Libertarianism is like the new communism, dude

Michael Hamilton is a libertarian writer living in Washington, D.C. His main interests are economics, drug legalization, immigration, and land-use policy.

Libertarianism is the new communism, at least if you ask Nick Hanauer and Eric Liu:

Most people would consider radical libertarianism and communism polar opposites: The first glorifies personal freedom. The second would obliterate it. Yet the ideologies are simply mirror images. Both attempt to answer the same questions, and fail to do so in similar ways.

This colorful lede suggested they might offer a new critique of libertarianism, but my hopes were quickly dashed. The authors end up retreading old arguments—seemingly unaware that others had done so many times before. Their failure to offer a substantive appraisal of libertarian ideas may stem from low familiarity with libertarianism itself.

Hanauer and Liu start with a decent definition of libertarianism, namely that it is “the ideology that holds that individual liberty trumps all other values.” This is fairly accurate characterization of the moral beliefs held by many libertarians. Unfortunately, the authors struggle to trace these moral foundations to basic philosophical  or policy positions held by actual libertarians.

They claim that claim that libertarians “call for the evisceration of government itself” but the paragons of libertarianism listed in their article—John Galt, the Koch brothers,Ted Cruz, Grover Norquist, Ron Paul and Rand Paul—are hardly anarchists. Three are Republican politicians, one is a Republican activist, two are billionaire donors to Republican and libertarian causes, and one is fictional character. All seven are villains for a large subset of Americans, but neither is an example that clarifies what libertarians stand for.

I’m left wondering why they didn’t choose the two most prominent libertarian public figures in recent memory, Milton Friedman and F.A. Hayek. Both wrote and spoke publicly about libertarian ideas, both received the Nobel Prize in Economics, and both would be familiar to readers. Each has sold millions of books that clearly outline mainstream libertarian ideas, and neither was an anarchist.

The rest of the post rests on a single, embarrassing claim: “Radical libertarianism assumes that humans are wired only to be selfish, when in fact cooperation is the height of human evolution.”

A glance at the the Wikipedia page on libertarianism would make it clear that cooperation and voluntary association are the bedrock of libertarian ideas. As Tom Palmer explains:

It is precisely because neither individuals nor small groups can be fully self-sufficient that cooperation is necessary to human survival and flourishing. And because that cooperation takes place among countless individuals unknown to each other, the rules governing that interaction are abstract in nature. Abstract rules, which establish in advance what we may expect of one another, make cooperation possible on a wide scale.

Libertarian scholars including Adam SmithJohn Stuart MillRonald Coase, F.A. Hayek, and Robert Nozick, have spent their entire careers examining human cooperation and the institutional arrangements that make it possible.

Libertarians care so much about cooperation because they believe that its alternative, physical coercion, is both morally suspect and ineffective in nearly all cases. Rather than saying that people may do as they please, libertarians believe that individual actions must be restrained to the extent that they violate the rights of another person.

How did Hanauer and Liu get it so wrong?

Their unorthodox use of language may holds some clues. To them, the better alternative to libertarianism is a “blend of freedom and cooperation.” If it isn’t clear from that quote, they seem to think that freedom and cooperation are in opposition and there is a necessary tradeoff between the two.They also claim that “freedom is responsibility” without explaining what that actually means. Most people think that freedom and responsibility are distinct ideas.

Their attack on libertarianism may have been a backhanded attempt to flesh out their own ideas. Nick Hanauer and Eric Liu have probably known that they disagree with libertarians for quite some time, but apparently they never took the time to figure out why.


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