Libertarianism in the Age of Obama

In national politics these days, the most ardent opponents of the Bush-Obama surveillance state are libertarians in the GOP.

In the aftermath of the Snowden revelations, a few Democrats have taken leading positions too, but they equivocate, emphasizing the importance of “balancing” Constitutional protections with the imperatives of national security.   Libertarians equivocate less.

Libertarians were also conspicuous among opponents of the Iraq War, and they were better than most Democrats on Obama’s revving up (before revving down) the war in Afghanistan.  They have been better too on the quasi-wars Obama has been waging with drones and assassins.  How many of those wars there are and where they are being waged is, of course, “classified.”

This strange turn of events is at least partly explained by the fact that, like all Tea Party Republicans, they hate Obama viscerally and oppose everything he does.

But Obamaphobia alone does not explain why in these two areas only – civil liberties and war and peace — libertarians, some of them anyway, are fighting the good fight.

The question arises because the Tea Party runs on right-wing billionaire money and because many of its most prominent spokespeople are certifiable whack jobs.

The Tea Party base includes its share of whack jobs too.  But because it has struck a populist chord, all kinds of people have been drawn in under the Tea Party tent.

No doubt, many of them are sane and no more ill informed than anyone else in the Fox News/talk radio demographic.  Neither are they significantly more manipulated than ordinary citizens in the marketing campaigns that our elections have become.

No doubt too that what draws them into the Tea Party fold are legitimate grievances.  These are, for the most part, the grievances of every other card-carrying member of the ninety-nine percent.

It would be interesting to examine the social and cultural reasons that led them, and not the others, to take the Tea Party route.  Admittedly, it is hard to see how anyone could think that Tea Party nostrums would even begin to make life better.  But then it is also hard to see how Democratic or establishment Republican policies would be any less unhelpful.

Tea Partiers are a risible lot, and their views on economic and social policies veer towards the horrendous.  But at least they have the good sense to resist the Republican Party establishment.  “Progressive” Democrats seldom exhibit similar courage.

And if Tea Partiers wavered before, if they were tempted, like Democrats, to be more “reasonable” or
“pragmatic,”  by now they surely know better.  Wavering got them Mitt Romney and therefore Barack Obama.

On the other hand, they could hardly have failed to notice that when they are obdurate to the point of ludicrousness they prevail.  House Republicans figured this out a long time ago.  This is why, despite serious losses in the 2012 elections, they are now more than ever set in their ways.

One of William Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” goes: “if the Fool would persist in his follies, He would become wise.”   The Tea Party is full of fools, and they have indeed become wise, though not quite in the ennobling sense that Blake envisioned.   They are wise at getting their way.

This is not necessarily good news for the Koch Brothers and their ilk because populist movements, whether of the left or the right, are dedicated enemies of real (or perceived) elites.

Tea Partiers haven’t yet figured out who their real enemies are.  But the plain fact that it is not do-gooder liberals but economic grandeees like the Koch Brothers who cause their miseries cannot be evaded indefinitely.

All “mainstream media” dumb down public discourse; the right flank of the mainstream, epitomized by Fox News, also misinform and disinform egregiously.   But even they cannot keep populists on the wrong track forever – not when the views they inculcate fly so blatantly in the face of reality.

It may just be wishful thinking, but who knows:  in these anxious and turbulent times, erstwhile Tea Partiers, some of them anyway, might just turn on the billionaires who got them riled up, and who still, for the most part, pay their way.

That would be likely in a possible world very much like our own – if, for example, socialist theory and politics had managed somehow to remain alive even to the extent that was the case before the onset of the Reagan era.

Of course, that is not what happened in the actual world.  But nowadays, in America and elsewhere, in more than a few progressive circles, discussions of the evils of contemporary capitalism have become Topic A.  This is very much to the good.  What is missing, though, is a political practice built on a sustained critique of capitalism itself, not just its corruptions.

This is why ours is a world in which the Left has become a shadow of its former self.  It will likely remain so unless and until socialist theory and practice revive.

