Michael Lind's Obtuse Attack on Liberty and Libertarianism

Statists like him are on the wrong side of history


Why are there no libertarian countries? Conservative welfare statist and co-founder of the New America Foundation Michael Lind claimed in Salon this week that that's "the question libertarians just can't answer." There are no countries, he writes, with "minimal government, free trade, open borders, decriminalized drugs, no welfare state, and no public education system." He quickly adds that it's "inadequate" to cite semi-private social security in Chile or Swedish school vouchers or some other libertarian-flavored individual policy: A libertarian society in its fullness must exist right now or else that proves that it can never exist.

One can imagine a bewigged intellectual ancestor of Lind discussing politics in a London coffeehouse, perhaps after enjoying a new performance of Wycherley's bawdy comedy The Country Wife. This 17th-century Lind would inveigh against the presumptuous Earl of Shaftesbury for his "A Letter from a Person of Quality" opposing the divine right of kings to absolute rule. "Thank God that good King Charles II has been restored to the throne!" he would say. "Look across the world. History manifestly teaches that there have been no truly successful countries that were not ruled by absolute monarchs."

Warming to his subject, the 17th-century Lind huffs that Shaftesbury (and his damnable Whig confederates) are in favor of religious toleration. Shaftesbury would even overturn Clarendon's salutary statutes reinstating the requirement that officeholders prove their fealty to the established Church and preventing nonconformists from preaching their subversive nonsense. Where, he would ask, have such policies been in place before? Our 17th-century Lind would undoubtedly mock the silly notion that women had rights in need of vindication, since there were no societies in which women had rights equal to those of men. And free trade? What ruinous nonsense! The best mercantilist theorists have clearly shown that the only way for a country to get rich is to restrict foreign goods so that exports can earn good hard bullion; now even the Dutch are raising trade barriers. Show me an advanced nation that has kept its borders open to imports, he would declare, and then I'll consider your theories.

Here in the 21st century, Lind asks, "If socialism is discredited by the failure of communist regimes in the real world, why isn't libertarianism discredited by the absence of any libertarian regimes in the real world?" It's an odd comparison—surely a system's failure to survive is different from a system's failure to fully emerge—but libertarians might reply by pointing out the relatively greater success of more liberal countries. Lind attempts to preempt that tactic, though, by sneering that "the free-market right is reduced to ranking countries according to 'economic freedom.'" (The scare quotes around "economic freedom" are a nice rhetorical touch.)

Lind points out that the economically free countries ranked in the economic freedom indexes produced by both the Fraser Institute and the Heritage Foundation are "by and large the mature, well-established industrial democracies." He adds that none of the countries is "anywhere near a libertarian paradise." Perhaps not, but just how does Lind think that the large industrial democracies got be large industrial democracies? Could that have anything to do with the growth of that "economic freedom" that classical liberals champion?

As a matter of fact, it does. As the MIT economist Daron Acemoglu and the Harvard economist James Robinson cogently argue in their new book Why Nations Fail, through most of history tyrannical elites ruled by means of extractive institutions that stifled economic growth by stealing from the poor to give to the rich. As a result, most people suffered abject poverty, intolerance, ignorance, and oppression. Sustained prosperity become possible only with the development of inclusive institutions, defined by Acemoglu and Robinson as comprising "strong private property rights, the rule of law, enforcement of contracts, freedom of movement of people, a free press, and democratic institutions." Meanwhile, the curators of the Fraser Institute's Economic Freedom Index emphasize "the importance of private property, rule of law, free trade, sound money, and a limited role for government." Maybe the Fraser folks are onto something with this liberty thing.

Since Lind ignores ratings that look at more than just economic liberty, I should pause to point to another index, issued by the nonprofit Freedom House, that ranks freedom in countries by political rights and civil liberties. It turns out that political freedom and civil rights correlate well with mere "economic freedom." For example, 15 of the top 20 economically free countries on the Fraser Institute list are also ranked as being politically free by Freedom House. Conversely, only two of the bottom 20 countries on the Fraser list are rated as being politically free. Economic freedom and political just seem to go together. Who knew?

In a yet another of his scattershot arguments, Lind points out that the top five economically free countries—Hong Kong, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, and Switzerland—are all, uh, small. Consequently, Lind dismisses them as "fragments of larger defense systems and larger markets." In a quixotic effort to illustrate his point about "free riding" off of larger defense systems, he suggests that free-market Switzerland would not have been able to fight off Nazi occupation had the Axis powers won World War II. Maybe yes, maybe no. I'm not sure Lind's precious social-democratic Sweden would have remained free of Hitler's yoke either. But let's move on from Lind's curious excursion into alternative history to consider his observation about the advantages of a country being embedded in a system of larger markets.

