Yesterday, Salon published what must be the dumbest critique of libertarianism I’ve read that doesn’t use the word “Somalia”.
Why are there no libertarian countries? 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 twenty-first century is organized along libertarian lines?
First of all, libertarians don’t claim we know best how to organize a modern society. We claim that modern societies are better at organizing themselves. The entire basis of libertarianism is one of restraining power, not acquiring it. Because politics is filled with people who desire power, this tends to crowd us out. It’s hard to get elected on a platform of “I will leave you the hell alone”.
Libertarians are at a particular disadvantage because we hate politics for politics’ sake. We have little interest in the petty political games that make up much of politics (and about 90% of Salon’s coverage of it) but empower greedy grasping power-hungry individuals.
Let’s just take a look at a few stories that are percolating right now. In the IRS scandal, we are seeing a large effort to target organizations based on their political views. To the libertarian, this would be simple: identify the people who abused power and fire them; overhaul the tax code to give the IRS less power; get the government out of the business of deciding which organization are and are not tax-exempt. But to the media, including Salon, this is about whether the Republicans can “get” Obama or whether they are “overplaying their hand”. Are they pushing too far? How will this affect the 2014 election?
Another purely political shitstorm is brewing over the appointment of judges. Obama, frustrated with the Senate not doing their job and bringing the courts to a standstill, has nominated three new judges for the DC circuit. For the libertarian, this is pretty simple. We have the same attitude we did when the Democrats refused to consider Bush appointees: the President has the duty to nominate judges and the Senate has the responsibility to vet them.
But to the political parties, this is yet another way to play political bullshit games. When Bush was President, the Democrats screamed about extreme appointees and the Republicans fulminated about judgeships going unfilled. Now the parties have completely reversed. And the media are happily playing along, speculating about whether Obama is “packing” the courts or not.
This is what politics is about, not creating a unifying vision for how to guide society or how to create an ideal state. And libertarians, because we don’t care for power or its adherents, tend to avoid this crap. It does mean we don’t tend to walk in the halls of power and hold high positions.
But it doesn’t mean we don’t have influence, as we will soon see. Let’s not mistake “not being in power” for “not having an influence”.
When you ask libertarians if they can point to a libertarian country, you are likely to get a baffled look, followed, in a few moments, by something like this reply: While there is no purely libertarian country, there are countries which have pursued policies of which libertarians would approve: Chile, with its experiment in privatized Social Security, for example, and Sweden, a big-government nation which, however, gives a role to vouchers in schooling.
Oh, it’s a lot more than that. Libertarian ideas helped Hong Kong get rich while the rest of China wallowed in poverty. Libertarian ideas made the West strong while the Communist Bloc fell into ruin. Lind will get into the Heritage Foundation’s Economic Freedom Index in a moment in a very selective and idiotic way. I will pre-empt him by looking at it in a more objective and thorough way. Look at countries with the greatest economic freedom. You will find it is dominated by wealthy countries: Canada, Scandinavia, USA, Australia, Germany, the UK. And, in fact, most of those countries have moved dramatically toward more economic freedom, with the worldwide index increasing 2 points since 1996. And that was after the fall of communism. The simple fact is that the countries that have pursue libertarian ideals are wealthier, happier, healthier places than those that have pursued collectivist numbskullery.
Let’s just take one example almost at random. Lind uncorks this stupid statement:
Libertarian theorists have the luxury of mixing and matching policies to create an imaginary utopia. A real country must function simultaneously in different realms—defense and the economy, law enforcement and some kind of system of support for the poor. Being able to point to one truly libertarian country would provide at least some evidence that libertarianism can work in the real world.
Some political philosophies pass this test. For much of the global center-left, the ideal for several generations has been Nordic social democracy—what the late liberal economist Robert Heilbroner described as “a slightly idealized Sweden.”
