December 29, 2006

"If you take a cold bath in pure libertarianism... it's horrifying. It's not a world you could want to live in."

So says Mark Schmitt about 14 minutes into the new Bloggingheads episode (with Jonathan Chait). And I'm not just linking to this because they start off talking about the recent Althouse/Goldberg episode. They've got a good discussion about libertarianism (and federalism). Both Chait and Schmitt recognize that a lot of people say they're libertarian or express some attraction to it, but they don't mean real libertarianism. That resonated with me, as you can imagine.


AJ Lynch said...

You'd have to be drinking heavily to resort to choosing Chait as a reasonable, even-handed judge of political platforms.

Anonymous said...

a lot of people say they're libertarian or express some attraction to it, but they don't mean real libertarianism.

Libertarianism for thee but not for me! is the cry while the loudest line up to receive their paychecks from the state, and enjoy their generous perks unique to employees of the state.

The ones in private employment don't scream too loudly about the heavy government subsidy of their mortgage payments. Until recent years, almost all were quite content for their children to attend public schools, even though their personal tax contributions for those schools never even remotely approached the cost of providing that education. Even now, when many do pay for private schooling, their chidren are highly likely to attend state institutions of higher learning.

The ones who cry about the unfairness of the government taking their money for the social security system have rarely consulted a genuine practicing actuary armed with their actual personal contributions to determine just how big an annuity they would be entitled to if it were invested in something similar. ("Tiny" is a big word for that sum.) Instead, they like to assume the employer would give them his contribution (NEWS FLASH/REALITY CHECK: No, He/She/It won't. Really, now. Wake up and smell the coffee!); that they are such smart investors all that they can achieve double digit growth in their private portfolios forever (NEWS FLASH: The '90's were a BUBBLE [See Crowds, Extraordinary Madness of. Or Tulips.], the record shows that most small investors over-trade their portfolios or divert long-term savings to personal use whenever able); and that they are "different" (NEWSFLASH: No, you're probably not.)

downtownlad said...

There's big L libertarians and small L Libertarians.

Small L libertarians don't really want to privatize the fire department and the police department. But they would be happy with the abolition of the 16th amendment.

Tom T. said...

George Will once referred to libertarianism as "the well-lighted prison of a single idea."

Anonymous said...

Let me put a different spin on it.

I know a bunch of people in a community near here who were never hooked up to the electric grid, as I've described in some other posts. This is because supporters of small government (both conservatives and libertarians) pulled the plug on the Rural Electrification Agency when the grid was 99% complete instead of 100% complete to save a few dollars.

Now, until they got their electricity, there was no sentiment among rural conservatives to get rid of the REA.

This is similar to the views of people who no longer have to face discrimination (for example female libertarians arguing against civil rights for minorities).

So it makes me think that the real definition of a libertarian should be this:

Libertarian: A citizen who has already benefitted by changes in Federal laws and/or received the benefits of Federal programs, but who is now concerned about whether the Federal government should be in the business of doing the same thing for others.

Prove I'm wrong about that.

Robert said...

Pure libertarianism would result in a society of brutal efficiency and "liberty" for the strong, subjugation and desperation for the weak.

Pure conservatism would result in a society dominated entirely by traditionalist institutions upholding often hypocritical moral codes, resulting in degradation and humiliation for the 99% of the species unable to consistently live out those codes.

Pure liberalism would result in an atomized society only slightly less harsh than libertarian world, where every social institution of merit has been fragmented and politicized, where the clever and articulate wield hateful power over the cowed and less intellectual masses.

Pure ANYTHING would pretty much suck. The reason, I think, that conservatism-in-practice and liberalism-in-practice are so much less disconcerting is that those ideologies have actually held power. Holding power requires compromise and conforming of ideology to reality - if you fail to compromise and conform to reality, your ideology eventually becomes too deranged to function and power is lost. So the conservative-liberal power sharing arrangement has the effect of keeping the extreme ideology off the table.

