Oh God, Please Not Libertarianism…

Two new books by libertarians. Are they bad? Yes.

Manifestos are not meant to be sophisticated things. They are declarations, not dissertations. To write a manifesto is to issue a piercing scream, a denunciation of all the world’s wrongs and a rousing call to arms. The manifesto is no place for nuance or pragmatism, for thinking things through and resolving differences. The manifesto is the medium of one who has already worked everything out and is compelled to shout it to the world.

Oddly enough, the manifesto appears to have switched sides over the last century. Once they were the provenance the revolutionary left, from the Communists to the Surrealists. But since the 1970s, it has principally been libertarians cranking them out. Murray Rothbard and Ron Paul both issued their respective manifestos. Conservative pundit Mark Levin’s Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto became a #1 bestseller in 2009. Now, the book-buying public finds itself treated to two new manifestos of the libertarian right: David Boaz’s The Libertarian Mind: A Manifesto for Freedom and Charles Cooke’s The Conservatarian Manifesto.

This libertarian penchant for manifestos is not especially surprising; its philosophy is one of proud simplicity and certitude. Just as Marxists are convinced that class relations explain everything, libertarians see the war between freedom and tyranny as the root cause of all misfortune. (Classifying libertarianism as “simple” or reductionist is not a slight; libertarians themselves insist that a virtue of their principles lies in their elegant intuitiveness.) Indeed, in his very first sentence, David Boaz announces that “libertarianism is the philosophy of freedom,” immediately lumping all other human beliefs together as philosophies of unfreedom. Then we hear about some of the great threats to our freedom today, foremost of which is… Michael Bloomberg’s ban on big sodas. (The stakes, as you can see, are high.)

From there, Boaz proceeds down a well-trodden path. Expositions of libertarianism often follow a standard catechism, one that attempts to posit an inescapable deductive proof that libertarianism is correct and irrefutable. Nobody can deny the niftiness of this little Socratic exercise. But just as in Socrates’s own dialectics, if one does not carefully examine each libertarian premise before accepting it, one soon accidentally signs on to some spectacularly objectionable conclusions.

In Boaz’s recitation, the libertarian chain of logic proceeds roughly as follows: Human beings own themselves, because for someone else to own them would be slavery. To own oneself means to own the products of one’s work, for the right to self-ownership is meaningless without the right to the fruits of one’s efforts. So property rights are an essential human entitlement. Since human beings own themselves and their property, it is illegitimate for anyone else to aggress upon these things. Thus, the fundamental principle of justice is that people and their property must be left alone to do as they please, so long as they do not interfere with the person and property of others.

There isn’t much more to it than that, nor need there be. From one or two axioms, we can arrive at a full defense of capitalism and the minimal state. It’s only when we give this concept of labor’s “fruits” a bit of a cross-examination, or wonder what a world built on this mathematically perfect credo would actually feel like to live in, that it begins to wobble somewhat.

The jump from the right to self-ownership to the right of property ownership always occurs hastily, as if the libertarian knows full well he’s fudging one of the most dubious steps of his proof. Boaz makes the unfortunate decision to choose John Locke’s theory of “labor mixing” as his preferred means of papering over the leap. This is the theory, dating from 1689, that when a person “mixes” her labor with a thing (say by turning a tree into a chair), she develops a property right in it. Why this should be so, nobody knows. What “mixing” even is, nobody knows either. Boaz doesn’t attempt to define it; its function is simply to jury-rig a rickety theoretical bridge that will suffice until the next deduction is made. So long as the reader blinks, she will fail to notice that the entire natural rights justification for property is built upon flashy prestidigitation.

The rest of the philosophy requires similar hand-waving. The idea that nobody should interfere with the affairs of another sounds obvious, until we attempt to negotiate our messy realities with it. Should I take the gun from my depressed neighbor’s hand so he cannot kill himself?

So, too, with the related principle that people are legally entitled to do anything that doesn’t exercise force against others. Could nobody legitimately stop a wealthy man from purchasing and deliberately destroying a life-saving vaccine? Simple principles are only satisfactory to those oblivious to complicated realities.

This becomes starkly evident when Boaz arrives at his proposals. The libertarian is committed, through his deductions, to believing that government intervention is never morally justified. From there, he has to strain himself to prove that government intervention is never effective either. Boaz makes a lively attempt at this, going through the market-based solutions to a series of issues.