Sweden, you say? Do you know that Sweden, over the last 17 years, has massively improved its economic freedom index from 61 to 72? That it may soon be more economically free than the United States? And that Sweden incorporates many of the socially liberal ideas that form the other pillar of libertarianism (one Lind completely ignores)? How about Canada? Canada has increased its economic freedom index from 69 to 79 over last 17 years. Canada is, in fact, the sixth most economically free country in the world right now.
I cite these two examples specifically because they get to another problem with his critique. “Libertarianism” covers a very broad range of ideas. I know libertarians who oppose abortion. I know libertarians who think we shouldn’t legalize drugs. I know libertarians who believe in universal healthcare and social safety nets. Most libertarians believe in sensible environmental regulation and making sure kids get an education.
What marks libertarianism out is not a platform, but a way of thinking. It is a philosophy of being suspicious of government and favoring liberty if it is practical. But it is, by no means, purist. Very few libertarians believe in anarchy. But this is apparently beyond the ken of perennially political bullshit obsessed Salon.
Lind claims that there is no country that is truly “libertarian”. But show me a country that is pure “Nordic social democracy”. There are various flavors that approach some Platonic Ideal of that, I guess. But I would posit that most of the Nordic countries would fail to be true “Nordic social democracies” the way Lind defines it. Sweden is the source of the “Swedish model” approach to prostitution that has been a fiasco. It is also currently enjoying rioting and disruption from unassimilated immigrants. Finland has restrictions on abortion but also practices a very different (and highly successful) education model than liberals prefer. And all five of the traditional Nordic countries have very high Economic Freedom Indices and all five have seen them increase over the last twenty years. That they have universal healthcare does not mean they are not embracing many libertarian ideas.
Oh, but the article gets even worse. I’ve been talking about the Economic Freedom Index to show how you use it properly in a political debate. I did that because Lind is about to cover himself in excrement using it incorrectly. He looks at some of the highest ranked countries, notes they are successful but then dismisses their success for completely arbitrary reasons. Just for fun, I will play this game with his “Nordic social democracy” ideal.
Even worse, the economic-freedom country rankings are biased toward city-states and small countries.
Because it’s not like liberals never compare us to Monaco.
For example, in the latest ranking of economic liberty by the Heritage Foundation, the top five nations are Hong Kong (a city, not a country), Singapore (a city-state), Australia, New Zealand and Switzerland (small-population countries).
With the exception of Switzerland, four out of the top five were small British overseas colonies which played interstitial roles in the larger British empire. Even though they are formally sovereign today, these places remain fragments of larger defense systems and larger markets. They are able to engage in free riding on the provision of public goods, like security and huge consumer populations, by other, bigger states.
Australia and New Zealand depended for protection first on the British empire and now on the United States. Its fabled militias to the contrary, Switzerland might not have maintained its independence for long if Nazi Germany had won World War II.
Of the five Nordic social democracies, three are part of NATO and heavily dependent on NATO resources for the defense. Its fabled neutrality to the contrary, Sweden might not have maintained its independence for long if Nazi Germany had won World War II (during which Sweden also the most economically free power in Europe, incidentally). There was a powerful pro-Nazi movement in Sweden during the war.
In fact, almost all of the massive social welfare states have been enabled by massive military spending by the United States. Very few of them maintain anything resembling a modern military and none maintain the kind of presence that would have staved off the Soviet Union, the kind of presence that currently keeps pirates at bay and that neutralizes any expansionary ambitions from China and Russia. It’s easy to have a Nordic Social Democracy when your defense duties are being paid for by someone else.
These countries play specialized roles in much larger regional and global markets, rather as cities or regions do in a large nation-state like the U.S. Hong Kong and Singapore remain essentially entrepots for international trade. Switzerland is an international banking and tax haven. What works for them would not work for a giant nation-state like the U.S. (number 10 on the Heritage list of economic freedom) or even medium-sized countries like Germany (number 19) or Japan (number 24).
None of the Nordic Social Democracies have a population of more than 10 million. They are all playing specialized roles in much larger regional and global markets. Norway has massive fossil fuel reserves; Iceland almost destroyed itself with banking and is no backing to fishing; Sweden’s economy seems dependent on exporting crappy IKEA furniture. What works for them would not work for a giant nation-state like the US.
