There have been some remarkably interesting posts and comments as of late regarding libertarianism. Some of them emerged in various postings on Rand Paul. Damon Linker, for example, congratulated Jason on diverging from “absolute libertarian principles” and approvingly posted Bruce Barlett’s take on Rand Paul:
“I don’t believe Rand is a racist; I think he is a fool who is suffering from the foolish consistency syndrome that affects all libertarians. They believe that freedom consists of one thing and one thing only–freedom from governmental constraint. Therefore, it is illogical to them that any increase in government power could ever expand freedom.”
The consistency syndrome is, indeed, common. It may stem from the fact that libertarians rarely [never] carry the weight of political power. Rather than having to make concrete decisions about how to address a complex problem in real time with limited information, resource constraints, and blunt policy tools, they often have the luxury of working within the confines of thought experiments constructed of simplifying assumptions and freed from historical context.
Name a problem, I got a solution. It will begin as follows:
“Assume we have perfectly functioning markets and perfectly delineated property rights. Assume, furthermore, that individuals behave rationally. Then we can eliminate [fill in blank with social or economic problem of your choice].”
Alright. This is a lovely posture to strike among academics and in the classroom.
But now comes the hard part. We will never have perfectly functioning markets and we will never have perfectly delineated property rights. Human nature is fixed and flawed and there is little reason to expect that rationality will prevail relative to the passions. Moreover, we have vexing problems and social pathologies that have been created or exacerbated by a long history of poor policy decisions. There is no way to cut the Gordian knot. There is no way to return to the original position. There are massive issues of path-dependency.
We see these problems in the financial mess. We see these problems in the current debacle in the Gulf of Mexico (and we certainly saw it with Katrina). The persistence of intergenerational poverty and the looming entitlement crisis (ditto).
So here is the challenge: assuming that what I have said in the above paragraphs is correct, what is the role of libertarians? How can libertarians be mindful of not falling into the consistency syndrome while still offering something of value to the policy debates and political discourse more generally?
What can and cannot be compromised in this quest?
My fear is that libertarianism could [has] degenerate[d] into:
- A set of insular debates grounded in a set of simplifying assumptions shared by the “tinfoil hat” crowd (or the remnant, to be more positive) but of no real relevance to flesh-and-blood policy problems
- A way for those who are more conservative in their political orientations to remain hip among their liberal friends (Hey, I believe we should legalize drugs and prostitution! Gay marriage? The state should not marry anyone!]
- The limited insight that, given the option, markets are preferable to non-market solutions. Beyond that, one can still embrace the welfare-regulatory-entitlement state in all its glory.
- Mere muckraking. Focusing attention on government incompetence without simultaneously offering viable alternatives that could be implemented under existing constraints.