Wishful Thinking From Mr. Lind
Tibor R. Machan
In the August 16th issue of the Financial Times Michael Lind, senior fellow at the New America Foundation and author of The American Way of Strategy (OUP, October 2006), penned a piece titled “The Unmourned End of Libertarian Politics.” Immediately you could tell something fishy is going to be presented to you here because it is one of the most obvious facts of recent American politics that the libertarians have had hardly any role in it.
Certainly the Libertarian Party’s role in American politics has been minimal. At most the LP has managed, quite valuably in my view, to place the libertarian agenda on the front burner of various radio programs and community meetings. But as far as having an impact on legislative and judicial offerings around the country, the LP hasn’t done much.
So what might Lind be yapping about? Possibly that there have been some politicians around the country who have signed on to a few libertarian ideas and have mixed these in with various conservative or modern liberal ones as they fashioned laws and public policies. But here, too, the influence has been sporadic, rarely principled, mostly of the catch-as-catch-can or pragmatic variety. Lind tells us that “The libertarians launched a massive intellectual and rhetorical assault on modern government from the 1970s onward. Their formidable forces included influential economists such as Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize winner, and Martin Feldstein, who chaired Ronald Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers; think-tanks such as the Cato Institute; and affluent pressure groups such as the Club for Growth and Americans for Tax Reform, whose leader, Grover Norquist, famously said that government should be shrunk until it can be drowned in a bathtub.” Yet the story he tells is completely out of proportion.
The bulk of the 20th century has been dominated by welfare statism and neither libertarians nor socialists have had a decisive role in turning things their way. Both in the circles of academic political theory, where John Rawls and his epigone rule and still exert the major influence, and as far as public policies are concerned, the welfare state has been the norm. Yes, the libertarians have had more representation in the academy, they have managed to publish more books and magazines, contribute more than before to mainstream scholarly forums. But little of this has managed to influence laws and public policies.
On the other hand, as far as the dominant ideas being discussed at conferences, in books and journals addressing political economy and theory, including prospective public policies, libertarianism has been making headway. Not enough to satisfy most libertarians—although many share the late Ayn Rand’s view that “It’s earlier than you think,” meaning the time hasn’t yet come for these radical ideas to take root. After all, they have only been placed on the agenda of philosophical and related exploration within the last 300 years—that is, indeed, what made it the American Revolution, namely, that the ideas of the American Founders turned over many centuries of statist thinking, for the first time as an official public statement by leaders of a powerful country. But following that statement, in the Declaration of Independence, those ideas had to struggle, experience much opposition, and the reactionaries on both the Left and the Right have made serious gains recovering their dominance. It is not easy for human beings to follow through with even the best of ideas when they have been used to living under the influence of bad ones for centuries on end.
One thing, however, that suggests that libertarianism has been making gains is precisely the sort of piece penned by Michael Lind. Hoping that he will be able to burry libertarianism before it really gets going, he declares it dead in the water. But, of course, this is his wishful thinking. Around the globe, in China, India, the former Soviet colonies, Africa and elsewhere, classical liberal/libertarian ideas are in ascendance. In Georgia, for example, the former head of state of Estonia, who is an avid libertarian, is advising the new government. In the sphere of environmentalism there are experiments with free market solutions in India and China. Privatization is being seriously considered throughout the globe.
This must be disturbing to serious reactionaries like Mr. Lind, who would just as soon return us all to an era where everything had been under government supervision, regulation, prohibition and initiative, with individuals having to fall in line with the thinking of the elite. (On this score, of course, Left and Right are on the same page!)
Of course, if what Lind is trying to say is that libertarianism is struggling, that is advances two steps only to be taken a step and a half back soon afterwards, he is right. And what exactly is going to develop is not something he or anyone else can know—it is really up to us. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance and, of course, there is no guarantee that such vigilance will be forthcoming. Yet neither is the pessimism Lind urges upon libertarians warranted. Their ideas, after all, are really the best around.