Politics & Media
Mar 29, 2023, 05:57AM

The Liberal-tarian Scam

Moderates get to be dealmakers in DC.

Screenshot 2023 03 28 at 10.50.38 pm.png?ixlib=rails 2.1

Nobody racks up a body count of dead Christian children like the federal government, as next month’s 30th anniversary of the Waco massacre reminds us. In a sane world, a libertarian presidential candidate would be getting news coverage for speaking in Waco next month instead of mildly-autocratic Trump doing so. For a few decades now, though, libertarians have seemed motivated more by a desire for public respectability than a desire to combat government, let alone a desire to combat the broader cultural establishment that confers respectability on government and political factions alike.

Thus, to some libertarians, a real victory is something like the glowing profile piece about the semi-libertarian (some prefer the hybrid term “liberal-tarian”) think tank the Niskanen Center written last month by Molly Ball. Ball is Time’s national political correspondent; a veteran of CNN, PBS, and the Atlantic; and author of a laudatory book on Nancy Pelosi—in other words, someone who’s part of the establishment and happy to celebrate the establishment. For decades, libertarians have suffered from such low self-esteem as a movement that they’re thrilled just to be mentioned, even when they’re losing, or in the case of the Niskanen Center per Ball, when they’re being celebrated as a lonely voice of bipartisanship making ambiguous centrist legislation happen in an otherwise gridlocked era.

It’s telling that in an ostensibly libertarian-friendly piece, the one politician Ball slams as hindering some of Niskanen’s pet legislation is Sen. Rand Paul, easily the most libertarian man in the Senate. By contrast, Ball notes Niskanen-related projects getting the approval of statist arch-psychopath William Kristol and libertarian-turned-anti-libertarian writer Brink Lindsey.

The puff piece also declares Niskanen founder and drunken (alleged) wife-beater Jerry Taylor “a thinker of uncommon intellectual flexibility and charisma.” I admit the flexibility part is easy to believe. There’s a lot of “flexibility” in DC where principles are concerned, despite all the phony talk of dogmatists being on the prowl everywhere. Clintonians, liberal-tarians, neocons, populists—they all tend after enough time deal-making in DC to end up in a mushy middle where no matter which way the self-congratulatory discourse is trending, ideological commitments are eventually overridden, government expands again, and the debt ceiling once more gets raised, to a big collective sigh of short-sighted relief.

Far from being filled with unyielding partisans, DC is filled with bipartisan, often two-person consulting operations that pride themselves on showing clients how to work across the aisle to get a little bit of taxpayer-subsidized money or power from Party A but also a little from Party B. This isn’t a profound moral achievement. It’s back-scratching, horse-trading, sleazy politics-as-usual in a world that cries out for radical liberation instead. But the most galling part, to those of us alarmed by the public’s historical amnesia, is how the logrolling centrists (and writers like Ball) continually celebrate such bipartisan flimflam operations as not merely good but “innovative”—as if we hadn’t lived through an entire century of middle-of-the-road, public-private, gradualist, money-wasting compromises already.

Giving in is not new or bold. It’s not what’s best for humanity. Anyone moving in libertarian or conservative politics has by now repeatedly seen the understandable comfort some colleagues take from getting the liberals to say something nice about them for a change, almost always because the colleagues are conceding some point to the left. Aim higher than that. If you find yourself working for a few years on a big legislative deal whereby localities can trade their carbon offsets for education credits or blah blah blah something and you can’t even tell for sure when it’s all over whether an already-bloated government has grown and whether people have become freer—but somehow you got paid and got to drop a few Hayek references along the way—you probably ought to do the right thing and find another approach.

The same goes for any summer job you have guarding a mysterious warehouse in Sicily for bosses who assure you that if you ask no questions, everyone will end up much better off.

I don’t blame the liberal-tarians and the establishment libertarians of recent decades for freaking out a bit if, say, they detect some radical rightward deviationism in current Libertarian Party leadership. Where, though, was that sense of moral panic during the preceding 30 years of routine liberal-style deviations and lazy drift toward centrism?

