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“It’s Eminently Stupid”: Libertarianism’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Idea

Ideas have consequences — and bad ideas have bad consequences.

Just how bad the consequences turn out to be depends to a large extent on the precise character of the bad idea. A bad idea that influences no one isn’t really that bad. It’s just stupid, and instantly forgettable. But a bad idea that lodges in people’s minds, fires their imaginations, inspires them to persuade others of its wisdom, and motivates them to make bad decisions in the world — that idea is truly bad.

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.”

Now, regular readers will know that I believe we’re living through something of a “libertarian moment,” culturally speaking, and that I don’t think this is all bad. On most of the conflicts wrapped up with the sexual revolution and its aftermath, for example, I’m on the libertarian side of the argument — though I also think libertarians too often ignore or skirt over the moral dilemmas that arise in a culture of sexual autonomy.

On economic issues, I have far less sympathy for libertarian arguments, but I’m happy that someone is making them. Libertarians can be obnoxiously fixated on one moral-political principle to the exclusion of all others. But their single-minded focus on the liberation of the individual from all forms of coercion makes them very useful to have around. Whether we’re arguing about taxes and government regulations or the soft social coercion associated with received norms, practices, and traditions, it’s a good thing overall for those in positions of political and cultural authority to have to justify themselves before the bar of individual liberty.

But that doesn’t mean libertarians are always right — or even that they always avoid staking out manifestly silly and occasionally harmful positions.

The idea of spontaneous order might be the silliest and most harmful of all.

Simply stated, the idea holds that when groups of individuals are left alone, without government oversight or regulation, they will spontaneously form a social and economic order that is superior in organization, efficiency, and the conveyance of information than an order arranged from the top down through centralized planning.

Popularized by Friedrich Hayek and his fellow Austrian economists in the mid-20th century, the idea actually has its roots in the classical liberal writings of John Locke and Adam Smith.

Locke famously argued that government originates from a prepolitical state of nature in which groups of farmers establish a night-watchman state to protect their natural rights to life, liberty, and property. In this archetypal statement of classical liberal mythology, civilizational order (including the formation of stable families and the institution of private property) emerges spontaneously, prior to the formation of government, which is instituted for the sole purpose of protecting and preserving it.

Adam Smith expanded on this idea, applying it to the market economy, which he famously described as working its wonders as if it were governed by an “invisible hand.” Set millions of people free to pursue their economic self-interest, Smith claimed, and they will spontaneously generate an economic order marked by wealth and growth that benefits nearly everyone lucky enough to reside within it.

Careful readers of Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government and Smith’s The Wealth of Nations will find much subtler views than the positions I’ve presented here. But it is the bowdlerized versions of their thought that have captured the American — and libertarian — imagination.

Populated by generations of immigrants from foreign lands who came to the New World in search of new lives with fresh starts, the United States quickly developed a civil religion predicated on the presumption that it’s possible to “begin the world over again.” Raised to recite that civic catechism, Americans have found it all too easy to believe that the achievements of American civilization flow from the spontaneous efforts of scrappy individuals toiling away in a state of natural freedom, with government either doing nothing significant to help or else standing obstinately in the way of even greater accomplishments.

No wonder so many Americans in the postwar period gravitated to the writings of Friedrich Hayek, the Austrian economist who warned that central government planning was bound to put us on “the road to serfdom.” Rather than looking to the state to guide us — a goal that inevitably ends with it trying to enslave us — we would be better to recognize that the market economy and even civil society as a whole formed spontaneously, as the outcome of countless unregulated acts and decisions by millions of individuals over time. Going forward, Hayek concluded, individual liberty and prosperity depends upon allowing the spontaneous ordering of our collective lives to continue uninterrupted and uncontrolled by the state.

From Locke to Smith to Hayek, the lesson seems clear: Leave people alone, and a coherent civil order will spontaneously emerge and perpetuate itself.

This is utter fiction. A fairy tale. A just-so story that has as much historical veracity as Locke’s happy talk about a prepolitical state of nature filled with spontaneously formed families and settled plots of legitimately gotten farmland.