That the traditional Left has gone missing has moved the political spectrum rightward everywhere.  The  spectrum in the United States is especially skewed towards the right – not just by world standards, but even by those of our not very distant past.

Even so, libertarians who promote privacy and due process rights, and who fight against the Bush-Obama perpetual war regime, fall, with respect to everything else, on the far right fringe of the political spectrum.

How can people with such awful politics be so good on issues of such paramount importance?

* * *

Who are these libertarians?  In addition to the ones on the national stage who have spoken out against Obama’s national security and military policies, there are ordinary Tea Partiers and there are academics.  The distance between them is considerable if only because rank-and-file Tea Partiers are generally mindless, while the academics emphatically are not.

Those academics are, for the most part, politically inactive.  However, they do influence  the national politicians at least nominally.  By most accounts, pseudo-intellectual frauds like the stroke book author Ayn Rand influence them more.

However that may be, academic libertarianism does play at least an indirect role in the politics of our time.   The phenomenon therefore warrants scrutiny even apart from the inherent  interest of libertarian ideas.

In the sense in question here, libertarians are people who, to borrow a phrase from Robert Nozick, one of their foremost defenders, accord the highest moral priority to “capitalist acts between consenting adults.”

Libertarianism is not just pro-liberty.  All modern political philosophies are that; they all maintain that, when there are no compelling reasons to the contrary, individuals should be unhindered in the pursuit of their ends.  That is what the “liberty” in question is.

There are, of course, philosophical disagreements about what compelling reasons for restricting liberty are.  But there is no disagreement about the importance of liberty itself.  Everyone agrees that the default position, as it were, is the absence of (coercive) restraints; and therefore that, if liberty is to be restricted, a case must be made for doing so.

Neither is it enough just to be pro-capitalist to count as a libertarian – all liberals these days are pro-capitalist.  Even those who want to regulate capitalism severely do not want to replace it.

But not all pro-capitalist liberal positions are the same.  For mainstream liberals, capitalist social relations follow from or are at least consistent with more fundamental political principles; for libertarians, they come first – and everything else must accommodate to them.

What distinguishes libertarians from other liberals, then, is the idea that there is a basic right to own things privately, provided individuals have obtained their holdings without violating anyone else’s rights.

In the libertarian view, this right is indefeasible; it cannot be traded off for anything else.  And it is absolute; it cannot be restricted in any way.

Ordinary liberals support private ownership, but they do not regard property rights as fundamental requirements of justice.  Private ownership and market exchange are, at best, features of a just society.  For libertarians, they are its founding principle.

Libertarians also think that justice requires that individuals be free to do what they want with what they own, provided no one is involuntarily harmed and provided, again, that no one else’s rights are infringed.

In short, libertarianism is an up-dated version of the classical liberalism of John Locke and like-minded eighteenth and nineteenth century political philosophers.

In societies like ours, where market relations organize most human interactions and where almost everything can be bought and sold, most people are, to some extent, spontaneous libertarians, people with libertarian intuitions.

They are inclined to assume that they have a basic right to what they have “earned,” overlooking how utterly dependent market-generated holdings – and, of course, inheritances — are on the past and current contributions of countless others.

To some extent, this shortsightedness explains why it is comparatively easy to mobilize the disgruntled against Big Government, and to make taxes (government “takings”) issue number one.

The visible hand of the government is easy to demonize, while the invisible hand of the market feels like it is part of the natural order of things.

This position has been refuted countless times.  Still, for academic philosophers, it has a certain fascination, and not just because it offers a welcome alternative to more defensible ways of thinking about justice that have become boring if only by being predominant for so long.

What is mainly appealing is the classical liberal notion of self-ownership; the idea that persons own themselves absolutely, and that they therefore have unlimited rights to control and to benefit from their own bodies and powers – provided, again, that no harm is done to others and that no one else’s rights are infringed.

The self-ownership thesis appeals across the (academic)  spectrum.  Thus, in addition to the familiar right-wing kind, there are left libertarians who argue, ingeniously if not compellingly, for egalitarian redistribution on broadly Lockean grounds.

