Rarely do advocates of freedom have the pleasure of hearing freedom criticized. Typically, they must listen to debates in which one side serves up a badly mixed hash of assertions that is labeled "freedom"—while the other side denounces the hash for features having nothing to do with human liberty. For this reason, libertarians had good cause to welcome the appearance early in 1997 of several books setting forth relatively pure versions of the classical liberal credo. Not only were the works instructive in themselves, but they called forth instructive responses from the media.
The books in question were: What It Means to Be a Libertarian by Charles Murray, best known as the author of Losing Ground and as co-author (with the late Richard Herrnstein) of The Bell Curve; Libertarianism: A Primer by David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute and The Libertarian Reader, a collection of essays edited by Boaz. (Boaz's Primer was reviewed by Robert Bidinotto in the April 1997 issue of the IOS Journal.)
With the nearly simultaneous appearance of these works, a large number of newspapers and magazines felt impelled to contemplate liberty and libertarianism. What follows is a survey of the major arguments these reviewers and writers lodged against a free society, or against libertarianism as a political philosophy and movement. As arranged below, the arguments recapitulate the succession of statist arguments in American history.
Perhaps the most vicious attack on 1997's libertarian treatises came from—where else?—Washington, D.C. It was a review of Murray's book written by Michael Kazin and published in the Washington Post's Sunday "Book World." Kazin, who teaches history at American University in Washington, is the author of The Populist Persuasion: An American History, and as a populist he made several arguments against the free society that recalled arguments put forward late in the last century.
For example, Kazin attacks "corporate power" in terms that would have sounded familiar in the heyday of the trust-busters. "Government is not the only institution that regulates our lives. Corporations that employ us, sell us products, and shape many of our desires have enormous power." Here, Kazin follows his nineteenth-century predecessors by blurring the distinction between coercion and noncoercion, deploying the weasel word "power" to cover both. Businesses offer us untold employment opportunities, a spectrum of products and services beyond imagining, and ideas from every possible perspective. Do the businessmen who set before us this plenitude of options exercise "power" equivalent to the guns of government?
Progressive attacks on Murray's book are of special interest, for his work puts forward an imaginative thought experiment to deal with just such objections. What he proposes is a bifurcated economy—half regulated, half free—with businesses permitted to choose the sphere in which they will operate and citizens free to choose the sphere in which they will work or shop. The idea does him little good. Kazin, for example, never mentions it.
Michael Kinsley, an essayist for Time magazine, also savages Murray's book (in his column of February 17). But give Kinsley credit: he takes on Murray's thought experiment. His first argument, predictably, involves externalities or neighborhood effects. "Dry cleaners are regulated to keep noxious chemicals out of the environment," Kinsley writes. "None of us can choose individually whether to buy that protection: we either buy it together—through the government—or not at all." There is a problem with this: Murray does not apply his thought experiment to air and water pollution. (He has other things to say on the subject.)
However, even when no obvious externalities are involved, Murray's half-free economy upsets Kinsley.
One person's choice to opt out [of the regulated economy] inevitably imposes costs on the rest of us. Should health-insurance companies refuse to cover the treatment when an unregulated drug backfires?
Well, why not? Insurance companies might have policies for people participating in the unregulated market that Murray envisions and policies for people in the regulated economy. Coverage would then be in accordance with the terms of the policy, and no costs would be "imposed" on others.
Kinsley will have none of it. "Libertarians always have an answer to such challenges: two kinds of health insurance." But is that so astounding? Is it unreasonable that there should be health insurance policies for those who smoke and those who do not; for those who drink heavily and those who do not; for those who participate in an unregulated economy and those who do not? Evidently, such free-market variety overwhelms Kinsley's commissar mind.
In another progressivist moment, Kinsley writes:
Charles Murray comes close to . . . self-parody when he suggests that once the Food and Drug Administration goes away, "the industry will need a respected third party to certify their drugs."
This is an especially depressing criticism. A three-hundred-plus-page book (Reputation, edited by Daniel B. Klein and published by the University of Michigan) recently dealt with the regulatory role of integrity in the market, and the very arrangement Kinsley mocks, a private certification service, was analyzed in the article "Trust for Hire: Voluntary Remedies for Quality and Safety," written by the editor. Nor was Klein's book fundamentally ground breaking. Its basic premise was set forth in Alan Greenspan's "The Assault on Integrity," published in the Objectivist Newsletter of August 1963.