The fact is that aside from certain very rare cases (see below), it’s impossible to find human beings acting with perfect freedom outside of an already existing political order that shapes their decisions and determines to a considerable extent their behavior and range of possible choices.

President Obama got a lot of flack during his 2012 campaign for re-election for saying that wealthy business owners “didn’t build that” all by themselves, but his point was indisputable. The president mentioned the internet, roads and bridges, firefighting, and other public works that make it possible for the market economy to function and thrive. He could have said far more. How about the culture of general law-abidingness that we call the rule of law? The Federal Reserve’s regulation of the money supply? An independent judiciary for the settlement of civil disputes? Law enforcement at local, state, and federal levels that fights violent crime, fraud, corruption, monopolistic business practices, and a host of other behaviors that would otherwise scuttle the working of markets? And on and on and on.

The order we see at work in the United States and in other advanced democracies is anything but spontaneous.

But there is one situation where it’s possible to see genuine spontaneity in action: when an established political order is overthrown. 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.

In response, some libertarian-minded critics have claimed that this just goes to show the damage that tyranny does to individuals, robbing them of the capacity to govern themselves once they’ve finally been granted their freedom.

Quite so. But then that would seem to imply that postwar Iraq and Libya could have spontaneously produced a liberal democratic order only if its citizens had acted as if they’d already been enjoying life in a liberal democratic order.

That sounds awful unspontaneous.

Order doesn’t just happen, and it isn’t the product of individual freedom. It needs to be established, and it needs to be established first (sometimes by force), before individuals can be granted civic, economic, and social freedom.

The libertarian prophets of “spontaneous order” get things exactly backward, sometimes with catastrophic real-world consequences. Which is why it’s a particularly bad idea.


By: Damon Linker, The Week, September 26, 2014

September 27, 2014 Posted by | Libertarians, Politics | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Gun Culture Run Amok”: Why Americans Tolerate Gun Violence

Imagine the horror. You’re sitting in the stands at your son’s Little League game, and you notice a man with a gun pacing back and forth in the parking lot, murmuring something you can’t quite make out. Understandably panicking, the coach cancels the game while parents call 911 — 22 such calls end up being made — and barricade their children inside the dugout for protection.

While everyone waits for the sheriff to arrive, you take a deep breath and begin slowly walking toward the man. As you approach him, he turns and says, “See my gun? Look, I got a gun and there’s nothing you can do about it.” You back away, fearing for your life.

When the sheriff finally arrives, he, too, approaches the man to discuss the situation, and then wanders over to the parents. Sure, he tells them, the man’s behavior is “inappropriate.” But there’s nothing the police can do about it. The man, you see, is merely exercising his “constitutional right to bear arms.”

Just another day in the land of the free and the home of the terrified — in this case, Forsyth County, Georgia, on the evening of Tuesday, April 22.

Why on earth do we tolerate it?

And make no mistake, that is precisely what we do. It might feel good to blame the National Rifle Association and denounce its execrable influence. But the fact is that its money and lobbyists would hold far less sway in Congress and in state capitals if million upon millions of Americans weren’t receptive to its message and perfectly willing to accept a bloody massacre every few months in return for the freedom to walk around a Little League parking lot brandishing a handgun. This is a trade-off that lots of us apparently find perfectly reasonable.

The question, again, is why.

The answer lies, in part, in the peculiarly one-sided way that Americans have absorbed and institutionalized the lessons of modern political thinking.

Broadly speaking, modern government moves between two poles, each of which has a 17th-century thinker as its champion, and each of which is focused on minimizing a particular form of injustice. On one side is Thomas Hobbes, who defended the creation of an authoritarian government as the only viable means of protecting certain individuals and groups from injustices perpetrated by other individuals and groups. On the other side is John Locke, who advocated a minimal state in order to protect all individuals and groups against injustices perpetrated by governments themselves. Taken to an extreme, the Hobbesian pole leads to totalitarianism, while the Lockean pole terminates in the quasi-anarchism of the night-watchman state.