In other words, if we had a 3-party system where libertarians ALSO had to prove the viability of their policies in the real world, then their (our, since I'm one) philosophies would not seem so deranged. The Democrats stifle their lunatic wing, as do the Republicans; libertarians don't have to worry about holding office, and so their lunatic wing ends up running the whole show. And the libertarians (like me) who think it might be bad if we just left the poor to starve end up having to go to another political grouping to get some representation.

Anonymous said...

drat that comment modification.

Internet Ronin said pretty much what I said and much more effectively. But I didn't know that at the time.

As for the idea that there is such a sharp distinction between libertarians and conservatives, one only need look at the history of the Cato Institute-- founded by outspoken libertarians, yet considered a leading conservative think tank today, about a whole range of issues. In fact, when President Bush tried to push forward his proposal to 'reform' Social Security, his handpicked commission that was supposed to represent all walks of life, in fact included five fellows from the Cato Institute (and they only have about 250 fellows total.)


While I would agree that there would be some problems with pure liberalism*, I would mention that FDR is the prototypical pure liberal (and the individual that many of us Liberals still use as inspiration) and the people only liked the way he did things enough to effectively elect him four times.

*-- Former Liberal Senator George McGovern, after he left public life wanted to open a bed-and-breakfast with his wife. He was amazed at the amount of paperwork he had to go through to run a small business. He later said that it was all stuff he'd voted for, in fact some of it stuff he'd written, and that if he realized how hard it made it to run a small business, "I wouldn't have voted for most of that stuff."

Limbaugh likes to find a few egregious examples and portray Liberals as being arrogant, but the fact is that I don't think that most Liberals are.

LoafingOaf said...

Both Chait and Schmitt recognize that a lot of people say they're libertarian or express some attraction to it, but they don't mean real libertarianism. That resonated with me, as you can imagine.
There's big L libertarians and small L Libertarians.

Yeah, I say I'm a libertarian, but it's with a very small "l". I once flirted with joining the Libertarian Party and felt turned off. They seemed to approach every issue as, "What is a Libertarian supposed to think...that's what the right answer is."

Just because I feel mad that they're banning smoking in bars and restaurants in my city right now doesn't mean I want bars and restaurants to be able to ban black people! That would be horrific!

Anonymous said...

I suspect I'm a self-styled libertarian who largely shares Robert's stance.

From a theoretical standpoint, I've relatively recently come to the conclusion that pure libertarianism's biggest stumbling block to actual implementation is: imperfect information.

Ideally, any injustice in a libertarian society would correct itself in the long term. For a specific example, take the case of the business that discriminates against black people. To an ideal libertarian, this is either logical, or not. (It might be logical if you're casting for a play or looking for a specific genetic makeup for a medical experiment, say.) If it's not logical, then eventually the business will run into problems that make it less competitive - another business will benefit from a labor pool or market enlarged by the black population, or consumers will simply find out about the former business' practices, and vote with their wallets.

But imperfect information mucks this up. Maybe consumers won't learn about the discrimination. Maybe they don't have the time. (Do you research every single company you trade with?) Maybe the discrimination seems juuuust plausible enough for totally legit reasons that it's allowed to continue, long enough to systematically do some permanent damage to the economy.

To me, an ideal libertarian is one who believes natural selection always produces the best result. The trouble with this, then, is not realizing its statistical nature. It finds the best fit over long times and large numbers, and leaves a lot of hats on the ground. Billions of lifeforms were doing peachy keen until the Oort Cloud decided to burp and send another rock our way. Were they really unfit?

Anonymous said...

I'm a conservative leaning libertarian or a libertarian leaning conservative. I'm not sure which. Whatever the case I feel that Libertarianism is like Capitalism: the best thing going but too extreme to be allowed as a pure entity. Both require some moderation.

Anyway, I can support the Public Accommodations Act and at the same time feel uncomfortable with the fact that a private business owner loses the ability to decide what to do with their own property.

I think it is abundantly fair to raise questions like those raised at the conference to Ann. After all isn't a large part of her criticism that the Libertarians were engaging in abstraction without dealing with real world consequences? Here they are bringing up real world examples and she gets upset.

