Freedom Fetishists The cultural contradictions of libertarianism. BY KAY S. HYMOWITZ OPINIONJOURNAL FEDERATION Wednesday, September 12, 2007 12:01 a.m. EDT
More than perhaps any other American political group, libertarians have suffered the blows of caricature. For many people, the term evokes an image of a scraggly misfit living in the woods with his gun collection, a few marijuana plants, some dogeared Ayn Rand titles, and a battered pickup truck plastered with bumper stickers reading "Taxes = Theft" and "FDR Was A Pinko."
The stereotype is not entirely unfair. Even some of those who proudly call themselves libertarians recognize that their philosophy of personal freedom and minimal government can be a powerful magnet for the unhinged. Nor has recent political history done much to rehabilitate libertarianism's image as an outlier.
The Libertarian Party's paltry membership has never reached much beyond the 250,000 mark, and polling numbers for Ron Paul, the libertarian candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, remain pitiable. Worse, despite Bill Clinton's declaration that "the era of big government is over," antistatist ideas like school vouchers and privatized Social Security accounts continue to be greeted with widespread skepticism, while massive new programs like the Medicare prescription-drug benefit continue to win the support of re-election-minded incumbents. A recent New York Times survey found increasing support for government-run health care, and both parties are showing signs of a populist resurgence, with demands for new economic and trade regulation.
And yet, judging by their output in recent years, libertarians are in a fine mood--and not because they are in denial. However distant the country may be from their laissez-faire ideal, free-market principles now drive the American economy to a degree unimaginable a generation ago. Former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, who as a young economist sat at the knee of the libertarian guru Ayn Rand, presided in the 1990s over one of the most prosperous stretches in American history, with the support, no less, of a Democratic president. When the avowedly libertarian economist Milton Friedman died last November, he was lauded just about everywhere, and even given respectful treatment in places like the New York Review of Books.
Nor have libertarian victories been limited to the economic arena. Americans are increasingly laissez-faire in their attitudes toward sex, divorce, drugs and gay marriage. In the personal sphere as in the world of business and finance, freedom has become the guiding principle, especially for the young. As the motto of Reason magazine, the movement's flagship publication, trumpets: "Free minds and free markets."
The diverse origins of libertarianism and its recent accomplishments are the subjects, respectively, of two new books by capable advocates of the creed. "Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement" by Brian Doherty is (as its subtitle suggests) an appreciation of even the most gnarled branches of the ideological family tree. Brink Lindsey's "The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America's Politics and Culture" is, by contrast, a broad survey of the social and cultural changes sparked by the free market's triumph in postwar America. Perhaps because of their differences, however, the two books are neatly complementary. Together they make clear why libertarianism has yet to find a secure place in the American mainstream.
Anemic though its following has been over the years, libertarianism is a quintessentially American philosophy. As Mr. Doherty, a senior editor at Reason, writes in his massive, lively history, "Libertarianism is all in Jefferson. Read your Declaration of Independence." For Jefferson, citizens are the bearers of inalienable rights, and the purpose of government is to protect those rights. Libertarians see this bargain as the essence of public life--and any departure from it, especially in the name of some grander idea of justice, as a violation of the social compact. Among the many colorful libertarian trailblazers described by Mr. Doherty is Lysander Spooner, a 19th-century radical who compared the government to a highwayman pointing a gun at your head and demanding "your money or your life." Spooner poured his energies into establishing a privately run postal service (a project still dear to many libertarians).
Closer to our own day, the decisive influences on libertarianism were the free-market economists Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) and his disciple Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992). Though both were Austrian by birth and education, they eventually landed in America, where they continued to develop their powerful (and now vindicated) critique of socialist economics. As Doherty emphasizes, both thinkers rejected central planning largely on the grounds that human beings are not very good at predicting the future. Socialism was bound to fail, they argued, because it did not take into account the evolving preferences (or "subjective valuations") of individuals. It was a grossly inefficient, necessarily coercive system for meeting human needs. Doherty disabuses readers of the idea that libertarianism is exclusively concerned with economics. As he emphasizes, it has a political and moral dimension as well, "a vision of a radical and just future." According to many of the thinkers he profiles, liberty is essential to the initiative and self-sufficiency that make ethical behavior possible. Doherty devotes considerable attention, for example, to the mid-20th-century anarchist Murray Rothbard, sometimes called "Mr. Libertarian." Rothbard was one of the first observers to stress the now-familiar point that government action on behalf of the poor and minorities would undermine the responsibility and self-discipline they needed for advancement.
Many of the figures described by Mr. Doherty believe that libertarianism is also good for the social fabric. Capitalism may not lead to the fraternité naively dreamed of by more conventional revolutionaries, but it does expand the circle of human trust beyond the traditional limits of family and tribe; social bonds thrive in an atmosphere of freedom. Indeed, several of Mr. Doherty's subjects (particularly Hayek) argue that government meddling positively discourages the human instinct for association. If politicians and bureaucrats would get out of the way, people would more readily cooperate and support one another. As David Friedman (the anarchist son of Milton) concluded in studying the economics of tipping, people are capable of developing their own rules for distributive justice, and will pay for social goods of their own free will. For Brink Lindsey, vice president for research at the Cato Institute, Americans today are the fortunate heirs of Mises and Hayek. Since World War II, he argues in "The Age of Abundance," the libertarian principles of competition, free trade, and deregulation have given the United States a level of prosperity that would have astounded our ancestors. For most of human history (and, even now, for much of the developing world), the lot of ordinary people has been scarcity, brutal work, and lives cut short by ill health. No more--thanks to the bounty of modern capitalism... Ms. Hymowitz is a contributing editor of City Journal. This article appears in the September issue of Commentary.