E.J. Dionne’s big question

Libertarianism, a curious philosophy, has captured the imagination of the kids today. So Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne can see that the future of the GOP looks decidedly more libertarian. And that frightens him. What can lure these young people back from the edge? What will bring those wayward kids back to that tried-and-true statism — you know, the sort of system that lets smart guys like Dionne make decisions on behalf of the benighted and the misguided? Dionne has been looking for something — anything — to douse the fire.

Ah ha! shouts Dionne from the pages of the Post. He’s found the killer argument. It flows from one big question posed by Michael Lind in a tabloid. And the big question is so airtight Dionne’s almost giddy. It’s going to “shake up the political world,” he says.

Here’s the big question Dionne hopes will end all discussion about this curious philosophy: “If libertarians are correct in claiming that they understand how best to organize a modern society, how is it that not a single country in the world in the early 21st century is organized along libertarian lines?”

“In other words,” Dionne writes, “Why are there no libertarian countries?”

Before answering this question, I admit I haven’t seen such a gushing display of apologetics for the status quo since the last time I talked to a conservative Republican over 60.

Now consider: E.J. Dionne has actually gone to the trouble of firing a shot across libertarians’ bow during a time when the FBI is seizing journalists’ emails, the NSA is gathering Americans’ phone records, the IRS is targeting political enemies, and our president is willing to toss aside habeas corpus as if he’d studied at law school under John Yoo. Never mind the Big Three entitlements are headed headlong to insolvency and welfare states around the world are following Greece into the Aegean.

In any case, to answer the big question, all E.J. Dionne would have to do is look in the mirror. Might it be there are no libertarian “countries” because people like E.J. Dionne (who apologize for central power) and people like Lindsey Graham (who crave central power) and people like Jeffrey Immelt (who benefit financially from central power) belong to a parasitic nexus that feeds on the fears and hard work of average citizens?

This nexus forms through processes generally referred to as “public choice economics.” James Buchanan (a libertarian) won a Nobel Prize for explaining how and why this process happens, and libertarians understand these dynamics better than anyone. Understanding why power corrupts doesn’t make us long to have power. It makes us long for a way to dissipate it.

Dionne writes glibly that libertarians “believe in the smallest government possible, longing for what the late philosopher Robert Nozick, in his classic book Anarchy, State, and Utopia, called ‘the night-watchman state.’ Anything government does beyond protecting people from violence or theft and enforcing contracts is seen as illegitimate.”

All one has to do is read the Constitution to see that most of what the federal government does today is illegitimate.

But here’s a thought: Try reading Anarchy, State, and Utopia. If Dionne (or Lind) were actually to read Nozick, he might discover far richer ideas than something he overheard at a cocktail party about the night-watchman state. Indeed, in Part III of Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Nozick explains that libertarianism can be a superstructure for all sorts of human projects in community and governance — which he cleverly calls a “Utopia of Utopias.” Start a commune, a co-op or a company. Notwithstanding all the wisecracks about libertarianism being utopian, readers discover that our worldview is about pluralism — that is, that we each have different ideas about the good life and that any number of communities can form around those ideas.

Fundamentally, therefore, libertarians are anti-utopian and skeptical of power. We think people who are determined to be thoroughly facile in the face of growing government abuse are simply enchanted by the idea that if you get the right people at the top of the hierarchy, everything’s going to be okay. Such fetishists think those “angels” Madison spoke of, maybe those progressive paladins bestriding white horses (or on the right, those Christian soldiers) exist. And they can save us all. The paladin state will come and take all the abuses and the corporatism and the corruption and the poverty away.

People like E.J. Dionne really still think this way. It’s that old-time religion.