My favorite example was always: You own a house and decide to rent out a room to help make ends meet during some hard times. Do you think the government should be able to force you to rent the room to a (member of a group that makes the questionee feel uncomfortable?) Do we want equal treatment under the law or are you advocating a system wherein your whims allow discriminating against the people you happen to dislike? Is that how we want to American system to run, a never ending sqabble about how to divide benefits/punishments with all the identity group divisiveness that entails? Strikingly, the Democrats have pushed us into this exact position (affirmative action, PC thought crime codes.)

The bottom line is that one of the central pillars of why America is great is because we allow ownership of property without worry that the State will be able to step in and be able to take it away or mandate usage which amounts to the same thing. Things like Kelo, banning smoking in private property like bars, etc, etc, a neverending litany of etc are gradually eroding property rights. This is a decidedly bad thing that should it continue will undermine the system that provides for America's success with all of its attending benefits including medical advances and raising the standard of living for people of all races.

However, allowing bars, restaurants and hotels to not serve black people at that time was an even worse thing. Further, the laws served a greater purpose in breaking the back of unconscionable racism and its effects went much deeper than whether a certain person could sit at a certain lunch counter.

I'm afraid that too many modern Libertarians, many of whom came of age after all the benefits America gained and all the progress in race relations, judge such matters in our current environment rather than the circumstances at the time in question. As proof of this I submit the idea that modern day racist restaurants would be hounded out of business. What exactly does what could happen today have to do with what was certainly happening then? I'm glad of the exception to Libertarian philosophy (as, I would guess, are many if not most Libertarian supporters) but worry that further encroachment continues.

I am forced to agree that asking people to prove they are not racist is in bad form and I think Ann's question proceed directly from her mileau. The fact that her friends/colleagues all assume conservative/libertarians are racists is certainly indicative of her biases heading into the meet and undermine her credibility that her actions meet the "reasonable person" standard.

That being said, Libertarians are notorious for being poor at selling their ideas. I take this as a data point in support of that stereotype.

Anonymous said...


Radley Balko posted a response over at Reason that makes your response to Ronald Bailey look silly.

The most interesting thing he writes is this:

And oddly enough, despite the fact that I hold these opinions, I don't feel I need to to prove a damned thing to Ann Althouse about whether I do or don't hate black people.

This is the same Radley Balko who has spent the last few years of his life combatting paramilitary drug raids. As you might guess, most of the victims in these raids are African American (if doors were kicked down with any regularity in a white suburb, the political pressure necessary to end the phenomenon would be instantaneous).

Here's a URL that will allow you read his CATO study.

Incidentally, Justice Steven Breyer cited one of Balko's related articles in his Hudson v. Michigan dissent.

On top of that, his investigative journalism is almost completely responsible for getting a southern black man (Cory Maye) off Death Row.

This seems to be pretty strong evidence both that Reason and other libertarian (small "l") hubs are not filled with rascists and that the abstractions that libertarians like to discuss (in this case, opposition to government agents adopting war tactics to "save" citizens from our own unhealthy choices) do a hell of a lot of good when applied to real world scenarios.

One libertarian is clearly doing all he can to bring attention to an issue that will likely never affect him or his demographic, because of his libertarian ideology.

And the racist Reason and CATO (another racist libertarian intellectual paradise) are the agents which disseminate this information.

Does Bslko pass your racist litmus test, even though he feels no need to present his nonracism to you in a box? Doesn't Reason?

And--aside from propagating a bogus theory about the US government blowing up the New Orleans levees, staging rallies for a murdering gangbanger who shot a shop owner simply because he was Asian, or demanding intellectuals prove they are not racist before they can attend a symposium--what comparably selfless cause has Liberalism championed for African Americans in this millenium?

If there is one, where are the equivalent results?

Zeb Quinn said...

When it comes to political or economic "isms," pure anything sucks eggs.

How we go about making the necessary adjustments is where the action is.

Do we decide that with rational ideas and thought or with tears? Both I guess.

Ann Althouse said...

Steve: You are completely missing my point. You're going with the notion that I just think libertarians are racists. Reread the old post and try to get it straight what I was talking about, show me that you did me that courtesy, and then ask some questions that are appropriate. The fact that a libertarian took a position that was good is more a support of my position than a critique of it. See if you can figure out why.

Anonymous said...

