Libertarianism doesn't work – but it's still useful

Posted on January 14, 2008


I’ve been searching for a reason why I like libertarians even as they drive me round-the-bend out of my mind sometimes. And on Saturday, Michael Kinsley of the Washington Post provided me that reason.

In his column titled The Church Doctrines of Pope Ron Paul – What’s wrong with libertarianism?, Kinsley described libertarianism as a movement that is so devoted to its principles that it is essentially irrelevant, but that is still vital to our political institutions. Libertarians focus so much on “free markets for everyone and everything” that they lose track of the bigger picture – things like pragmatism, or areas where the idea of personal property simply doesn’t (and can’t) apply. For example, Kinsley points out that fundamentalist libertarians (my term, not his) would reject government taxes for national defense, which is a “public good” issue that no individual should ever be allowed to decide for another. Similarly, pollution leeches across all personal property lines, and so must be addressed by governmental entities instead of nebulous “market forces.” And while I do understand (and even agree with) the right to die arguments that Kinsley rightly attributes to the libertarian impulse, he’s also right that the libertarian right to not wear a seat belt and speed runs smack into the brick wall of reality when the libertarian is involved in a fatal accident that snarls up traffic along a major highway for half the day.

Rights always come along with responsibilities, and it’s the latter part of that truism that libertarians generally forget.

But libertarians are still useful in our culture for one, very important reason – they keep us on our toes. When we’re asked why we don’t privatize the national highway system, we’re forced to answer that, as Kinsley pointed out, the inevitable result is that it’d end up being controlled by a single monopolistic corporation, and that’s functionally equivalent to the government that already owns the highways. When we’re asked why we should all have to pay for a sports stadium if we dislike sports or a major mass transit program if we live outside the metro area, libertarians force us to explain that the economic benefits of a major sports franchise and mass transit will boost the entire region’s growth, reduce pollution throughout the region, etc, so fairness requires that everyone who will benefit should help pay the costs (although sometimes the costs will outweigh the benefits, and in those situations the projects shouldn’t get any public money). And when libertarians ask why there should be regulations barring too much media consolidation in a single market, we’re forced to explain to them why monopolies are bad for them as much as everyone else.

In the process of explaining to the libertarians why they’re wrong on any given issue, the rest of us are forced to reexamine our own assumptions and opinions as they relate to the explanation. In addition, anyone else listening to the discussion learns more about the issue and comes away understanding the ideological objections and the pragmatic reasons those objections have to be rejected.

Both of those are good things.

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