Lind is right about those advantages, but he somehow misses the implications of his own insight. The World Bank reports that average tariffs worldwide have fallen from 26 percent of the value of imported goods in 1986 to 8 percent in 2010. During the same period, average tariffs levied by the 11 wealthiest nation-states dropped from 10 percent to 3 percent. That's not completely free trade, but it's getting pretty damned close. (There is, however, some evidence that protectionism is creeping back in the form of non-tariff barriers.)

Meanwhile, according to the Fraser Institute's calculations, the "average level of economic freedom…has increased from 5.30 in 1980 to 5.76 in 1990 to 6.71 in 2000 and finally to 6.83 in 2010." Freedom House reports that the percent of free countries has risen from 25 percent in the 1970s to 46 percent today and the percent of not-free countries has correspondingly fallen from around 40 percent to 24 percent. As tariffs fell and economic and political freedom expanded across the globe, so too did trade and prosperity. Since 1990, the World Trade Organization's index of world merchandise trade was tripled. In 1980, gross world product was $27.5 trillion (in 2010 dollars) and global per capita income was $6,200. By 2011, the world's economy had nearly tripled to $77 trillion and per capita global income had risen to more than $11,000. This simultaneous increase in freedom and income must puzzle Lind.

Lind also writes that no country has adopted open borders. Actually, the U.S. had essentially open borders during the 19th century, and it's hard to argue that we're worse off for it. At any rate, there is contemporary empirical evidence that the libertarian notion that people should be free to live where they want also boosts economic growth and raises average incomes. This is the insight that permits tens of millions of citizens of European Union countries within the Schengen area to travel freely from Greece to Iceland without showing their papers. And in just the last 10 years, the International Organization for Migration estimates that the total number of international migrants has increased from 150 million to 214 million, meaning that one out of every 33 people is a migrant. As global prosperity expands, the trend toward increased international migration is not likely to slow down.

What about that libertarian fetish for decriminalizing drugs? The intellectual tide is turning on this issue. For example, just this week, Human Rights Watch issued a statement flatly asserting, "Subjecting people to criminal sanctions for the personal use of drugs, or for possession of drugs for personal use, infringes on their autonomy and right to privacy." And there is a recent trend toward decriminalization of various drugs for personal use in lots of countries, including the Czech Republic, Portugal, Norway, the Netherlands, Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Uruguay—not to mention Colorado and Washington State, right here at home.

Finally, I must come to the defense of Mauritius. The Indian Ocean island of slightly more than a million people is number 8 on the index of economically free countries. To illustrate his argument that economic freedom is not all that it's cracked up to be when it comes to the "shape of the quality of life of citizens" Lind mocks the island nation's literacy rate as being just 88.5 percent, compared to 99 percent in the United States. The difference, Lind claims, is that the U.S. spends 5.4 percent of its GDP on education compared to Mauritius' 3.7 percent. He also points out that Mauritius' infant mortality rate is 11 per 1,000 live births while the U.S rate is 5.9 per live births. Lind's conclusion: "Economic liberty comes at the price of human survival it would seem."

But of course the proper comparison is not between Mauritius and the United States; it's between Mauritius now and Mauritius before it adopted market reforms. Back in 1980, when Mauritius was ranked 68th on the index of economic freedom, the U.N.'s Human Development Index reports that the mean level of years of schooling of its citizens was 4.5 years, and its infant mortality rate was 32 per 1,000 live births. Now that it is eighth on the economic freedom list, the mean level of schooling has reached 7 years, and the number of years that currently enrolled students are expected to stay in school has risen to 13 years. Its infant mortality rate has been cut by two-thirds. Over the same period, by the way, per capita income in Mauritius has risen from $2,000 to more than $15,000 (in current dollars). I should add that, as the ambit of economic and political freedom expanded over the past 20 years, the world's adult literacy rate increased from 76 to 86 percent and the youth rate rose from 83 to 92 percent. I'm sure that that is just a coincidence.

I am no doubt engaging in what Lind disparages as the "luxury of mixing and matching policies to create an imaginary utopia." Nevertheless, the data cited above does indicate that ever more countries around the world are doing the same sort of mixing and matching. Lind ends his obtuse little essay by asking, "If libertarianism is not only appealing but plausible, why hasn't any country in the world ever tried it?" However, a fair evaluation of global trends amply supports the conviction that the arc of history bends toward liberty. Confirmed statists like Lind are on the wrong side of history, just like their predecessors in earlier centuries.