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The future belongs to libertarians

Le Quebecois Libre columnist Bradley Doucet thinks conservatives have screwed up the free market brand. They have screwed it up by paying mere lip service to it, and they have screwed it up by wedding it to an intolerant, authoritarian sense of morality and a belligerent, imprudent foreign policy. But out of the ashes of conservatism will rise a better freedom movement.

Bradley Doucet - November 15, 2008

This is certainly an interesting time to be a libertarian. The ongoing global financial crisis rocking the economy threatens to scuttle the measured support for free trade and free markets that has so benefited the world in recent decades. As the failures of misguided government policies are blamed on “unfettered” capitalism, increased government interventions promise to make the situation worse before it gets better, ensuring that we continue to cycle through bubbles and busts well into the future. If one side of the traditional, left-right political spectrum is more likely to accuse the other of being socialist, in practice both sides are equally wedded to using the big, heavy hand of government for their marginally different purposes.

Still, there are reasons for hope. Ron Paul’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination has raised the profile of our political philosophy significantly. Despite some controversy and infighting regarding certain of Paul’s positions and beliefs, many more people now have at least some knowledge of what it means to be a libertarian. That may not sound like a great victory, but we must remember that these are early days. Also, in addition to being more widely heard than ever before, the kinds of arguments raised against the libertarian position are often feeble and fallacious, which ultimately helps our cause rather than harms it. Finally, the rise of the libertarian-leaning independent voter presages better times ahead. It will not happen overnight, but in the vigorous marketplace of ideas that is flourishing in the Internet age, the truth will eventually out.

The Crisis Proves What?

As evidence that the libertarian position is being heard, witness a recent article in Slate magazine by Jason Weisberg, chairman and editor-in-chief of the Slate Group, a version of which also appeared in Newsweek, entitled “The End of Libertarianism: The financial collapse proves that its ideology makes no sense.” Lest this title cause any fear, let me reassure the reader that Weisberg, unable to marshal any actual arguments against the libertarian position, limits himself to insults and smug dismissals. What is significant is that he felt the need to attack us in the first place.

Here are the first two paragraphs of his article:

“A source of mild entertainment amid the financial carnage has been watching libertarians scurrying to explain how the global financial crisis is the result of too much government intervention rather than too little. One line of argument casts as villain the Community Reinvestment Act, which prevents banks from ‘redlining’ minority neighbourhoods as not creditworthy. Another theory blames Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac for causing the trouble by subsidizing and securitizing mortgages with an implicit government guarantee. An alternative thesis is that past bailouts encouraged investors to behave recklessly in anticipation of a taxpayer rescue.

There are rebuttals to these claims and rejoinders to the rebuttals. But to summarize, the libertarian apologetics fall wildly short of providing any convincing explanation for what went wrong. The argument as a whole is reminiscent of wearying dorm-room debates that took place circa 1989 about whether the fall of the Soviet bloc demonstrated the failure of communism. Academic Marxists were never going to be convinced that anything that happened in the real world could invalidate their belief system. Utopians of the right, libertarians are just as convinced that their ideas have yet to be tried, and that they would work beautifully if we could only just have a do-over of human history. Like all true ideologues, they find a way to interpret mounting evidence of error as proof that they were right all along.”

Like all true pragmatists, Weisberg, noticing that some people hold too fast to discredited ideologies, raises opposition to ideology into an ideology of its own. But everyone has an ideology, a world view; what matters is how successfully it describes and explains the real world. True pragmatists are merely opposed to trying to reconcile their conflicting, haphazard views into a coherent whole.

More articles by Bradley Doucet