The Libertarians Are Gaining Mindshare: Attack!

Guns, gays, and America’s “homegrown ideology”

Picking on libertarians has become a cottage industry for the chattering classes. Just when they got the Bible-thumpers on the run, pimply adolescents with copies of Atlas Shrugged stepped into the breach.

The progs are retreating to the ivory tower, besieged as they are by thousands of tolerant young freedom lovers who buy neither their grandparents’ authoritarian conservatism, nor their parents’ willingness to drop largess on every problem from government helicopters.

Here’s the latest lamentation from a UNC Chapel Hill history professor writing in the New York Times:

America is the only country in the Western world where buying a handgun is cheaper, easier and requires less paperwork than purchasing affordable health insurance. It is the only country where a court that grants gay people the right to marry also defends the right of the wealthy to pour almost unlimited funds into elections.

The political logic that links these facts is not a liberalism that progressives in Europe or Canada would recognize. It is a homegrown libertarian ideology — one that has opened the way for marriage equality, but privileges economic growth for the few over socio-economic equity for the many. [Healthcare.gov link added.]

She’s lucky this was published on summer break. I doubt those UNC libertarians would let her get away with it.

Indeed, it seems Professor Michael Munger over in Durham, NC has already gotten to many of these young people. He has figured out that it takes state power to equalize society “for the many.”

He writes:

When I am discussing the State with my colleagues at Duke, it's not long before I realize that, for them, almost without exception, the State is a unicorn. I come from the Public Choice tradition, which tends to emphasize consequentialist arguments more than natural rights, and so the distinction is particularly important for me. My friends generally dislike politicians, find democracy messy and distasteful, and object to the brutality and coercive excesses of foreign wars, the war on drugs, and the spying of the NSA.

But their solution is, without exception, to expand the power of "the State." That seems literally insane to me — a non sequitur of such monstrous proportions that I have trouble taking it seriously.

For all the talk about the one percent, the kids have figured out that in order to buy power, it has first to go on auction. And that is what government does. As H.L. Mencken acerbically put it, “Government is a broker in pillage, and every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods.”

Vincent Ostrom once taught that the “most radical source of inequalities in human societies is the ‘ruler-ruled’ relationship.” But this kind of thinking about inequality is fundamentally at odds with Professor Worthen’s notions of virtuous politicians, great statesmen, and philosopher kings.

Indeed, if all the seats of political power were occupied by her and her colleagues at UNC, the world would be ready for scientific management! Equality and social justice could finally be secured. Angels would swarm the capitals. And manna would fall from Heaven just like it does in Sweden.

I’m kidding of course. But she’s not. Imagine the kids’ horror when they read this line from Worthen:

America is the only nation among its peers with no equivalent to a Tory right or a socialist left — both traditions that consider centralized government a force for good, an agent of stewardship and progress.

Got that? Centralized government an agent of stewardship and progress, written without a hint of irony. You know, like when FDR created all those make-work projects; or perhaps it was when the U.S. started ramping up all its successful welfare programs; or was it the War on Drugs, the War on Terrorism, or the War on Privacy? (I’ll file the comment about Tories and Socialists in the WTF folder and move on.)

So why is libertarianism gobbling so much mindshare, despite the best efforts of the academy, Salon, and the New York Times? After all “there is something perpetually adolescent about the doctrine,” writes somebody in the New Yorker. “It arises from a self-centeredness — an affirmation of a strength seemingly ever-renewed in the face of external opposition — that young people feel daily.”

M’kay. So when these young freedom lovers grow up, they’ll realize that giving more authority to people with guns and jails and is a great idea — as long as it’s done in the name of the “public good.” They’ll give up the self-centered notion of free choice and personal responsibility, and learn to love Big Brother.

Maybe we should join these young people and ask: What is more lazy, juvenile, and self-centered than outsourcing one’s compassion to a distant bureaucracy and expecting someone else to pay for it? Surely we can think of nothing more childish than a teenager with a trust fund texting “aww somebody should help those poor people :( :(”

And yet this is really the beginning and end of the progressive redistributive ethos.

I’m afraid all this free-wheeling decentralization goes much deeper than just self-centeredness.

  1. Digital natives see the value in decentralization. They have grown up in a situation where orders emerge, not one that was planned by a technocrat in Washington. They’ve witnessed the rise of the sharing economy, the development of crypto-currency, the Open Source movement — all of which has created the bases of a parallel permissionless society, which obviates the need for enlightened bureaucrats.
  2. Young libertarians appreciate the difference between worrying about what the poor lack and fretting about what the rich have. They appreciate that any gap between rich and poor is only as important as the cronyism that feeds it. And yet when they are in their history classes at UNC, they are not being offered anything but nostra and buzzwords to solve the problems of cronyism to which progressive ideology inevitably gives rise.
  3. This is a generation that sees the value of innovation and entrepreneurship. Yes, you can get rich creating a popular app. But they are not as concerned about the money as the innovation and entrepreneurship — putting it in the service of solving problems big and small. This generation is far more likely to admire Steve Jobs than a politician. And that’s a good thing.

As the enlightened professoriate carry on trying to turn the US into an authoritarian Scandinavia, young libertarians will be weaving the latticework of human interaction for the next generation. They’ll see that the power of the voluntary network is greater than the power of the self-anointed few. They’ll build the structures of civil society out of bits and bytes. They’ll move from humanity from its adolescent, self-centered centralization to a condition of personal empowerment through connection and voluntary collaboration.

And they’ll do it all without bullets or ballots or prison walls.

Further Reading

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