There were even Marxists who, without quite endorsing the self-ownership thesis, nevertheless insisted that it be taken seriously, and that some popular understandings of core Marxist doctrines – for example, Marx’s account of exploitation – implicitly assume it.

In short, within the insular world of academic philosophy, the case for the Lockean strain of libertarian thinking operates much like case for the existence of God.

No matter how often, and how decisively, arguments that purport to establish the rationality of belief in God are refuted, new, more ingenious arguments somehow emerge.  Libertarianism is similarly resilient.

Both are untenable positions, but both attract defenders who want those positions to prevail.  In both cases, it is the cleverness of their defenders, not the cogency of the positions they defend, that keeps the “debates” alive.

Libertarianism’s most ingenious academic defenders are philosophers, but they are not nearly as influential as libertarian economists or economist-minded political scientists.

In philosophy, libertarians were nothing until just a few decades ago, and they are still out there somewhere in right field.  In the economics profession, they don’t quite run the  show, but their role in it is central.

Part of the reason for this has to do with how modern day economists have effectively replaced the traditional concerns of political economy with investigations of the formal properties of market economies with private ownership.

Those investigations are anchored on results that vindicate Adam Smith’s celebrated conjecture that unconstrained market exchanges produce the best possible outcomes as if through the workings of “an invisible hand.”

Then it might seem that libertarianism would follow on utilitarian grounds – not because justice requires it but because it produces better outcomes than any feasible alternative.

It is easy to see how this conclusion would appeal to libertarians.  But it is so misleading that only a dedicated ideologue could take it at its word.

For one thing, “best” doesn’t mean best; it means most “efficient,” where that term does not mean what it does in ordinary speech.  “Efficiency,” in the sense in question, denotes a structural property that economists make much of but that has little to do with things working well, as one might suppose given how the word is used in ordinary speech.  An outcome is efficient, in the economist’s sense, if any change would make someone worse off.

Therefore a world in which one person has everything and everyone else nothing would  count as efficient provided only that taking something away from the person who has everything would make that person worse off.  This is a long way from “the best of all possible worlds.”

Then, the formal argument works only if a host of background conditions that are unrealizable in practice obtain.  Among many others, there must be perfect competition, no monopoly control over prices, no “externalities” (consequences of trade that affect persons who are not parties to the exchange), no “economies of scale” (savings in the cost of production from increasing production levels), and on and on.

And as if that weren’t enough to establish the policy irrelevance of the invisible hand, the old “paradigm” within which Smith’s conjecture was vindicated, nearly two centuries after he proposed it, has now been modified beyond recognition – because economists have learned to model and therefore to take into account some of the background assumptions that the old “neo-classical” paradigm never could.

But even before anyone had figured out how to deal, for example, with information asymmetries, most economists already understood that the invisible hand’s policy implications were tenuous at best.

There is also ample empirical evidence of how markets make outcomes worse – markets in health care provision provide particularly conspicuous examples.

Nevertheless libertarian ideologues continue to insist that if only the government would let capitalist markets alone, the best possible outcomes would automatically emerge.

Somehow it does not even occur to them that the very possibility of market institutions depends on the existence of government enforced legal frameworks and other institutional supports.

It is telling that even the economists libertarians love to cite, the titans of the so-called Chicago School and their epigones, seldom try to make a utilitarian case for capitalist market arrangements.  Their main focus is and always has been a rather different debate.

Their target has always been the Keynesian consensus that took hold, for obvious reasons, in the aftermath of the Great Depression and World War II and that continued to rule the economics profession until the late 1970s.

Theirs was not exactly a case for untrammeled markets: if it were, they would also have argued that money itself, along with labor and every other economic factor, should be subject to unregulated market discipline, as it was in the perilous days when the gold standard was still in effect.

But Chicago School economists were not quite that retrograde.  Instead of unregulated markets in currency, they championed state run monetary policies intended to substitute for the fiscal policies they opposed.  In other words they were willing, even eager, to set free market ideology aside when its precepts were likely to work to the detriment of capitalists’ interests.

