Why I am not a Libertarian (Part One)

As someone who favours free markets and a generally liberal social policy, I sometimes get tagged as a libertarian. This is to some degree understandable – after all, this is a combination of positions associated with libertarians, and people like to use these ideological markers as reference points. But although I may share some of their conclusions, I absolutely reject their philosophy, and hopefully I’ll go some way towards explaining why.

Firstly, I am not an American. While Libertarianism is in theory a universalist belief system, in practice it is a mostly American movement, and its overseas followers are generally more American than the Americans themselves. This is not intended as a dig at the likes of Daniel Hannan, whom I admire greatly, or indeed the USA, which I think has a great deal to recommend itself as a country. But every broad movement has not just a structure, but a mythology, which you must buy into at least on some level. And the mythology of libertarianism is one of American exceptionalism, and in particular of the infinite wisdom and brilliance of the US constitution – obviously ideas with more appeal in the USA than elsewhere.

My objection isn’t so much that these ideas are false – of course they are, but every mythology is false. Hannan, for example, may claim that the USA has a “sublime set of institutions designed by exceptional men”, but I don’t think he’d defend the proposition too seriously. The electoral college, for example, was clearly broken as early as the 1790s, the setup of Congress leads to endemic dysfunction, and the American political structure he likes best is the open primary, which is a 20th century innovation and nowhere in the constitution. Moreover, although he (rightly) emphasises the conservative aspect of the American Revolution, it was also a radical revolution, as much 1641 as 1689, as much Rousseau as Montesquieu. It was both conservative and radical in the same way as Barack Obama promotes himself – dyed in a long tradition of radicalism that has become the establishment and so conservative, promising both to protect traditional ideas and to make transformative changes.

I don’t know Daniel Hannan personally, but I suspect he would concede all this. “Yes,” he would likely say, “the American constitution has many flaws – it has 27 amendments for a reason, and it could no doubt be amended further to advantage. But no constitution is perfect. It is an amazing document, and worthy of our celebration and respect, and we should use it as a guide.” Well, OK. But the Mappa Mundi is also an amazing document worthy of celebration and respect, but you wouldn’t use it as a guide. It’s an interesting artifact of its time, but it’s just a terrible map, and far from being the basis of serious cartography it’s basically a shambles.

And this is the basis of my disagreement with the mythology – not so much that it’s false, but that it’s dangerous. I side more with Thurgood Marshall, when he said “[I do not] find the wisdom, foresight, and sense of justice exhibited by the Framers particularly profound. To the contrary, the government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government, and its respect for the individual freedoms and human rights, we hold as fundamental today. When contemporary Americans cite ‘The Constitution,’ they invoke a concept that is vastly different from what the Framers barely began to construct two centuries ago.” Hannan’s “sublime ideals” were far from sublime to women, blacks and Indians. Those institutions were incapable of guiding the country, which descended into civil war because the institutions were inadequate to resolve internal differences. Blacks suffered Jim Crow for generations because the institutions were inadequate to enforce the 14th amendment. The federal government has swollen with huge unchecked powers over the past 75 years, because the institutions are inadequate to enforce the 10th amendment. And so on. The constitution has failed, repeatedly, in its essential functions.

Nor has it been in any way fixed. Marshall said later in that speech that “‘We the People’ no longer enslave, but the credit does not belong to the Framers. It belongs to those who refused to acquiesce in outdated notions of ‘liberty,’ ‘justice,’ and ‘equality,’ and who strived to better them.” But this too is dangerous nonsense. The whole reason that there is such a movement to venerate the original Constitution is that the likes of Marshall drove it into a swamp, resulting in the unchecked and unbalanced leviathan that is USG today. And yet the very fact that the likes of Marshall were able to do so is no credit to the original Constitution – had it functioned properly, they would not have been able. This indeed is the divide between the two wings of American politics – the Tea Party, who worship a failed past, versus the liberal elites, who worship a failing present.

I wish libertarians would think more about how this mythology comes across to others, because I am sympathetic to many of their goals. But when they express their political nostalgia, it’s creepy. At all the times in US history when the government was limited in the ways libertarians like, it was truly terrible in other ways. Taken as a whole, Libertarian mythology communicates that its followers only care about rich white males. Of course, I am not saying that Arnold Kling (for example) is racist, sexist, or anything of the sort. I am saying that he allows himself to seem that way to others. He, and other libertarians, would be better off abandoning that mythology and crafting a new one, based not on a past that never was, but on a future that might yet be, which combined the limited government of the past with the legal equalities of today. I understand why libertarians indulge themselves in the past, but to the extent that they do so, I’m uncomfortable being around them.

You might say that I am not making serious arguments against libertarianism as a political philosophy, merely social and aesthetic arguments against the libertarian movement. But I think this is a false distinction. Political positions and the movements behind them are essentially the same thing as far as I am concerned – politics is not a theoretical exercise in an ivory tower, it is the practical business of forming coalitions and choosing our leaders. Social and aesthetic arguments affect that practical business, hence they are relevant – and the mythology of a movement is particularly relevant, since that mythos is frequently more important to the followers than many concrete policy positions.

But if you find this kind of argument unsatisfactory, next time I will be addressing more functional disagreements.

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