They’re all a disaster. On the environment, he suggests crises should be handled “at the local or state level.” There’s no plan for how a global environmental crisis requiring a multi-national solution could ever be addressed. On education, he wants full privatization, meaning that not only should schools be privately-run, but they should no longer be free and guaranteed. Vouchers or subsidies, he makes clear, are merely a compromise for those horrified by the prospect of a world in which many children cannot go to school because their families cannot pay.

Naturally, he wants Social Security privatized, though true libertarianism wouldn’t have compulsory retirement savings at all. Boaz doesn’t address the question of what would happen if a retiree’s private investment account goes bust. Do we leave these unfortunate elderly in poverty? The libertarians never say. The same unanswered questions face the free market health care plan. If some people make the foolish decision not to get insurance, then get sick, do we leave them to their fate? Surely the penalty for financial mismanagement shouldn’t be death.

The only possible libertarian answer is hinted at in Boaz’s section on poverty. To his credit, Boaz does recognize poverty in America as an issue, though like a curmudgeonly octogenarian he continually informs us that things are better than they were during the Depression. (Those surviving on $2 a day will draw small comfort from Boaz’s reminder that unlike them, the French monarchs of Versailles lacked indoor plumbing.) But his solution is simply to insist that the churches and the Elk’s Lodge will take care of it. Of course, the churches and the Elk’s Lodge have been around for quite a while, and so far haven’t shown much of an ability to assist America’s 16 million impoverished children. But that’s where the second part of Boaz’s solution comes in: the elimination of welfare and occupational licensing.

“What would happen to potential welfare recipients if welfare weren’t available?” Boaz asks. “Many of them would get jobs.” Actually, we know precisely what such people do when welfare isn’t available. We know this because for all practical purposes, welfare has been eliminated from this country in the last 20 years. In fact, one of the most bizarre aspects of policy discussions on poverty is that conservatives remain convinced there is a thing called “welfare,” in which the federal government writes checks to people for being poor. Yet for all the noise expended on it, there’s no such program.

Boaz, like many fiscal conservatives who discuss public benefits, is unaware of the actual landscape of American social programs. The closest thing to any kind of “welfare” system is the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program, which offers measly sums, is exclusively for families, has a 60-month lifetime benefits cap, and requires recipients to get a job. Since Boaz speaks of “welfare” in the abstract, it’s impossible to know for certain whether it’s TANF that he intends to eliminate, but that certainly seems the case.

In practice, what does happen when we eliminate welfare? Well, we can look at Mississippi, where poor families receive almost nothing in government subsidies, as recently documented by Kathryn Edin and Luke Schaefer in $2 a Day. Do these people get jobs? No, for the simple reason that there are no jobs available. Instead, they sell their plasma and become malnourished. Have the churches and Elks stepped in, as Boaz predicted they would? Nope, they sure haven’t.

Boaz has some other solutions, but they’re disgusting. They mostly amount to simply stating that poor kids should act more responsibly, that they should all finish high school and that the girls shouldn’t get pregnant too young. Not that he has a policy suggestion to go along with this; it’s just useless moralizing about the diminishing moral fibre of impoverished teens. Recognize that regardless of the truth or falsity of this theory, it gets one nowhere. Even if you believed that somehow behaving in an upstanding manner would bring more jobs to decimated neighborhoods, it’s completely unclear how to actually create a sudden nationwide wave of moral responsibility. But the point is not to solve the problem, the point is to make poverty the fault of poor people so that we are absolved of the responsibility of dealing with it.

Boaz concludes his poverty section with what is possibly the dumbest question ever asked, though he believes it to be one of the cleverest:

“If you’re not convinced that private charity can replace government welfare, ask yourself this: [if you had a hundred thousand dollars to help the poor,] would you give it to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services…or a private charity? Most people would not hesitate to choose a private charity.” Right, Dave, but the entire point of the skepticism is not a belief that government is better at providing charitable services, but that not enough rich people give to charities to solve the problem, whereas governments can levy taxes. If the rich weren’t such unfeeling swine, we wouldn’t have a problem.

The rest of the book is full of similar mischaracterizations and logical pretzels. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not just wrong but “impossible,” Boaz declares, because to declare education a human right mean that someone has to provide it, and since that’s not always possible, education cannot be a right. This weird little trick of language only works if you define a right to be a thing that can be provided at all times, instead of a moral obligation toward which all societies must aspire.