For them, then, sophisticated economic modeling is all well and good; it is their stock-in-trade.     But, in the end, what it is really all about is making sure that capitalists and their interests are served.

When government “interference” is proscribed, private capital is all that remains.  Then the only hope for prosperity trickling down – or for alleviating gross and unnecessary misery — is assuring that the private power of capitalists flourishes as best it can.

The New Deal too was about saving capitalism – but then, with the Great Depression at full throttle, it was obvious that capitalists needed to be saved from themselves; from the unintended consequences of their own greed.

Now, with the balance of forces changed and with capitalists more empowered than before, all they want is to be left alone to enrich themselves as much as they can.

And that is precisely what libertarian theory purports to justify.

Even if the politicians who espouse it understand little of it, they do understand that they gain prestige by identifying with it; and that, they think, is not to be despised.

But this only explains libertarian political and economic philosophy’s appeal to the politicians who mediate between the Tea Party base and libertarianism’s academic defenders.

It does not address the more vexing question: how from such dark quarters, where capitalists’ interests reign supreme, do we get opposition to President Drone’s surveillance state and to his endless wars?

* * *

It is a mystery, about which we can only conjecture.

In the case of the surveillance state, the extent of which everyone now knows thanks to Edward Snowden’s revelations, one would expect all politicians of good will to rise up in fierce opposition.

But politicians of good will are rare indeed.

With few exceptions, they are missing from Democratic Party ranks.   Even “progressive” Democrats are loathe to buck their leadership and their President.  And so, they pull their punches.

Meanwhile, establishment Republicans along with Democrats who might as well be Republicans live in mortal fear of being thought “soft on defense.”   And so they too keep mum.

This leaves only the libertarians

One would also expect widespread opposition to the murder and mayhem Obama lets loose upon the world – if only because of how self-defeating and wasteful it is.   But similar considerations lead mainstream Democrats and Republicans to go along with varying degrees of enthusiasm.  Like the dutiful Babbitts they are, they “boost” and seldom “knock.”

In this case too, because they have a loyal base, libertarians are less disabled than the others from taking a decent and reasonable stand.  But there is also another factor at work.

This becomes evident if we take them at their word.  Libertarians oppose Obama’s wars because they oppose Big Government.

Since the dawn of the Progressive era more than a century ago, Big Government has been identified with militarism and imperialism.

The politicians of a century ago who opposed government efforts to keep the grandees of the Gilded Age from calling all the shots were as aware as anyone of the connection.  Today’s libertarians are their political and intellectual heirs.

Then and now, principled opposition to imperialism and militarism was not the moving force.  Those who opposed foreign wars in the days when “isolationism” flourished did so because, as capitalism’s ardent defenders, they felt, with good reason, that there is a slippery slope out there that class-conscious capitalists would do well to avoid.  This is what libertarians today think as well.

A massive juggernaut, the military-industrial complex President Eisenhower warned against, is indispensable for projecting American power abroad.

Libertarians understand that a precondition for anything like such a worldwide force is a large and powerful state, and they fear that a state of such size and power cannot be kept out of the economic sphere.  This, above all, is what they want to avoid.

Because isolationism has had a bad press for at least the past seventy years, the political heirs of the old rear guard used to have no choice but to accept America’s imperial role.  They were therefore reduced to hoping, in vain, that Big Government could be confined just to the military-diplomatic sphere.

Now, however, with the Cold War long over and with post-9/11 America drowning in its own bellicosity, the decades old “bipartisan” consensus around giving the military-industrial-national security state complex whatever it wants is beginning to crumble.  Libertarians are therefore freer than they used to be to resume an isolationist stance.

Ralph Waldo Emerson famously declared “a foolish consistency…the hobgoblin of little minds.”  The libertarian Tea Party vanguard is full of little minds, and their consistency is indeed foolish.

However, it is also very welcome – since, no matter how dubious their reasons, civil liberties and peace need all the defenders they can get.

Unless and until a genuine Left revives, libertarians may be our best hope for keeping our freedoms intact and our empire restrained.  It is a sorry pass to which we have come.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).