Aside from the pretty thoroughly Hobbesian state of North Korea, every functional government in the world mixes elements of these pure forms — and partisan disputes within nations can often be understood as conflicts over how Hobbesian or Lockean the government should be on a given issue.

From the time of the American Revolution, with its justification of rebellion against the tyrannical King George III, the United States has defaulted toward the Lockean pole. This diminished somewhat from the 1930s through the 1970s, when we tended to balance Hobbesian and Lockean concerns. But with the rise of the New Right and the election of Ronald Reagan, the Lockean outlook began to reassert itself, with the Republicans becoming a more purely Lockean party (on everything except abortion and national security). The Tea Party has pushed this tendency even further.

On the specific issue of guns, the NRA has been remarkably effective at convincing large numbers of Americans (and at least five Supreme Court justices) to treat the Second Amendment to the Constitution as a Lockean bulwark against tyranny that establishes an absolute, nonnegotiable individual right to bear arms.

Many Americans believe passionately in this right. But they should be honest about the costs. Governments are indeed one source of injustice in the world, but private individuals and groups are another. In fixating on the danger of tyranny to the exclusion of other threats to the common good, gun-rights advocates have come to accept far too much injustice with far too much complacency.

It doesn’t have to be this way. It’s one thing for individuals to own and possess rifles and handguns for use on firing ranges and in their homes to protect against intruders. It’s quite another for them to be permitted to purchase semi-automatic weapons and carry pistols in public — in blatant defiance of the first principle of politics, which is that government must have a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. To deny that principle is to court anarchy and the chaos and violence that go along with it.

Only a people monomaniacally obsessed with a single form of injustice could find the status quo acceptable, let alone something to be venerated.

That’s a form of exceptionalism that no American should be proud of.


By: Damon Linker, The Week, April 30, 2014

May 2, 2014 Posted by | Gun Lobby, Gun Violence | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Book Of Cons, 3:16”: God Wants You To Have An Assault Rifle

Legislation aimed at reducing gun violence is “a limitation on a God-given right of man that has existed throughout the history of civil society,” according to an article published in the leading conservative opinion journal National Review.

The author, David French, interprets the Christian Bible as granting everyone a right to self-defense. He suggests that this, if true, means that God’s will is that people have access to guns, as they are the means for self defense:

In fact, Jesus’s disciples carried swords, and Jesus even said in some contexts the unarmed should arm themselves…What does all this mean? Essentially that gun control represents not merely a limitation on a constitutional right but a limitation on a God-given right of man that has existed throughout the history of civil society. All rights — of course — are subject to some limits (the right of free speech is not unlimited, for example), and there is much room for debate on the extent of those limits, but state action against the right of self-defense is by default a violation of the natural rights of man, and the state’s political judgment about the limitations of that right should be viewed with extreme skepticism and must overcome a heavy burden of justification.

Even if French is right about the Christian view of self-defense (though Jesus did have choice words about “turning the other cheek“), it’s a logical fallacy to say this implies anything about restrictions on access to guns. Saying that people have a right to defend themselves if attacked isn’t the same thing as saying they should have a right to possess any conceivable means of defending themselves – presumably, French is fine with banning grenade launchers. The burden, instead, is on French to prove that universal background checks or limitations on assault weapon ownership somehow prevent people from defending themselves; to prove, in other words, that gun regulation is actually a restriction on the right of self-defense proper rather than a crime-prevention statute.

Moreover, French is wrong about the role of “self-defense” in a democracy. He cites John Locke, enlightenment philosopher and inspiration for the American Revolution, to suggest that gun rights are “fundamental rights of nature.” But as Ari Kohen, a professor of political theory at the University of Nebraska, points out, French radically misinterprets Locke:

But for people to establish a political community, Locke asserts that people must give up to the government their natural right to punish criminal behavior and agree to have the government settle grievances. This is why we have standing laws that are meant to be applied equally by independent officers of the law and by the courts.

