Salon: "Libertarianism is juvenile," "stupid," "silly," "bratty"


Over at the publication famous for (among other impressive accomplishments) having a political columnist write about licking doorknobs at Gary Bauer's campaign headquarters, Gabriel Winant uses the Rand Paul/Civil Rights Act controversy as a teaching moment about the irredeemable immaturity of libertarianism. Sample:

It's not just that he screwed up and said something stupid because he's so committed to a purist fancy. No, it's worse than that. Libertarianism itself is what's stupid here, not just Paul. We should stop tip-toeing around this belief system like its adherents are the noble last remnants of a dying breed, still clinging to their ancient, proud ways.

Now, to be clear, before continuing: there are legions of brilliant individual libertarians. [Dave] Weigel himself, for example, is a great writer and reporter, and a true master of Twitter. We've never met, but by all accounts, he's also very much a stand-up fellow. But brilliant, decent people can think silly things. And that's what's going on here. It's time to stop taking libertarianism seriously. […]

Think about the New Deal. Although libertarian ingrates will never admit it, without the reforms of the 1930s, there might not be private property left for them to complain about the government infringing on. Not many capitalist democracies could survive 25 percent unemployment, and it doesn't just happen by good luck. […]

The government didn't just help make the "free market" in the first place—although it did do that. It's also constantly busy trimming around the edges, maintaining the thing, keeping it healthy. The state can think ahead and balance competing interests in a way that no single company can. […]

The libertarian who insists that the state has no place beyond basic night-watchman duties is like a teenager who, having been given a car, promptly starts demanding the right to stay out all night. Sometimes, someone else really is looking out for your best interests by saying no.

And that's why the best rap on libertarians isn't that they're racist, or selfish. (Though some of them are those things, and their beliefs encourage both bad behaviors, even if accidentally.) It's that they're thoroughly out of touch with reality. It's a worldview that prospers only so long as nobody tries it, and is too unreflective and self-absorbed to realize this. In other words, it's bratty. And that's bad enough.

As a longtime if lapsed fan of Salon, who I've both written about and for multiple times over the years (including a piece in 2005 encouraging then-wilderness Democrats to embrace their inner libertarian, proving once again that no one loves libertarians more–and more shallowly–than the major party out of power), I must express my deep chagrin that the Frisco kids have now officially rejected brattiness. Good luck with that job hunt, Havrilesky!

As for the main argument here–that libertarians and their policy preferences are "out of touch with reality"–the same could be said, at minimum, of Glenn Greenwald's principled fight against ever-expanding executive power, and Salon's long-running critique of the War on Drugs. (Each of those categories of government abuse, by the way, are often defended precisely on grounds that "someone else really is looking out for your best interests by saying no.") When reality is unconscionable, and you are an opinion-journalism outfit with principles (or just a human with a functional spine), you tilt at the goddamned windmills, without first vetting it through a reality check.

I will let our commenters take a swing at Winant's curious grasp of economic history–you really need to read the whole thing to bask in the sophistication. (Sample sentence: "To summarize very briefly a long and complicated process, we got capitalism in the first place through a long process of flirtation between governments on the one hand, and bankers and merchants on the other, culminating in the Industrial Revolution.")

Instead, I'll close with this: The "worldview" of libertarianism suggested, back in the early 1970s, that if you got the government out of the business of setting all airline ticket prices and composing all in-flight menus, then just maybe Americans who were not rich could soon enjoy air travel. At the time, people with much more imagination and pull than Gabriel Winant has now dismissed the idea as unrealistic, out-of-touch fantasia. They were wrong then, they continue to be wrong now about a thousand similar things, and history does not judge them harsh enough.