More on Chris Beam's New York Treatise on Libertarianism


Earlier today, Matt Welch blogged about Christopher Beam's opus on libertarianism in New York magazine. I've been trying to figure out all morning what exactly about the article didn't sit right with me, and I think I've figured it out. I should say first that I've met Beam several times and find him to be a nice guy, and genuinely inquisitive and curious. I don't think there's anything mendacious about his intentions.

The first two-thirds of the article are a sort of tour guide of libertarian personalities, factions, and general philosophy. It comes off a bit like Beam describing to Manhattanites some exotic new species discovered in Madagascar, but I suppose that probably is how libertarians come off to people outside the politics/policy/media bubble. This portion of the article is mostly fair, though are still some revealing word and phrase choices. (For example, the Koch brothers are only "infamous" if you don't happen to agree with them. Just like George Soros is only infamous if you're opposed to the causes he funds.)

Still, the first two-thirds of the article is mostly a quick and dirty introduction to or primer on libertarianism and the movement surrounding it, with Beam largely playing a neutral storyteller, interviewer, and interpreter.

It's in the last third of the article there's a noticeable and disruptive shift in tone. After establishing a certain trust with the reader that casts himself in the role of a mostly neutral observer and chronicler of this libertarian uprising, Beam then stops describing libertarianism, and starts critiquing it himself. The critiques are selective. He picks a few issues, broadly (and sometimes inaccurately, or without appropriate detail) describes the libertarian position, then describes why libertarianism fails on that particular issue. Taken as a whole, these critiques are supposed to support his thesis for the latter third of the article, which is that libertarianism is utopian and impractical. (He neglects to explain how the current system has produced better results, but that's a different discussion.) I don't think much of Beam's critiques, but then I'm also a libertarian.

But it's not the critiques themselves that I found off-putting. If this had been a straight Jacob Weisberg-style trashing of libertarianism, we could evaluate it on those terms. But this is more subtle and, I think, in some ways more pernicious. This was a thrashing disguised as a primer. That Beam makes these critiques himself comes off as abrupt and, frankly, condescending. There's an aesthetic I've noticed among some journalists that libertarianism is so crazy and off the rails that it's okay to step outside the boundaries of decorum and fairness to make sure everyone knows how nuts libertarians really are. (A couple years ago, I emailed a prominent journalist to compliment him on a book he had written. His strange response: He thanked me for the compliment, and then ran off several sentences about how dangerous and evil he thought my politics were.)

I don't think Beam thinks libertarians are evil. I think he thinks we're naive and probably a little crazy. But there's something revealing about him jettisoning the detached tone for the walk-away portion of the article. He could have kept that tone and still provided sound critiques of libertarianism by asking prominent people on the right and left to explain the faults of libertarian approaches to various issues. Instead, the ref felt compelled to step in and call the fight himself. It's as if ensuring that New York readers fully understand and appreciate libertarianism's failings was the article's most important objective—and far too important to let readers come to that conclusion themselves.