“Libertarianism assumes the relatively tame aspirations of modern American life are a baseline for human nature, not an achievement of civilization.” —Bret Stephens
I have posted previously on the topic of why I can’t go the whole nine yards on libertarianism. I lean libertarian in many respects. In many ways it works philosophically. But reality prevents me from fully embracing the philosophy.
In order for the free pursuit of happiness to occur, there must necessarily be cultural, political, and legal structures that support such. This should be the main role of government — to develop and maintain a political and legal system that encourages and enhances the free pursuit of happiness. I think that most libertarians would agree with this.
Such a structure means that there must also be limitations and barriers. These are based on the concept that not all avenues of pursuit are judged to be of equal value. Some are better than others. And the ones that are most at odds with others’ pursuit of happiness (what Bret Stephens calls in this WSJ article “robbers, pirates and other rogues”) must be restricted.
Certainly, the optimal way to restrict activities that inhibit the general pursuit of happiness is through market based incentives to engage in appropriate activities. But if history shows us anything, it shows that in a world of imperfect people, some will refuse to respond to what others consider to be worthy incentives. Thus, there must also be disincentives for engaging in negative activities.
Those disincentives most often come naturally in the form of mild economic consequences. But, as there is a scale of negative activities, there must also be a scale of corresponding increasingly harsh consequences, coalescing with force. Although libertarians like to believe that everyone can be bought off with market-based incentives, the fact remains that some sufficiently powerful authority must exist to protect the rest of us from the rogues.
Our nation does not have a particularly happy foreign policy record. Stephens notes that one of our earliest problems after the Constitution became the law of the land was the bribery of Barbary pirates to ensure trade. The problem escalated to the point that we formed a navy to defend our right to “trade with everybody.”
Our current foreign policy provides ample room for dissatisfaction. But it is not clear that the Laissez-faire approach to foreign policy promoted by some libertarians, and prominently by Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) would actually achieve the kind of freedom and security claimed. Stephens notes that George Orwell famously remarked that “pacifism is a doctrine that can only be preached behind the protective cover of the Royal Navy.” Stephens says that similarly, “libertarianism can only be seriously espoused under the protective cover of [our big government] Leviathan.” I don’t care for Stephens’ choice of words to make his point.
I enjoy reading the economic libertarian posts on the Café Hayek blog. The econ professors that post there often argue that government needs to get out of the way and allow any individual to trade with any individual anywhere and anyhow they wish, and that any individual should be permitted to live anywhere they wish without respect to political borders. The problem, they contend, is that these things are restricted because socialist policies cause others to bear significant burdens for the choices of individuals. All such problems would evaporate if only we let anyone do anything they wished.
This idea is based on the concept I quoted at the top of this post. All humans will default to civil and productive behavior if simply left to their own devices. It is assumed that this extends to nations as well. As Stephens notes, however, “the quest for prestige and dominance and an instinct for nihilism are also inscribed in human nature.” Thus, the pure libertarian view of history and of current events requires a willing ignorance of how things work in reality. Lest you think I’m picking solely on libertarians, socialist philosophy requires similar ignorance, just involving a different set of facts.
Our Founders were pretty smart people. They didn’t understand everything, but they did understand the dichotomies of human nature. They tried to create a structure that would recognize and deal with such basic facts. Thus, we ended up with a central government that is both strong and weak (and lethargic). We ended up with a system that tries, however messily, to continually balance the rights of competing groups — of the majority and the minority.
In a utopian world the pure libertarian approach to trade and foreign policy would work great. In the real world, there has to be enforcers to make the best of the situations that exist.
Ron Paul offers an opportunity to break loose from the status quo — from the messy problems that plague us in Washington and in our foreign interactions. It’s no wonder that many are enthusiastic about his presidential candidacy. But given his unreal view of foreign policy, it is also no wonder that he only gets so much traction with voters. Mind you, I'm not defending the policy statements made by other candidates. I'm merely observing conditions.
Many voters are disenchanted with the status quo. But they’re not crazy. Thus, when the presidential primary season wraps up, Ron Paul will be relegated to a memory of what is arguably the best performance yet by a libertarian-minded presidential candidate. But he will be no more than that.