"An Intelligent Version Of Libertarianism"

by tristero

Tyler Cowen, after cynically misrepresenting (albeit cleverly) progressivism poses a challenge:
It would be interesting to see a progressive try to sum up an intelligent version of libertarianism.
As a general rule, I think it is wise to ignore conservatives when they double dare you. This one is easy, however.

The dare is one more example of rightwing bullshit. There is no such thing as an intelligent version of libertarianism. It simply doesn't exist, any more than compassionate conservativm or the tooth fairy. More precisely, there is nothing intelligent that libertarianism brings to the table that isn't already part and parcel of liberalism.

But don't take my word for it. In a review of Daniel Wessel's In Fed We Trust: Ben Bernanke's War on the Great Panic, Paul Barrett writes:
If there’s a villain looming over the Wessel version of why the government was so overwhelmed [in the face of the growing financial crisis], it is [Alan] Greenspan, who led the Federal Reserve from 1987 until 2006. As Wessel explains, Greenspan’s strong libertarian leanings led him to scorn the ability of government employees to keep track of bonus-crazed bankers and traders. Greenspan preached a free-market theory that the self-interest of large financial players would cause them to drive hard bargains with one another and prevent the sort of mischief that could bring markets crashing down. He encouraged the “financial engineering” that created securities no one fully understood, and he helped shield the mad scientists of Wall Street from government restraints.
But don't take Barrett's or Wessel's word for libertarianism's stupidity, either:
Then, in October 2008, Greenspan admitted to a House committee he had been, well, totally wrong: “I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interest of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders.”
Cue the libertarians amongst us, not the brightest of bulbs, to retort, "So, you're saying government is always right, people can't be trusted to make the best decisions for themselves, and more regulation is always a good thing?"

The fact is that any intelligent form of progressivism recognizes that there is a complex interplay between government and the so-called private sector; that good government is as absolute necessary to a good society as responsible individual freedom is; and that there are many inherent conflicts between the two that are resolved on a contingent basis as the definitions of all the terms in play - "good," "government," "responsible," "individual," "freedom," etc - change over time. The notion that "less regulation is a moral good" is, for lack of a better phrase, simply stupid. It sets up a patently false dichotomy because obviously, it's not more or less regulation that is a problem, but the quality and kind of regulation. Sometimes, we need more, and efficient, regulation - eg, over derivatives. Sometimes, we need less - for example, over who can marry.

Duh. Or, to put it another way, the social conflict between freedom and restriction is an argument that liberals and progressives have been struggling with since the days of Spinoza, if not earlier. Libertarianism brings nothing new that is of value to the table. Just ask Alan Greenspan, one of the most influential libertarians of all times.

Special note to real philosophers and scholars: Of course, "libertarianism" is as impossible to discuss in general as "Christianity," "Islam," or any other creed; there are social libertarians, economic libertarians, left libertarians, and so on. Just as when we speak of communists, most commentators don't typically use the Shakers as an example but instead discuss the Soviet Union or modern China, I am talking about libertarians as they are more typically understood, the Ayn Rands (of whom Greenspan was a drooling acolyte), the Ron Pauls, and so on. No doubt, if you care about libertarianism (I don't), that is the tip of the iceberg.

Nevertheless, to the extent that libertarians hold up the individual as primary and fail to recognize that individuals simply cannot physically exist without a social/cultural/environmental context, libertarianism is worthless. To the extent that libertarianism does recognize the complex dialectic between the individual and her/his social and physical environment, libertarianism is indistinguishable from liberalism.

As a moral philosophy, by failing to recognize an indisputable physical and ethical reality - namely, that the conflict between the one and the many is primary - libertarianism is all but useless. As a political philosophy, especially when it comes to issues affecting the "rights of businesses", libertarianism is often deeply immoral, providing flimsy rationales for destructive acquisition, thievery, fraud, and greed - typically, and ironically, in the service of the largest corporations, not individuals. When political libertarianism does pursue goals worthwhile to the individual and to society - eg, in calling for the end of sodomy laws - they add no arguments to the debate that liberals and progressives haven't already expressed.

(I discussed other aspects of Cowen's post here)