Libertarianism is the socialism of the right. It would be nice if it were true, but in reality it's just nuts.

Gahrie said...


How like a liberal to cite FDR's four terms as a virtue.

1) It is quite clear that much of the impetus for his three re-elections had much to do with the US being involved in the Great Depression and WWII, and the understandable desire by most people for stable leadership. (not to mention party machine politics and the losses the Dems took in the 1938 elections)

2) The unwritten rule was that no man would run for re-election after two terms in office. This went back literally to Pres. Washington. Because FDR violated this convention, the Congress felt the need to pass the 22nd Amendment.

Bruce Hayden said...

I think that previous posters had it right - the problem with [L]ibertarians is that they don't ever have to rule, so they can be as pure as they would like. Conervatives and liberals do occasionally get control of the country, or at least some of its power, and as a result, have to live with the results of their actions.

That point about McGovern was pertient. As an aside about him and his run for the president, we, being good Republicans, put anti-McGovern stickers on our cars. The one I liked was McGovern/ McNothing. So, my (soon to be liberal) brother cut out the McGovern/Mc part, leaving the Nothing.

Bruce Hayden said...


I would suggest that the liberalism of FDR is pretty minor compared to what we see today. Much of this is probably historical - he was taking the country from a place of limited federal government to a place of greater federal government. But he is unlikely to recognize the process he really got going.

Part of the problem with [L]iberalism is that it is partially predicated on the theory of the philospher king. Or, rather, in this case, the genius philospher king. That the people you have running parts of the government are smart enough to run things (meaning that they are smarter than those trying to exploit the system), and that they are pure enough not to run things for venal reasons. Both are demonstrably false. The aggregate intelligence trying to exploit any system or government program is always significantly higher than that designing it. And most people are, to some real extent, greedy (which is why capitalism works, and socialism does not).

So, the natural outgrowth of liberalism is invariably some form of socialism. Not necessarily economic socialism, but at a minimum, government control of some, if not many, facets of our lives, in the name of having the government solve social problems.

But invariably, venality wins out. Government agencies become self-perpetuating, and power is acquired in them for personal profit, whether that be in a higher civil service salary (for having more responsibility, subordinates, etc.), or in bribes.

So, in the end, you have the smartest, most ruthless, taking control of the levers of power. Sounds like Libertarianism doesn't it? Except that instead of using private means to enforce their will over their fellow man, Liberalism uses the government to do so. All, of course, in the name of it being in the best interests of those being helped like that.

Luckily though, as I pointed out in my previous post, pure Liberalism isn't given a real chance here, since liberal politicians have to live with the results of their actions. HillaryCare looked good to a lot of liberals on paper, but Clinton ditched it when it lost him the House.

bearbee said...

I don't know what real anything is - liberal, libertarian, conservative, republican, democrat - since everything is fluid and dynamic, it changes and overlaps and eventually can come back on itself.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy identifies both 'right-libertarianism' and 'left-libertarianism.'
The definition of liberalism varies by country and breaks down between political theory and general philosophy

Real libertarianism - how can you debate it without first fully defining what you think it is?

Without moderation any ideal will eventually disintegrate into totalitarianism then into chaos.

*-- Former Liberal Senator George McGovern, after he left public life wanted to open a bed-and-breakfast with his wife. He was amazed at the amount of paperwork he had to go through to run a small business. He later said that it was all stuff he'd voted for, in fact some of it stuff he'd written, and that if he realized how hard it made it to run a small business, "I wouldn't have voted for most of that stuff."

Good argument for term limits. Get politicians out of their cocoons to experience feet-on-the-ground reality and the consequences of their actions. Then get them elected to clean it up.

Anonymous said...

Credit Where Credit is Due Dept:

Well Ann, it seems your initial comment, originally panned as too brief and cryptic, has hit more than a few buttons and testy nerves, and not just among the people assembled at the conference.

For some strange reason, people who weren't at the conference are feeling compelled to writing essays about how talking about federalism really isn't using a code word in defense of racism or policies that promote subjugation of racial minorities.

People who were at the conference are busy writing outraged notes that they did, too criticize the real-life application of some of the theories celebrated at the conference. In the corridors, or late at night in small self-selected groups, it would appear, judging by most of their statements.

