought to be solved by more control of resources and decisions in Washington.

Thus, another of the big debates about libertarianism's health and role in the Crisis Age grapples with how libertarianism can and should fit with the dominant paradigm's current avatars and guardians in the liberal/Democratic Party segment of the ideological spectrum.

In the dark Bush era, some libertarian thinkers saw hope for a "liberaltarian" synthesis, in which libertarianism could disengage from its historically contingent connection to the American right and convince liberal politicians, voters, and intellectuals that they have "a shared philosophical commitment to individual autonomy as a core political value" with libertarians, as Brink Lindsey, the first liberaltarian advocate, put it. Maybe such liberals might then lighten up a bit on regulating every social issue or problem from agricultural policy to zebra mussels.

Some who do care about (or at least have some sympathy for) libertarianism, from National Review's Jonah Goldberg to The Atlantic's Ross Douthat, think the reaction of the liberal powers-that-are to the Current Crisis proves libertarianism's irrelevance to those powers. Will Wilkinson meanwhile declares that they are missing the point by focusing on current electoral and political coalitions. Liberaltarianism is instead about a long-term project of "an authentically liberal governing philosophy that understands that limited government, free markets, a culture of tolerance, and a sound social safety net are the best means to better lives."

Obviously, any libertarian would be a hypocrite to mock the value of long-term intellectual projects in moving the world toward a condition of liberty. It may or may not be true that intellectual or political liberals of the current moment will be cold, stony ground for the seeds of a libertarian conception of liberty. (I lean toward the "may." Modern liberals seem all too faithfully dedicated to the Hayekian fatal conceit of planning and control when it comes to things they think need to be set aright.)

But Wilkinson is right that libertarian hopes for affecting valuable intellectual and political change—however they line up with the standard American ideological spectrum—are and always have been more a matter of cultivating the organic growth of meticulously and intelligently planted seeds than a matter of taking wrenches to the machinery of political reality, wrecking it, then building the right machinery to transform the world, right here and now.

It's a sign of libertarianism's strength over the past generation that its status and value are even a topic of discussion among the news-interpreting classes. This was not the case 20 years ago. The inability to convince voters and the Obamarati that a libertarian solution can "work" within the parameters set by people who never believed government could have been the problem to begin with doesn't mean that libertarians weren't right all along on the big picture: that a world in which fewer decisions are exercised by people in Washington with guns might be a rich, healthy, and happy one, less prone to economic, military, or even moral crises.

It's exactly when the so-called serious thinkers have decided that we're all socialists now that the libertarian job of pointing out the problems with socialism becomes most important. The core ideas behind libertarianism remain the very ideas that have moved the world's hugest political events, from the American revolution to the collapse of Communism. That human beings should have the widest possible range to shape their own lives in peace, and that we must discover and fiercely police the limits of where force should enter human relations, must remain our highest political goals.

Senior Editor Brian Doherty is author of Radicals for Capitalism (PublicAffairs) and Gun Control on Trial (Cato Institute).