The third level of argument moves us, one might say, from the Progressivist era to the New Deal and the Great Society, or it specifically deals with the welfare state. In his book, Murray writes: "Paying for your routine medical expenses is part of being a grown-up." Kazin comments:
As for those unable to afford expensive drugs or visits to the doctor, Murray falls back on nostalgia. If Medicaid and Medicare were scrapped, he confidently predicts that the poor could depend, as before the 1960s, on the kindness of white-coated strangers. That blithe proposal reveals the obtuseness of Murray's whole approach. If inner-city hospitals keep closing or getting into for-profit business, where will sick people without private insurance go?
This attack ignores Murray's enumeration of the many ways in which Medicaid and Medicare have wrecked the charitable medical system. The attack then points to that wreckage and derides as nostalgia any attempt to bring back a state of normality. In short, Kazin's argument is the equivalent to the following colloquy. Murray: "You should stop drinking. Remember how good you felt before you started?" Kazin: "Stop drinking? Don't be ridiculous! Drinking is the only thing that eases the pain."
A similar argument was offered in the Weekly Standard, where Murray's book was reviewed by Daniel Casse, describes as "a senior official in the Alexander and Dole presidential campaigns." Like Kazin, Casse alleges that today's social ills are too large for market solutions.
Where Casse differs from Kazin is in admitting that government may be responsible for these problems. Indeed, he allows that Murray's Losing Ground demonstrated that government "often creates all the wrong incentives" and thus brings about social ills. But, Casse notes, "the response has often been not less government, but more of it," that is to say, more hard-headed, realistic, and presumably Republican-originated government programs intended to provide the right incentives. Yes, that has been the response, but is it the correct response? Or is a free society the solution? Casse: "We don't know whether any of these experiments will work . . . [but people] have little patience for libertarian purity." And why is insistence on a government approach not "statist purity"?
But for outright collectivism, of the sort that usually passes under the banner of "democracy," no one can match the populist Kazin:
Government remains the only common institution Americans have—and the only one whose decisions we can appeal and whose leaders we can change on a regular basis. This is a point most high school students can easily grasp, but it eludes the esteemed Bradley Fellow of the American Enterprise Institute [Murray].
First, it is not true that government is the only institution "whose leaders we can change on a regular basis." A person can change the "leader" of his bank any day he wishes—by the simple expedient of putting his money in another bank.
Secondly, although Americans can in principle change their elected leadership on a regular basis, the sclerosis of government is so widely acknowledged that it has given rise to a term-limits movement.
Lastly, even if it is true that (the federal) government is the only common institution Americans have, so what? When Americans need to act as a single great unit, as in wartime, they act through the federal government. And Murray has no objection to that. But why on earth should the American people rise up as one to determine the minimum size that an orange must have before a grocery store can sell it?
Sooner or later, a rigorous defender of freedom will hear: "You mean the government wouldn't provide X?" Some who ask that question do so with a desire to understand; some not. For people who seek understanding, there are libertarian scholars laboring to show how one service or another could be provided by the market.
But Kinsley does not desire to understand the potentialities of free markets. Rather, he is mocking free markets when he asks: "Should the fire department refuse to rescue a family that chose to save money by buying a house that didn't meet the fire code?" With Kinsley, therefore, the correct response is not a privatization study but a return to first principles. In the first lecture of his course "The Logical Structure of Objectivism," David Kelley puts it this way:
When I hear that sort of question, I say: "All right. Let's clarify where we stand in the hierarchy of issues. Do we agree on the existence of individual rights, as defined by the Lockean-Jeffersonian tradition? Do we agree that government must not violate those rights and indeed that government's sole function is to protect those rights? Do we agree that government should act only in accordance with enumerated powers? Are we now merely trying to decide whether the principles we agree upon dictate that fire-fighting services should be one of government's enumerated powers?
Of course, this is never what critics like Kinsley have in mind when they raise issues such as privatizing the fire department.
A far more serious question about the extent of freedom, deserving a far more serious answer, was put forward by Fareed Zakaria, managing editor of Foreign Affairs, in a review of Murray's book, published in the Fall 1997 issue of the Public Interest. He begins by noting that even a free-market society needs some government.
Property rights have to be enforced. . . . In a world of derivatives, software, and satellites, defining property, enforcing patents, and monitoring monopolies has become a complicated business that requires more than a few clerks. . . . Someone has to define the terms sprinkled through Murray's Laws, like "clear information," "normal use," "reasonable care," "ordinary standards of business practice."
This is true (except for the bit about monitoring monopolies). But it is an objection to anarchism, not to libertarianism. And it is Boaz, not Murray, who flirts with anarchism by writing: "Some day soon we may be able to bypass governments to get all the goods and services we need."
Having established the need for government, Zakaria goes on to probe Murray's consistency in circumscribing its proper extent. Most often, Murray uses America's pre-Great Society government as his baseline. But Zakaria observes that
America in 1960 had a considerably larger and more intrusive government than would exist if Murray's proposals were seriously enacted. . . . Many of the agencies to be shut down under Murray's plan existed in the 1950s.