And then there is Mauritius.
And then there’s Cuba.
According to the Heritage Foundation, the U.S. has less economic freedom than Mauritius, another small island country, this one off the southeast coast of Africa. At number 8, Mauritius is two rungs above the U.S., at number 10 in the global index of economic liberty.
Cuba has guaranteed universal healthcare and first-rate gun control.
According to the CIA World Fact book, the U.S. spends more than Mauritius—5.4 percent of GDP in 2009 compared to only 3.7 percent in Mauritius in 2010. For the price of that extra expenditure, which is chiefly public, the U.S. has a literacy rate of 99 percent, compared to only 88.5 percent in economically-freer Mauritius.
Infant mortality? In economically-more-free Mauritius there are about 11 deaths per 1,000 live births—compared to 5.9 in the economically-less-free U.S. Maternal mortality in Mauritius is at 60 deaths per 1,000 live births, compared to 21 in the U.S. Economic liberty comes at a price in human survival, it would seem. Oh, well—at least Mauritius is economically free!
Cuba has an (official) infant mortality rate of 4.8 compared to the 2.7 for Singapore and Hong Kong. Cuba suffers from massive civil liberties repression. Oh, well-at least Cuba has universal healthcare!
Look, I can play this game all day. The simple point is that there isn’t any country out there that practices idealized “Nordic Social Democracy” either. And those that are close have been moving away from that model toward greater economic and personal liberty. Or they’ve been moving toward bankruptcy.
Look, every libertarian knows there is no such thing as a perfect libertarian state. The very phrase is an oxymoron because libertarianism is a responsive political philosophy, not an active one. We don’t have grand plans for remaking the universe. What we do is identify things the government is screwing up and try to make it stop. We are not a bunch of silly self-important men sitting behind desks and telling people what to do. We are an unceasing crowd of people surrounding the capitals of the world with pitchforks and torches on standby.
Politics is a tug-of-war not between liberals and conservatives or Republicans and Democrats, but between Those Who Want to Tell You What to Do and Those Who Don’t. The vast majority of politicians and the vast majority of the boot-licking media at such as Salon are in the the former camp. Everyone else is in the latter to some degree or other. Sometimes they are in it only for an issue like abortion. Sometimes they are in it only for an issues like free trade. But just about everyone who is politically aware spends some time in the libertarian camp. Everyone is a least lib-curious. The one thing I have found, in eight years of blogging as libertarian, is that, with almost everyone, I can find something in the libertarian philosophy that they agree. Lind supports some libertarian ideas, even if he doesn’t realize it. Does he oppose crony capitalism? Does he believe in personal freedom? Does he think we’re jailing too many people? Well, my friend, welcome to Libertarian Land! Mind the barbed wire.
Libertarians don’t want power. We want to keep it in check. This is apparently a novel concept.
Even with those caveats however, libertarian ideas are and have been very influential in the real world. They are wound into the very fabric of this nation. Our Constitution is the only one that recognizes such idealized and universal personal liberty. No other country has as deep and thorough a belief in Freedom of Speech as ours. Combine that with the high economic liberty ranking we have — even after 12 years of Bush-Obama — and you’re doing pretty well. Certainly better than the NSD models that are quickly bankrupting the entirety of Europe.
The entire world has moving more libertarian in fits and starts. Wars and violence are at historic lows (libertarians generally oppose war). Personal freedom is at historic highs. Over the last decade, the expansion of economic freedom has lifted hundreds of millions of people — most of them of a different race than your typical libertarian — out of poverty. Countries like Australia and Canada have found ways to combine economic freedom with a more extensive social safety net — a flavor of libertarianism even if it isn’t the pure University of Chicago stuff.
In the end, Lind’s screed crosses me as yet another one of the “Aaah! Libertarians!” screeds I’ve gotten used to reading from ignorant lazy writers devoted to sad outdated political philosophies. The only lasting value it has is that maybe Mauritius will become the “libertarian ideal” instead of Somalia.