The people who were actually present at the dinner (and stood by and did nothing in the Niemoller tradition) are now outing themselves, busy reassuring their public that their private behavior is not really what it definitely appears to be while attempting to deflect their personal responsibility for their own actions (or lack thereof) onto you, because you are an unstable female who weeps. Or cries. Or bursts into tears. Or whatever.

Major websites with average daily readerships that probably dwarf yours are devoting impressive amounts of space to you and your observations.

It is interesting to watch the conversation morph along the way, to observe the attempts to personalize the debate rather than address the issues involved. A bit funny how many are amazed that someone has the temerity 9and the patience) to actually answer back.

It will end up in the mud. These things always do. Mud is useful - makes everyone involved looked equally dirty to the observer, and the real issues are usually long forgotten in the process. That's why it works so well in political campaigns, of course.

In the end, though, your readership will climb.

Paul Zrimsek said...

I would mention that FDR is the prototypical pure liberal (and the individual that many of us Liberals still use as inspiration)

You mean the man who herded all those Japanese-Americans into camps? How do I know you're not a racist? Waaaaahhh!

Anonymous said...

Paul, while its true FDR signed the orders, we can all thank Earl Warren for that nonsense. He was California Attorney General at the time, knew a free ticket to governship when he saw it and the presidency perhaps, so he ran and placed himself at the head of the line of loud-mouthed rabble rousers.

His was the loudest voice, and the most influential. It got him into the governor's chair, a vice-presidential nomination in 1948, and a long tenure as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. What a guy, huh?

Anonymous said...


I have re-read your post, but I think you may have misunderstood my points more than I've misunderstood yours. This is entirely my fault. I simply wasn't clear enough, and was, admittedly, a bit angry at some of the implications.

I was absolutely not trying to prove to you that some libertarians have done good things for race because of our nonracism.

You wrote: I talked about how important it was to distinguish yourself from racist things that adhere to your abstract ideas. If anyone at that table had had the decency to say sincerely that they cared about civil rights

I responded by citing the work of a journalist from the same organization who clearly does pass your "civil rights sincerity" exam, and he, too, refuses to "prove to (you) that (he's) not a racist."

This was point number one. Most libertarians will feel that they are under no obligation to prove any such thing to anyone. Libertarians like me see that as a McCarthyist question (as well as illogical since it is a fallacy to demand someone present the non-presence of a non-thought) and would refuse to play along. Even if he or she could easily demonstrate that the implication was untrue.

Point number two was that libertarian abstractions do have real world relevance and that these abstractions do do real world good. Balko's investigation of the use of pseudo-soldiers to police (what libertarians see as) victimless crimes led to Cory Maye's new trial. He started with his abstraction.

Had he been investigating a more liberal, more concrete subject like "Black people are oppressed. How can I help black people not to be oppressed?" (the notion that the urban black man needs some white guy from the suburbs to save them is insulting to African Americans, in my opinion) we'd have only a study full of empty sermonizing from charlatans like Jesse Jackson, and Cory Maye would be dead.

For more abstractions that have relevance to real world injustice, you should read Matt Welch's work on men who are being forced by the state of California to pay child support on children that are not their own. In some cases these men haven't even met the mothers, the state acknowledges this, but simply doesn't care or have any mechanism with which to remove them from their (non)obligation.

These were my two points, and I do think they were addressing specific objections brought up in your post.

As far as your main point, that libertarians don't care about discrimination by private business, I think you are misunderstanding our objection to such laws.

We believe that government's purpose, and only purpose, is to grant its citizens the freedom to pursue our life, liberty, happiness and prosperity in any way we see fit that doesn't infringe upon these same rights of another, and to ensure that these rights are not taken from us against our will.

To use smoking in restaurants as an example, as public opinion turned against smoking, many restaurants began banning smoking on their own accord. I can't, for instance, remember the last time I saw an ashtray in a fast food joint. It seemed only a matter of time before almost all restaurants banned smoking. Which was fine with us. A smoker can't demand a restauranteer allow smoking if he or she doesn't want to and isn't forced to go to a restaurant anyway. Nobody loses.