And perhaps Murray would concede that he seeks a government sparer even than that of the 1950s, for he explicitly speaks of returning government to a size that "absorbs the same percentage of the gross national product as it did during Franklin Roosevelt's first two terms." Yet a critic could point out that by specifying a percentage of GNP, Murray has switched the terms of debate from government functions to governmental expenditures. For many readers, Murray's words will create the impression that he wants to restore the New Deal. But if America restricted its government to the roles he lists (36–44), the result would not only be pre-Franklin Roosevelt, it would be pre-Theodore Roosevelt. The percentage of GNP absorbed by the federal government might in principle equal that absorbed in the 1930s, if a legitimate function such as national defense needed to be bolstered. But absent such a need, the percentage of GNP would seem more likely to match that absorbed in 1890 than in 1940.
Moving beyond criticisms of freedom, reviewers of Murray's book and Boaz's books also scrutinized the political philosophy of libertarianism. In the Weekly Standard, Adam Wolfson, executive editor of the neoconservative Public Interest, writes the following regarding Boaz:
In boasting of libertarianism's deep roots, he makes a critical concession: He acknowledges that he must do more than merely show libertarianism will work; he must first show that it is not some eccentric new-fangled philosophy.
The remark is telling. Boaz cannot demonstrate that libertarianism is good for man (that it "works") because he is committed to neutrality among many metaphysical and ethical approaches to libertarianism. Specifically, he is committed to viewing the political philosophy of libertarianism as "a sort of coalition," a coalition broad enough to encompass Utilitarianism, Kantianism, Christianity, and Objectivism. (See the IOS Journal, August 1997, 10–11.) Thus precluded from offering a philosophical justification for his position, Boaz instead presents it as the product of various historical advances. But how do we know that these were advances if we cannot judge them philosophically? It would be circular to say they were advances because they led to human freedom, that is, libertarianism.
The final criticism lodged by this year's reviewers was not of liberty, or the philosophy of liberty, but of the libertarian movement. After mentioning his doubts regarding a free society, Zakaria concedes:
All these problems cannot explain the libertarian predicament [which is to say, libertarianism's failure to attract a large following]. While it has its weaknesses, they are not matched, and perhaps outweighed, by its formidable strengths.
What, then, does explain libertarianism's predicament? Zakaria answers that question by cataloguing what classical liberalism stood against and stood for during the nineteenth century: against the church and for secularism; against aristocracies and for the bourgeoisie; against status and for contract; against faith and for science; against censorship and for free speech. Zakaria then concludes:
The reason that libertarianism seems narrow and naive is that having won 80 percent of the struggles it has fought over the last two centuries, it is now forced to define itself wholly in terms of the last 20 percent. Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice if you were in Prussia in the 1850s, but in America in the 1960s? Libertarianism has become extreme because the world has left it no recourse. Having beaten them, you can't join them.
That is a mistake, but an instructive mistake. Consider how Zakaria states "the last 20 percent" of libertarianism's cause:
[Western societies] have expanded government too much over the last 30 years. Government's share of GDP should be smaller. That's it. That simple, accurate observation has been turned into a complete political philosophy.
One can hardly imagine a misunderstanding more profound. Yet it appears to be an honest misunderstanding. And its honesty demonstrates how urgently libertarians need to put fundamental philosophy at the core of their cause.
It will always be profitable for libertarians to deplore governmental intrusions into areas not properly government's concern. It will always be profitable for libertarians to document, as James Bovard did in Lost Rights, the personal liberties that government has taken from Americans.
But for libertarians to make plausible the depth and urgency of their concerns, they must do much more. They must explain that America's loss of freedom over the past century is nothing but the beginning, nothing but the first poisonous fruit produced by a rejection of America's founding principles. The burden of the libertarian argument must be to link liberty's decline throughout the last hundred years to the nineteenth century's abandonment of Enlightenment ideas and to its adoption of anti-rational and anti-individualist ideas, not just the politics of collectivism but the ethics of altruism, and not just altruism but irrationalism. Libertarians must then go on to document how the last thirty years have seen ever deeper incursions against liberty as ever more malignant forms of anti-Enlightenment thought have entered the American culture.
To persuade Americans that their country has been abandoning freedom for over a century to persuade Americans that the cause lies in the increasingly influential anti-Enlightenment ideas of their country's culture; to persuade Americans that their country must either recover the Enlightenment ideas of its founding or continue its present march toward serfdom—this is the struggle of contemporary libertarianism. And, contrary to the lulling words of Fareed Zakaria, that struggle is not 80 percent accomplished. It has barely begun.