Locke, as Kohen says, held that our right to use force was necessarily limited by the creation of legitimate government — that’s why we have police. This means that the government can limit access to certain weapons as means of discharging its responsibility to keep the peace. While the government may not be able to legitimately ban you from say, killing a home invader who’s brandishing a gun, it also can take reasonable steps to prevent criminals from being able to threaten you with arms in the first place without having to overcome a “heavy burden of justification.”

This isn’t the first questionable gun piece published in National Review. After the Newtown shooting, its editors suggested that mass school shootings were the price we pay for the Second Amendment. One of its writers, Charlotte Allen, infamously wrote that the Newtown massacre happened because there were too many female teachers.


By: Zack Beauchamp, Think Progress, January 28, 2013

January 29, 2013 Posted by | Gun Violence, Guns | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rick Santorum’s “Liberty, Happiness And The Role Of Stuff”

Today’s Wall Street Journal features an op-ed in which Rick Santorum pledges that  “…in my first 100 days as president, I’ll submit to Congress and work to pass a comprehensive pro-growth and pro-family Economic Freedom Agenda”. No one is more receptive than I to an “economic freedom agenda”, yet Mr Santorum’s has my bullshit detector howling like an air-raid siren.

In a recent speech at the First Redeemer Church in Cumming, Georgia, Mr Santorum said that economic policy focused on the accumulation of wealth is unhealthily concerned with “pursuing stuff”.

Property is just stuff. And America isn’t just about pursuing stuff. That’s one of the problems I have sometimes with our fellow conservatives, is that all we talk about — ‘Oh, Rick, presidential candidates just focus on stuff. Focus on taxing and spending, the economy. Don’t talk about anything else. Just focus on stuff. That’s what Americans really care about.’

Mr Santorum here is discussing rival interpretations of the idea of “liberty” and “the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence. Though it is nonsense to think that there is any one thing that “Americans really care about”, Mr Santorum is surely right that Thomas Jefferson and his fellows in the founding 1% had more than just the accumulation of property in mind. But he is wrong that they were committed to the pre-modern Catholic  interpretation of freedom and happiness Mr Santorum invoked in his speech:

America and our founders understood that if we were just a bunch of folks that cared about stuff, we have a very, very narrow view of freedom. We have a very, very narrow view of what God’s call is in our lives. Because that’s why He gave us these rights. To pursue happiness.

…..’Happiness’ actually had a different definition, ‘way back at the time of our founders. Like many words in our lexicon, they evolve and change over time. ‘Happiness’ was one of them. Go back and look it up. You’ll see one of the principal definitions of happiness is ‘to do the morally right thing.’ God gave us rights to life and to freedom to pursue His will. That’s what the moral foundation of our country is.

As a matter of historical fact, the dominant conception of happiness at the time of the founding was the empiricist hedonism of John Locke. Locke had it that we are moved by our beliefs and desires, and that the master desire is to enjoy pleasure and avoid pain.  As for happiness, Locke said, “Happiness then in its full extent is the utmost Pleasure we are capable of…”  “Property” almost took the place of “the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration precisely because the founders’ notion of happiness was so materialistic. Happiness is pleasure, and property or “stuff” is such an indispensable source of pleasure and bulwark against misery that the pursuit of property and the pursuit of happiness almost come to the same thing. For Christians such as Locke, and many of the founders, it was so important to heed God’s will not so much because divine commands are inherently authoritative, but because Heaven’s promise of infinite pleasure made Christian virtue a prudent bet.

Anyway, the likes of Jefferson would have agreed that to be happy is “to do the morally right thing” only to the extent that “to do the morally right thing” is already defined in terms of conduciveness to happiness. And the idea that the point of freedom is to do God’s will would have been affirmed only to the extent that it is due to God’s will that we are constituted to seek “the utmost Pleasure we are capable of…” The big political idea of the Enlightenment is that earthly happiness, not divine authority, is the only credible moral foundation of political authority. The long and short of it is that Mr Santorum is guilty of revisionist history. One only has to remember that John Jay, the first chief justice of the Supreme Court, tried to make it illegal for Catholics to run for office in New York to get a sense of just how unlikely it is that the founders would have signed on to anything resembling Mr Santorum’s interpretation of liberty, happiness, and the role of “stuff”.

