The Simple Question Tea Party / Libertarians Can’t Answer

Asking questions about the basics can occasionally catch anyone for a rare loss for words. With Tea Party darling Sarah Palin, when she was asked a simple question by Katie Couric, “What do you like to read?“, her lack of ability to be specific in her answer was the first glimpse into the barren wasteland of Sarah Palin’s brain, and some say the beginning of her failed run for Vice President under John McCain.

There’s also a very simple question that Libertarians can’t answer. I’ll get to that, I promise.

What About It Libertarians?

It’s significant because many in the new generation of conservative politicians declare libertarianism as their core political philosophy.

Libertarians like to think that they have the virtue of a very clear creed: They believe in the smallest government possible, longing for what the late philosopher Robert Nozick, in his book Anarchy, State and Utopia, called “the night-watchman state.” Anything government does beyond protecting people from violence or theft and enforcing contracts, he and his peer libertarians consider as illegitimate.

If you start with that, it makes taking a stand on whatever is the issue of the day pretty damn easy. All efforts to cut back on government functions — public schools, Medicare, environmental regulation, food stamps — should be supported. Anything that increases government activity (Obamacare, for example) is unacceptable.

The economist Murray Rothbard , in framing the  1970s libertarian manifesto For a New Liberty promised a nation that would be characterized by “individual liberty, a peaceful foreign policy, minimal government and a free-market economy.”

Rothbard’s finishes his book with bravado: “Liberty has never been fully tried in the modern world; libertarians now propose to fulfill the American dream and the world dream of liberty and prosperity for all mankind.”

Note that Rothbard freely acknowledges that “liberty has never been fully tried,” at least by the libertarians’ exacting definition.

The Question that Stymies Libertarians

So here’s the question they just can’t answer:

“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 21st century is organized along libertarian lines?”

Or simply put, “Why are there no libertarian countries?”

Most ideas, whether good or bad, end up being given at least a shot somewhere. The ideas of the center-left — based on welfare states conjoined with market economies –have been deployed all over the democratic world, most extensively in the social democratic Scandinavian countries. We also had deadly experiments with communism, also known as Marxism-Leninism.

We even had some damn fool, Reagan I think was his name, convince otherwise sensible people of an even more stupid sounding notion called “trickle-down” economics. It was more appropriately labeled voo-doo economics by knowledgeable economists, but Republicans still cling to it like grim death because it keeps their big-money donors happy.

But here’s that simple question for all the boastful Libertarians:

“If socialism is discredited by the failure of communist regimes in the real world, why isn’t libertarianism discredited by the absence of any libertarian regimes in the real world?”

The answer, or lack thereof,  lies in an excellent example of a libertarian favorite—circular logic. Libertarians are able to boast that  their dream-state would be political perfection because, as a practical matter, it will never, ever be tried in full, so therefore impossible to prove as the horse shit that it is. Even many who say they themselves are libertarians reject the idea when it hits too close to home. So it’s perfection as long as it applies to everybody but them. Nice.

The strongest political support for a broad anti-statist libertarianism now comes from the Tea Party. Yet Tea Party members, as poll after poll shows, are older, whiter people than the country as a whole. They say they want to shrink government in a big way but when queried deeper and with more specificity, they are uneasy about implementing this concept when, say, reducing Social Security and Medicare comes up.

I’m sure you’ve seen the famous sign from a Tea Party rally that said it all:  “Keep your goddamn government hands off my Medicare”.  HA! Those people kill me.

So, do the proposals to cut these programs being pushed by Republicans in Congress exempt the current generation of recipients? Why of course they do.  There’s no way Republicans are going to attack their own base. Even they can see the folly in straight-line logic, but they’re long suit is obviously not long-term anything.

But this inconsistency (or hypocrisy) contains a truth as well as unanswered questions:

We had something close to a small government libertarian utopia in the late 19th century and we decided it didn’t work. As a viable country, we simply realized these things to be true:

  1. Many Americans would never be able to save enough for retirement and
  2. most of them would be unable to afford health insurance when they were old.

Smaller government meant that too many people were poor and that monopolies (don’t hear that word tossed around these days do you?) were formed too easily.

And when the Great Depression engulfed the U.S., government was up the creek, largely hog-tied by this anti-government ideology–until Franklin D. Roosevelt came along.

In fact,  most countries that we typically see as “free” and prosperous have governments that consume around 40 percent of their GDP, and lo and behold, they are better off for it. They are happier, healthier, live longer, take more time off, and actually enjoy living. Libertarians, on the other hand, seem to have persuaded themselves that there is no significant trade-off between less government and more national insecurity, more crime, more illiteracy and more infant and maternal mortality …

The primary reason this is relevant to our current politics, is because too many politicians are making decisions( or promises)  on the basis of a grand, Utopian theory that they never can — or will — put into practice. They then use this theory to avoid a candid conversation about the messy choices fair governance requires.

And this is why we have Washington gridlock.



Harvey A. Gold