Evaluating Libertarianism

Christopher Beam takes a stab at laying out the philosophy's strengths and weaknesses

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"There's always tension between freedom and fairness," notes Christopher Beam in a New York magazine essay on Libertarianism. The 5,000+ word treatise makes its way through the political movement, characters and tenets of the philosophy, describing it as the "crazy uncle of American politics: loud and cocky and occasionally profound but always a bit unhinged." The American strains of libertarianism, as Beam conceives it, has undeniable live-and-let-live appeal but "oversimplifies" many of the issues it proposes to have solutions for (example: letting banks fail during the financial crisis would have adhered to principle but would have "unfairly punished a much greater number" of people than just the offending bankers).

Beam ends up characterizing the movement this way: At best, it means "pursuing your own self-interest, as long as you don’t hurt anyone else. At worst, as in Ayn Rand’s teachings, it’s an explicit celebration of narcissism." Unsurprisingly, his primer/critique has generated plenty of thoughtful retorts from other writers (libertarian or otherwise) with bones-to-pick:

  • A 'Thrashing Disguised as a Primer'  At the libertarian Reason magazine, senior editor Radley Balko digests Christopher Beam's treatise and objects to the article's "subtle" and "pernicious" treatment of libertarian philosophy. While the first two-thirds of the article are presented as a neutral tour through libertariansim and it's surrounding movement, the last third shifts its tone considerably. Beam selectively picks out critiques to bolster his thesis that libertarianism is "utopian and impractical" and "neglects to explain how the current system has produced better results." If the entire article had been a critque of libertarianism, Balko could have evaluated it on those terms. But since the article is described as a "primer" Beam comes off "condesending." Case in point is Beam's insistence on describing libertarianism variations of a "crazy uncle" in American politics:
There's an aesthetic I've noticed among some journalists that libertarianism is so crazy and off the rails that it's okay to step outside the boundaries of decorum and fairness to make sure everyone knows how nuts libertarians really are....I don't think Beam thinks libertarians are evil. I think he thinks we're naive and probably a little crazy. But there's something revealing about him jettisoning the detached tone for the walk-away portion of the article.
  • Beam's History Is Going to Be Useful to Outsiders who don't pay attention to this stuff, writes David Weigel at Slate. "But no case against libertarianism sounds very compelling right now, because any alternative to the managed economy sounds great to a country with 9.9 percent unemployment," he figures. "Do libertarians promise utopia? Sure. So do the socialists who came up with the ideas that motivate Democratic politicians. Voters don't care much about where ideas come from as long as they have jobs. Now, the real test for libertarians will come if a year of Republican austerity budgeting is followed by economic growth."
  • Discrepancy: 'The Founders Were Not Libertarians. They Were Constitutionalists,' points out John Vecchione on the conservative blog, Frum Forum. Beam, as a "liberal critic" of libertarianism, falls prey to making this "founders" mistake that even many libertarians get wrong. To put it simply: Beam's assertion that the "Constitution was a libertarian document" is not true. The Constitution, argues Vecchione, limited the federal government to certain roles--but it did not so limit "the state." The founders, in fact, should be defined as Constitutionalists rather than libertarians. "The Founders believed in carefully delineated federal powers either broad (Hamilton) or limited (Jefferson, sometimes) but all believed in a more powerful state than libertarians purport to believe in," writes Vecchione. "If ever there was a libertarian document it was the Articles of Confederation. ... It was in fact, the hot mess that critics of libertarians believe their dream state would be ... and it was recognized as such by the majority of the country and was why the Constitution was ratified."
  • Quibble: 'No Inherent Reason' Why Free-Marketers Are Aligned With Social Conservatives? At ThinkProgress, Matthew Yglesias objects to one small part of Christopher Beam's treatise: his characterization that "there’s no inherent reason that free-marketers and social conservatives should be allied under the Republican umbrella." This is a common refrain among libertarians, figures Yglesias, but there's a reason why this coalition came to fruition:
If you look at American history, you see that in 1964 when we had a libertarian presidential candidate the main constituency for his views turned out to be white supremacists in the deep south. Libertarian principles, as Rand Paul had occasion to remind us during the 2010 midterm campaign, prohibit the Civil Rights Act as an infringement on the liberty of racist business proprietors. Similarly, libertarians and social conservatives are united in opposition to an Employment Non-Discrimination Act for gays and lesbians and to measures like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act that seek to curb discrimination against women. And this is generally how politics goes in most countries. You have a dominant socio-cultural group allied with the bulk of the business community, and you have a more diffuse "left" coalition of reformers associated with labor unions and minority groups. There’s nothing "inconsistent" about organizing politics this way.
  • There's a Lot Wrong With This Sentence: 'Libertarians Haven't Been This Close To Power Since 1776'  Also blogging at Frum Forum is Kenneth Sibler who takes issue with Beam writing that the third party hasn't been "this close" to power since 1776. He outlines a few reasons why this statement is off the mark: 1) the political label "libertarian" did not exist in 1776. 2) The founders weren't in power at that time, they were fighting an "uphill struggle" against the British Empire. 3) There's still very little consensus about what constitutes the libertarian philosophy today. 4) Ron Paul, who gets "considerable play" in Beam's article as an influential libertarian, may not have any "substantial impact on actual policy."
  • Some Good Points, But Thin Argument  Blogging at the conservative magazine the American Spectator, W. James Antle, III boils down Beam's treatise into this: Libertarianism is a big deal because "there is exactly one congressman and one senator who are libertarians, more or less. And because conservatives are talking about shrinking government while liberals are talking about not liking wars or civil liberties violations. And because of the Founding Fathers. And because Will Wilkinson has a blog." Beam's simplification, the writer notes, probably wouldn't have flown if New York magazine was planning a comparable essay "critical of liberalism that amounted to little more than: Bernie Sanders is in the Senate. We have a national health care plan. Jane Hamsher has a blog. Gee whiz, what would happen if taxes got too high?"
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.