Then government involved itself and began its blanket bans, everywhere. One city in California recently banned smoking in cigar bars, thus stealing the livelihood of people who owned legal businesses selling a legal commodity to willing customers.

The market was already taking advantage of the changing attitudes and working itself towards a new equilibrium. Government then intervened (with the best intentions) and accidentally, unnecessarily, and illogically robbed some of its citizens of their legal means of making a living.

Now, local governments are certainly not treating smokers the way local governments treated blacks. I'm not saying that. Nor am I comparing dinosaur smokers to dinosaur segregationists. I'm just trying to show that government intervention sometimes creates more problems than it's solves in a situation that's fixing itself anyway.

Would restaurants and hotels have desegregated without the Civil Rights Act? Houston did (on the grounds that it would be better for local businesses).

Is it naive to think other cities would have followed suit? Maybe. But maybe not.

I don't think it's any more naive than trusting that Hillary Clinton better knows how to raise our children than we do.

I don't think it's any more naive than trusting Sam Brownbeck to faithfully represent the people of Kansas (even though he has expressly said he has no intention of representing his constituency and, therefore, bears false witness and takes the Lord's name in vain every time he swears his oath of office).

Would the deaths that occured in the extended time it took for desegregation in private businesses have been more egresgious than the consequences of the CRA (extension of the commerce clause resulting in the Federal government prosecuting people in Alaska for possession of marijuana, even though that's not illegal)? Most likely.

Is the CRA a good thing? I'd say it's done more good than harm and that it's intentions are beyond rapproach.

Should it be beyond discussion? Of course not.

Kev said...

This is a tad OT, but it was prompted by something written by an earlier commenter:

"You own a house and decide to rent out a room to help make ends meet during some hard times. Do you think the government should be able to force you to rent the room to a (member of a group that makes the questionee feel uncomfortable?) "

A while back, I was looking to get out of apartment-land and rent a house; one of my friends--both of us were single guys at the time--wanted to join me in this quest. We found a rental house we liked (owned by an individual and managed by a Realtor). We were all set to sign the lease, but the Realtor came back and said that she'd talked to the owner, and he was unwilling to rent to two single guys, because he was afraid that "we might throw wild parties, or that we might be gay" (in which case he thought we'd throw really wild parties? Who knows...).

We didn't take any further action and eventually found a better house that was leased by the same Realtor. But my question for the legal types on this blog is: Were my then-roomie and I the victims of illegal discrimination in this instance, and would we have had a case against the owner had we gone forward?

class-factotum said...

Also a little OT but in response to internet ronin's comment, The ones in private employment don't scream too loudly about the heavy government subsidy of their mortgage payments.

I lean toward libertarianism on many issues, but I have been paying my mortgage off as fast as I can (75% gone after 6 years in the house) because I don't see the point in spending a dollar to save 35 cents on my taxes. Maybe all these other alleged libertarians are bad at math.

(And yes, I know the "invest the cash in the market" argument, but I don't buy it. Get out of debt first.)

Simon said...

Schmitt's point a few minutes in about liberalism's "embrace" of states seems wildly off. To the extent that liberals have embraced states is not out any grand realization that they were wrong all along about the issue, it's because they lost control of the Federal government. Liberals were all for federal power right up until they lost control of it, whereupon they encountered a conversion on the road to Damascus. IIRC, Justice Brennan made a similar journey, suddenly dicovering a newfound respect for state courts when, in the Federal courts, "clumsy new artisan-judges moved onto the scene and staged a slow-down, abandoned some of the projects, and threatened to topple key structures ... [and] the Golden Age [began to] seem[] less and less like the True Law and more and more like a historical period, the result of a social context and intellectual fashions that no longer hold sway."

An even less charitable explanation would be a generalization of Ann's observation the other day that people who are for abortion tend to be for abortion and any line of reasoning that supports it; generalized, liberals are for federal power when it can help their cause, and against it when it will hinder their cause. What matters to them is the cause, not the principle.

As for Chait's idea that conservatives lost interest in federalism with the end of Jim Crow, that beggars belief. It's as if Chait slept through the 1980s and 1990s.