E.J. Dionne Picks a Bad Week (Month? Year?) to Bad-Mouth Libertarians


There are about four basic options available for responding to Michael Lind's typically obtuse column in Salon last week attempting to ridicule libertarianism as a self-evidently crackpot idea because it has never been tried. One is to point out the absurdity of Lind's basic premise, as Will Wilkinson did over at The Economist. Another is to unpack and fact-check his arguments one by one, as Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey did to convincing effect right here.

A third tactic, increasingly defensible, is to simply ignore the latest brain-fart from a political writer whose rancid imagination has given us such thankfully untried ideas as zeroed-out immigration, "single-payer" K-12 education, and federally managed re-population of the Great Plains.

But the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne, no stranger to anti-libertarian brain-fartery, chooses Door #4: The hail-fellow high-five. Here's how Dionne's piece opens:

In politics, we often skip past the simple questions. This is why inquiries about the fundamentals can sometimes catch everyone short.

Michael Lind, the independent-minded scholar, posed one such question last week about libertarianism that I hope will shake up the political world. It's important because many in the new generation of conservative politicians declare libertarianism as their core political philosophy.

The nut of Dionne's argument is that since the philosophers Robert Nozick and Murray Rothbard made statements supporting radically pared-down notions of government, then therefore Tea Party members of Congress have their marching orders for how to vote, except that their constituents are hypocrites because hands off my Medicare! Ergo, gridlock. (If you find my characterization unfair, please do read the link.)

To grok the inaccuracy of Dionne's conflation of Rothbardian anarchism with "liberty movement"-style conservatism, look no further than Reason's recent interview with arguably the most libertarian member of Congress, Rep. Justin Amash (R-Michigan):

reason: You also have a picture of Murray Rothbard. Rothbard is a big time anarcho-capitalist bomb-thrower. What do you find particularly compelling in his work?

Amash: He gives an interesting, more anarchist perspective. I'm not there; I fall more in the Hayek camp. I think it's important to understand his work, to understand his way of thinking. Because when you have discussions with those who are on the anarcho-capitalist side of things, it's important to understand where he's coming from and where they're coming from so you can make your arguments to persuade. 

I ultimately think there's got to be some government. I believe in a minimal state, and you're going to have different amounts of government at different levels. At the federal level, it should be very small in how it affects your daily life; it should just deal with things of national scope. And at closer levels—local government, or your neighborhood association—well, it might have a huge impact on your daily life, but it's certainly not going to protect you from an invasion.

Why, it's almost as if the limited-government impulse isn't a single, simple Commandment etched in marble, but rather a variegated tendency interpreted in many different ways by those who discuss policy from a libertarian-influenced point of view!

Dionne and Lind, like others in the cottage industry of anti-libertarian punditry, are fond of arguing with (in Dionne's words) "small-government libertarian utopia[ns]," preferably from "the late 19th century," rather than with contemporary office-holders or commentators who make libertarian arguments. Why is that? I reckon that in addition to subjecting libertarianism, uniquely among modern political/philosophical groupings, to the intentionally marginalizing, let's-take-it-to-the-logical-extremes test, such strawmanning is an excellent way to change the subject from how the world we actually live in is actually being misgoverned by the non-libertarian majority.

For evidence of which, just look around you. I don't know whether, as Matt K. Lewis asserts today in The Daily Caller, "we're all libertarian today," but I do know that in this entrenched battle between the national security state and what remains of the Fourth Amendment, I'd rather have Justin Amash in my corner than E.J. Dionne or Michael Lind. It's a good thing for the future of this country that Lind's 2006 claim that "the libertarian moment has passed" and "will not come again" was as wrong-headed and inaccurate as Dionne's 2009 fret that anti-Obamcare protesters were bringing back "the politics of the jackboot."