It’s no surprise, then, that Mr Santorum’s ten-point plan makes only incidental contact with economic freedom as many free-market-minded folk understand it. It may or may not be a good idea to rig our regulatory structure to make it easier for giant petrochemical companies to frack or build giant pipelines, but it’s unclear what it has to do with economic freedom. Do pipelines and fracking have something to do with God’s will in Mr Santorum’s mind?

Mr Santorum promises to “triple the personal deduction for children and eliminate the marriage tax penalty”. What does any of this have to do with economic freedom? If paying people to have children makes them more free, why don’t the childless deserve equal freedom? Because freedom is the freedom to do God’s will and God wants us to have big families? The “pro-family” elements of Mr Santorum’s plan are transparent attempts at social engineering through fiscal policy.

Mr Santorum says he’ll “cut means-tested entitlement programs by 10% across the board, freeze them for four years, and block grant them to states—as I did as the author of welfare reform in 1996.” This is unintelligible. If subsidising families through the tax code somehow adds to their freedom, then reducing subsidies to the relatively poor—to those who qualify for means-tested benefits—must logically decrease theirs. This is simply upside down. There is a compelling case that individuals require a certain material minimum to ensure that their economic liberties have real worth. If Mr Santorum’s cuts would leave Americans below that threshold, they would amount to an assault on the economic freedom of the disadvantaged.

If “economic freedom” means “a system rigged to the advantage of petrochemical companies and large middle- and upper-class families”, Mr Santorum’s proposal might have a lot to be said for it. I could be wrong, but I suspect it doesn’t really mean that.


By: W. W., Democracy in America, The Economist, February 28, 2012

February 28, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012, GOP Presidential Candidates | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

You’re Not Under Oath: Is Gov Rick Perry Dumb?

Politico asks the question out loud.

The answer from Perry’s friends and supporters is not reassuring.

“If he should know about John Locke, he’ll know about John Locke,” said [Tex lobbyist and Perry supporter] Bill Miller. “If it’s not on his schedule, it’s irrelevant to him.”

In other words: his aides run him.

His policy focus as governor hasn’t been complex – it’s almost entirely jobs and business-focused – but that’s not where Perry’s mind is, say those who know him.

He’s a power politician and very canny one. And what seems to animate him is competition.

Whether it is winning elections, beating out other states in attracting jobs or besting them for college football recruits, Perry is ferociously single-minded.

In other words: he is keenly political, but has little policy focus – which will be some handicap for a president who will face after 2013 the toughest economic policy challenges since the 1930s.

“There were some guys we always thought were the brainiacs, the ones who got into the minutiae of legislation,” recalled Cliff Johnson, an Austin lobbyist and close Perry friend and former roommate from their days serving together as Democratic legislators. “We sought information from trusted folks.”

In other words: lobbyists will run him.

Trained as an Air Force pilot right out of A&M, Perry was “taught to trust your information,” said Johnson.

And associates say the same lessons that Perry learned when he was flying C-130s apply now.

“Pilots execute flight plans,” said Miller. “They have a plan, they fly a certain pattern and that’s the way he’s always operated — he has a flight plan for what he’s trying to do and he executes.”

That’s quite an insult to combat pilots, who must react, respond and improvise. “Executing the flight plan” seems a terrible way to approach the presidency. It’s the president’s job to write the flight plan.

Mike Baselice, Perry’s longtime pollster, said his client is of the Ronald Reagan school of management: “Trust people and manage well.”

“His job is to go meet voters,” said Baselice. “We’ll figure out the details of the messaging.”

Voters would do well to ask: Who’s this “we” that will really be running the country during a Perry presidency?


By: David Frum, The FrumForum, August 29, 2011


August 29, 2011 Posted by | Conservatives, Democracy, Economy, Elections, GOP, Governors, Ideologues, Ideology, Lobbyists, Politics, Public, Public Opinion, Republicans, Right Wing, Teaparty, Voters | , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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