Is This The Worst Argument Against Libertarianism Ever? No, But It is the Most Recent.


As one of the folks (along with Matt Welch, natch), who started the whole "Libertarian Moment" meme way back in 2008, it's been interesting to see all the ways in which folks on the right and left get into such a lather at the very notion of expanding freedom and choice in many (though sadly not all) aspects of human activity.

Indeed, the brain freeze can get so intense that it turns occasionally smart people into mental defectives.

To wit, Damon Linker's recent essay in The Week (a great magazine, by the way), which argues that the outcomes of U.S. military intervention in Iraq and Libya disprove libertarianism, in particular, the Hayekian principle of "spontaneous order."

No shit. Linker is being super-cereal here, kids:

Now it just so happens that within the past decade or so the United States has, in effect, run two experiments — one in Iraq, the other in Libya — to test whether the theory of spontaneous order works out as the libertarian tradition would predict.

In both cases, spontaneity brought the opposite of order. It produced anarchy and civil war, mass death and human suffering.

You got that? An archetypal effort in what Hayek would call "constructivism," neocon hawks would call "nation building," and what virtually all libertarians (well, me anyways) called a "non sequitur" in the war on terror that was doomed to failure from the moment of conception is proof positive that libertarianism is, in Linker's eyes, "a particularly bad idea" whose "pernicious consequences" are plain to see.

In the sort of junior-high-school rhetorical move to which desperate debaters cling, Linker even plays a variation on the reductio ad Hitlerum in building case:

Some bad ideas inspire world-historical acts of evil. "The Jews are subhuman parasites that deserve to be exterminated" may be the worst idea ever conceived. Compared with such a grotesquely awful idea, other bad ideas may appear trivial. But that doesn't mean we should ignore them and their pernicious consequences.

Into this category I would place the extraordinarily influential libertarian idea of "spontaneous order."

What nuance: Exterminating Jews may be the worst idea…! When a person travels down such a rhetorical path, it's best to back away quickly, with a wave of the hand and best wishes for the rest of his journey. Who can seriously engage somebody who starts a discussion by saying, "You're not as bad as the Nazis, I'll grant you that"…? I'd love to read his review of the recent Teenage Mutant Ninjas movie: "Not as bad as Triumph of the Will, but still a bad film…"

But in fact Linker attributes to Hayek and other libertarians a definition of spontaneous order (sometimes called the "extended order," as in Hayek's Fatal Conceit) that is made of the finest straw. In Hayek's writing—and that of most libertarians and classical liberals who preceded them—the term is essentially a modern vision of Adam Smith's "invisible hand."

That is, it helps to explain how goods and services and all sorts of social organization form absent centralized planning (or how alternatives crop up in the face of centralized planning). Especially in the context of the 18th and even the 20th century, the idea that markets and people could function autonomously from rulers dictating virtually every aspect of life wasn't take for granted. Explaining how complicated social and economic activity could happen absent such oversight and control was one of the main projects of liberal thought. 

Like Smith, Hayek was no anarchist, and spontaneous order is precisely about how rules, customs, and traditions inherited from the past inform current arrangements and how we evolve and add to them, sometimes displacing them altogether. An obvious example of spontaneous order from the contemporary moment isn't Iraq or Libya but something like the way Uber operates vis a vis traditional taxi cartels. The system of taxis is heavily regulated and all the participants are subject to varying levels of state coercion. By contrast, Uber started as an experimental service that built rules, customs, and norms that continue to be tweaked based on feedback from everyone involved.

The central insight of Hayek—and most libertarian thinkers—is simply this (I'm quoting from the very page Linker links to in his Week piece) is that things generally work better (not perfectly, but better) when people are given more space to choose among options or to create new options for themselves. That's as true in the social and cultural spheres as it is in the economic sphere.

As Hayek wrote,

The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought indeed to teach the student of society a lesson in humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men's fatal striving to control society—a striving which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, but which may well make him the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals. 

Tom Walls

That's from Hayek's Nobel prize lecture, which was titled "The Pretense of Knowledge." Though sometimes terrible in his personal political commitments, Hayek's first instinct was always to combat constructivism, or the idea that a few smart, violent, or powerful people have all the answers and can direct the rest of us toward some form of human perfection. 

Hayek's emphasis on the limits of human knowledge helps explain the tyranny of people such as Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein in Libya and Iraq, Islamists who want to control every aspect of human life, and the Nazis whom Linker feels a need to insert into random conversation about contemporary politics. They all sought or seek to do the impossible (control all aspects of human life) and the immoral (use other people as means to their ends). It's a shame that defenders of the invasion of Iraq didn't read more Hayek before settling on their plan, and it seems as if the brilliant minds who bombed Libya into chaos (and are doing so in Syria as we speak) skipped any and all classes on the Austrian School of economics.

It takes real chutzpah to pretend that self-evidently stupid foreign policy disasters based on the worst sort of hubris undermine a contemporary libertarian agenda focused on reduced government spending on defense (among other things), a general deregulation of economic activity (recall the housing and fiscal crises, which were caused and intensified not by lack of government involvement but a surfeit of it), and a push for tolerance in the social sphere.

At least Linker's colleague at The Week, Matt Lewis (who also blogs at The Daily Caller), is more forthright in his response to creeping libertarianism. Rather than construct a bad argument against libertarianism, Lewis simply points out that, to quote his piece's headline, it's "bad for traditional conservatives." Indeed, Lewis can't be bothered to generate new arguments for his piece and instead cites a 2011 column he wrote quoting a Catholic thinker who says "libertarianism is parasitic upon Christian civilization." Which would be news to Roger Williams, among other Christian thinkers who stress the indivdual's right of conscience as central to legitimate government. It's actually more accurate to say the classical liberal project that started in 17th-century England is in many ways based upon a Christian respect for the individual. In making the first case in the English language for a fully secular temporal government, Williams argued that forced prayer or worship "stinks in God's nostrils."

Lewis' anxiety clearly stems from the partisan political fallout of the Libertarian Moment (which of course is more a general direction than a brief moment in time…). If libertarians continue to grow in power and influence, the contemporary Republican Party will have to change from the policies that gave rise to the Bush years, a spend-and-regulate debacle that also saw the United States enter two unwinnable wars. Social conservatives, along with crony capitalists and those invested in the military-industrial complex will all need to adjust.

Change is tough, Republicans, but sometimes it's necessary. Especially when it leads to not to chaos but to a freer, more peaceful, and innovative society.