E.J. Dionne’s big question

Max Borders Editor, The Freeman
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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.

Anyone who straight-facedly tells a young libertarian she is utopian doesn’t realize that libertarianism is popular precisely because the myth of the paladin state is crumbling before our very eyes. Young people are not naive; they’re simply living through this crumbling. The world is turning them into Madisonians.

Libertarians, far from always being idealists, see a way forward in decentralization. It’s certainly not, as Lind frames matters, a question of “how best to organize a modern society.” We think, following F.A. Hayek, real society cannot be organized. True society self-organizes. We have the insight to both appreciate that reality and respect the dignity of those who would be “organized” by central elites. Decentralization ensures that inevitable human failures are far more localized, so they aren’t as catastrophic.

If Tennessee tries a single-payer health care system (which it did) and it fails (which it did), then at least North Carolina will not have to suffer. If Hatfield County builds light rail, McCoy County won’t have to pay for it. And yes, while we think The Bureau of Problem Solving via Largesse and Brute Force is “illegitimate” because it treats flesh-and-blood people as servants of the collective, we are under no illusions about that great power nexus of which E.J. Dionne is a part.

So we will innovate ourselves out from under the state apparatus. We will continue to find means of engaging in peaceful acts of exchange and collaboration. And, of course, the E.J. Dionnes of the world will continue to find creative ways of using police power to stop us. The beat will go on. There may be no way to completely undermine the Church of State, but hopefully we can beat it back. We will continue to show young people a new way of seeing the world beyond that old-time religion.

Back to the big question: Imagine King George III chatting with members of his court circa June 1776 about the inevitable permanence of monarchy, making fun of Locke’s Second Treatise. “Why are there no constitutional republics?” he’d ask. Or imagine someone in 1970 claiming a company can’t be run without bosses. Such staggering failures of imagination can only fog the mind of someone with a deep interest in maintaining the statist quo.

Given all that, here’s another way to answer the big question. My friend Jeffrey Tucker says:

The answer is that every country has tried it and every country practices it to one extent or another. This is the reason we experience progress, enjoy wealth, and have access to things like longer lives, food to eat, cities, smartphones, financial markets, useful websites, shoes, clothes, and the like. It’s why we can mostly say what we want, fall in love and act on that, and do what we want in a general way provided we don’t hurt others. These conditions all flow from human volition using private property (including property in ourselves) that is exercised whenever and wherever it is permitted by the authorities. Government doesn’t create anything. It just takes stuff, overrides our preferences, and threatens us if we fail to comply. It has the same relationship to human liberty that a tick has to a dog. Just because ticks exist doesn’t mean that dogs aren’t real or are some untried experiment. Similarly, just because theft and murder exist doesn’t mean that we should not rather have a world in which they did not.

Everywhere on earth, people are seeking and striving, pursuing happiness and creating community from the bottom up. And in that sense, libertarian countries are everywhere.

Max Borders is editor of The Freeman and author of Superwealth: Why We Should Stop Worrying about the Gap between Rich and Poor.