Libertarian Illusions

Ron Paul's libertarianism is beguiling. Like many extreme ideologies, libertarianism gives a single answer to a complicated world. It seems to cut through the fog and get to the heart of solutions; illusions, alas, but powerful ones nonetheless.
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In a recent column my friend Bob Reich wrote convincingly that Ron Paul is attracting the support of many youth because several of his messages are correct, even if wrapped in a misguided overall ideology. As Reich noted, Ron Paul is the only Republican candidate calling for the end of America's horrendously wasteful wars, a worthy position. Paul also rightly emphasizes the massive corruption that has overtaken Washington.

Yet Ron Paul's appeal goes beyond these specific positions. His libertarianism itself is beguiling. Like many extreme ideologies, libertarianism gives a single answer to a complicated world. It seems to cut through the fog and get to the heart of solutions; illusions, alas, but powerful ones nonetheless.

Libertarianism is the single-minded defense of liberty. Many young people flock to libertarianism out of the thrill of defending such a valiant cause. They also like the moral freedom that libertarianism seems to offer: it's okay to follow one's one desires, even to embrace selfishness and self-interest, as long as it doesn't directly harm someone else.

Yet the error of libertarianism lies not in championing liberty, but in championing liberty to the exclusion of all other values. Libertarians hold that individual liberty should never be sacrificed in the pursuit of other values or causes. Compassion, justice, civic responsibility, honesty, decency, humility, respect, and even survival of the poor, weak, and vulnerable -- all are to take a back seat.

When libertarians translate the idea of liberty into the political and economic spheres, they argue that government should operate only to protect personal liberty and not for any other cause. According to libertarians, the sole role of government is to enforce private contracts and to keep the peace so that no one can use force to deprive the liberty of another. In English political theory, this is called the "night watchman state."

By taking an extreme view -- that liberty alone is to be defended among all of society's values -- libertarians reach extreme conclusions. Suppose a rich man has a surfeit of food and a poor man living next door is starving to death. The libertarian says that the government has no moral right or political claim to tax the rich person in order to save the poor person. Perhaps the rich person should be generous and give charity to the neighbor, the libertarian might say (or might not), but there is nothing that the government should do. The moral value of saving the poor person's life simply does not register when compared with the liberty of the rich person.

Most ethical and political systems find the libertarian position abhorrent, indeed preposterous. Most would hold that the government can, should, and indeed must, tax the rich person to save the poor person. That's because most ethical and political systems hold that liberty is only one value among many important values, and that the value of the indigent's life takes priority over the liberty of the rich individual.

Libertarians defend their single-mindedness on three separate grounds: ethical, economic, and political. Ethical libertarians, exemplified by the late novelist Ayn Rand, hold that liberty is the only true virtue. Rand claimed when a rich man responds to a poor person's plea for help (even by giving mere pennies), the rich man actually debases himself. This view is the opposite of Christian charity and Buddhist compassion, according to which moral worth is achieved by helping others.

Economic libertarianism claims a more pragmatic position, that economic freedom in the marketplace is the sole true source of prosperity. Yet economic theory dating back to Adam Smith and up to Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman has explained why society should turn to government when the conditions of market competition do not apply. The affirmative role of government includes public education, promotion of science and technology, environmental protection, and the provision of infrastructure. Friedman and Hayek both championed a state guarantee of basic needs for all citizens.

Political libertarianism is the idea that only the strict devotion to liberty will preserve liberty, and that government intervention is "the road to serfdom," in the famous words of Hayek. Hayek wrote his defense of free markets in 1945, in the shadow of fascism and communist totalitarianism. He warned his readers in Western Europe not to endorse state ownership of industry because public ownership, said Hayek, would eventually undermine political freedoms. The idea of limited government in the defense of liberty clearly taps into America's founding history as well, tea party and all.

Yet political libertarianism is not much of a guide to real-world politics. Modern history has shown that activist democratic governments, ones that provide public goods and help for the poor, do not really threaten liberty. In Scandinavia, for example, where the governments are much more activist than in the United States, democracy is very vibrant and far less corrupt than in the U.S. In fact, by keeping mega-income under control, the Scandinavian countries have avoided the kind of plutocracy -- government by the rich -- that has engulfed Washington.

Libertarianism has many historical roots. Some of the darker roots are the self-justification of powerful social groups that wish to deny society's responsibility to weaker and poorer members of society. Racism and libertarianism have had their dalliance, as Ron Paul's personal journey makes plainly evident. Even today, Paul opposes the civil rights legislation of the 1960s on the ground that society has no right to deny the "liberty" of racist behavior. Even if Ron Paul himself is no racist, he gives comfort to racists.

When I was a student all too many years ago, the late, great Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick published a libertarian tome, Anarchy, State and Utopia. As students we found it fascinating. It seemed to justify a pure free-market society. Yet Nozick himself could not answer the question about why liberty should be the only value that counts. He wrote that it probably had to do with "the meaning of life," but that he'd have to grapple with such issues "on another occasion." Later in life, Nozick rejected his previous flirtation with libertarianism, recognizing the play of many values.

A leading libertarian before Ron Paul, 1964 Republican Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, famously declared that, "extremism in the pursuit of liberty is no vice." Fortunately a vast majority of Americans begged to differ; Goldwater lost in a landslide. America has achieved it greatness not through a single-minded ideology but through pragmatism and the wisdom to embrace several important values. A vast majority of Americans today embrace liberty, civic responsibility, and compassion, and seek a government built upon all three. We are the better individuals and a much stronger society for it.

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