I don’t want national borders, or even nations, but the libertarian establishment seems to flip out 1000 times more loudly over some in the current LP leadership boosting those right-leaning things than I ever did over countless “libertarians” in good standing casually, one might almost say mindlessly, endorsing such liberal-leaning, big-government deviations as VAT taxes, environmental regulations, humanitarian peacekeeping missions by the military, some forms of affirmative action, anti-discrimination laws, “state capacity libertarianism,” Denmark-sized welfare programs, and on and on.

The liberal-leaning libertarians can dish it out (even at taxpayer expense) but can’t take it.

It’s not dogmatists who are the problem within libertarianism, despite what you’re often told. As any sufficiently intelligent and intellectually honest participant in that movement knows, the biggest problem is all the moderate, a la carte “libertarians,” whether left-leaning or right-leaning, who get a giggle out of casually saying at parties, “I suppose I am a libertarian on some issues,” while selling out those principles on countless other fronts, at their issue-picking, smirking, cynical whim.

Liberty with 1000 quirky exceptions isn’t a bold innovation. It’s the very origin of most government and of crime generally. Beware the opportunistic dilettante, always.

Yet a piece on Niskanen's site once declared anarcho-capitalism, the straightforward philosophy of consistent individualism and property rights to which I adhere, to be inherently racist, claiming—like something out of a neo-Nazi screed, ironically—that without the benign hand of government, society can only be kept glued together by ethnic bonds. I disagree with that pessimistic claim, as I would once have expected not only libertarians but liberals in general to do. And while the liberal-tarians pretend to root out closet fascists everywhere in the libertarian movement, they let all the not-so-stealthy liberal-style welfare statists rob the movement’s ideological henhouse.

Their continual watering-down of the definition of libertarian victory is bad enough, but that watering-down tends eventually to become cheering for statist expansions that aren't too terribly large, then cheering for ones that in fact are very large, and slowly but surely what began as a heroic project to rescue X becomes a set of mushy rationales for facilitating –X. The abject rejection of earlier principles is made palatable by the tacit acceptance of the big-government belief that a victory for government, while not a victory for markets or efficiency, is at least a blow against racism, nihilism, and vague general tumult. Remain calm, so to speak, and maybe the government will mainly do harmless things this time.

Is it any wonder that in such an environment, some of the youth who should’ve been natural recruits for the libertarian movement are more excited by kooky Trump increasingly railing against the Deep State? (Establishment libertarians should try it sometime, or at least occasionally let the world know if they think government is a bad thing, which would seem a basic contention of their philosophy.) The right-leaning youth these days are so thrilled by, for example, Peter Thiel’s populist condemnations of leftist overreach that they don’t even much care about scandals such as Thiel’s gay kept man Jeff Thomas dying by suicide.

Wouldn’t libertarians have been thrilled decades ago, or at least have claimed they’d be thrilled, if they thought they could nudge Republicans into hating intelligence agencies or accepting gays? But libertarians didn’t do much to bring about those things.

Now, the populist right’s achievements don’t mean I have to endorse their creepier tendencies—such as the kind of selective anti-interventionism that you can find at work in many comments on the mostly-libertarian Ludwig von Mises Institute’s right-leaning online message boards, the sort of anti-interventionism that suddenly waxes non-judgmental about other countries when things like authoritarian anti-gay laws in Uganda happen, as if other countries turning socialist or raising taxes were open for criticism but not theocracy.

Right-leaning libertarians shouldn’t countenance right-leaning statism, and left- or liberal-leaning libertarians shouldn’t countenance left-leaning or even centrist statism. Let’s leave all the statist deviations, and the state, on the ash heap of history. The ashes of government’s dead victims, by contrast, should be deemed an unacceptable outrage even if friendly interviewers on MSNBC and a welcoming roundtable discussion at Yale assure us they’re small prices to pay in the quest for sacred compromise.

—Todd Seavey is the author of Libertarianism for Beginners and is on Twitter at @ToddSeavey

  • There needs to be a regular feature somewhere, if not just a whole publication, dedicated to the grifting of the consultant class, including the libertarian consultant class.

    Responses to this comment

Register or Login to leave a comment