Then there are the senseless distortions of the left’s principles. Socialists “want to eliminate property rights.” No they don’t, they want workers to own their factories, farm laborers to own the farms, etc. Communism is the system in which “everyone owns everyone.” Actually, everyone owns the means of production, a somewhat different principle, but if you accept the libertarian idea that one’s property is coextensive with one’s body, then shifting legal control of a workplace from the owners to the society is no different to slashing up the owners with a straight razor. That little logical slippage is also what makes the libertarians wail so loudly about taxes. If financial assets are as essential as bodily integrity, then a tax is logically indistinguishable from a kick in the face.

All of this is disheartening, especially the poverty section, because it makes one realize the extent to which hardcore libertarianism is both profoundly persuasive and worryingly oblivious. Its writing is clear, its slogans are appealing, and its principles appear indisputable. Yet beneath this theory of freedom is a practice of misery. To figure out precisely how the one leads to the other requires careful scrutiny and skepticism. Unfortunately, since beguiling yet unexamined rhetoric so often carries the day in politics, The Libertarian Mind will doubtlessly win converts. The consequences for the poor, whose few remaining benefits Boaz would gleefully strip, are likely to be devastating.

There is a wearying familiarity to The Libertarian Mind; Hayek wrote all of this in The Constitution of Liberty, then Rothbard wrote it again in The Ethics of Liberty, then David Friedman in The Machinery of Freedom. Read one sentence of one libertarian book and you’ve read every sentence of every libertarian book. Boaz insists that libertarians come in dozens of unique varieties, but the libertarian mind ends up sounding pretty hivey:

“There are many kinds of libertarians, of course. Some are people who might describe themselves as ‘fiscally conservative and socially liberal’… [some] want the government to remain within the limits of the Constitution…Some are admirers of Dr. Ron Paul and his son, Senator Rand Paul…Some have noticed that war,… welfare, taxes, and govermnent spending have deleterious effects.”

So there you have it: libertarianism ranges from people who support small governments and free market capitalism to… people who support small governments and free market capitalism. A mighty large tent those fellas have, one that can contain figures all the way from Ron Paul to his son Rand.

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It’s that libertarian narrowness that leads Charles Cooke, in The Conservatarian Manifesto, to reject the label for himself. Cooke positions himself as a pragmatist, and appears genuinely interested in negotiating between differing political inclinations and forging something new rather than rehashing Rothbard or Rand.

The something new is “conservatarianism,” an awkward neologism that Cooke insists “is not a linguistic trick” deployed to sell books. (It is.) The conservatarians like Cooke are those alarmed by both the Republicans’ tendency to expand government spending and the libertarians’ reflexive anti-authoritarian extremism. They are those who “feel like a conservative around libertarians, and a libertarian around conservatives.”

Cooke’s “conservatarianism” is a fascinating illustration of the way ostensible moderation can mask extremism. He ends up mixing the most noxious elements of both conservatives and libertarians. Conservatarianism is for those who both want to destroy all social programs (like libertarians) but also enjoy the preservation of authority and hierarchy (like conservatives). If you find conservatism too concerned with morals, and libertarians too concerned with freedom, then how about a philosophy that cares about neither morality nor freedom?

Oh, alright, that’s a gross caricature, but Cooke has earned himself the poke in the eye. It also does get at unpleasant aspects of the compromise politics Cooke supports. To the extent that it holds together as an intelligible proposal for the Right, it appears to be both more concerned than Republicans with cutting the size of government, and less concerned than Libertarians with limiting America’s violent incursions into other countries.

Cooke believes that libertarians are too skeptical of American military interventions around the globe. “Not every intervention is Iraq,” says in defense of American global dominance. That’s certainly true; some interventions are Vietnam, Libya, Chile, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Iran, and Sudan. Cooke argues vigorously that America must occasionally step up to ensure the peace and stability of other countries. But it’s telling that he does not name a single instance in which this has successfully occurred. Not that one ought to expect him to, since America’s track record as a global peacekeeper is widely recognized as abysmal.

On immigration, Cooke disagrees with libertarians. He rejects the idea that people should have a right to move about the world as they please. “America is a country, not a charity,” he says. Of course, Cooke himself is an immigrant, who benefitted from an immigration system that holds preferences for British citizens like him over people from poorer countries. He recognizes that this is probably grossly unfair, but says only “[S]o what?” Well, so, some people think rewarding people who already have a lot is probably less morally defensible than giving opportunities to people who have less.

The “so what” attitude toward people in trying circumstances is the most disturbing aspect of Cooke’s new politics. Boaz, however demented his solutions, is interested in addressing the situation of the sick, the poor, the elderly, and the oppressed. The existence of such people does not even register with Cooke. Poverty is barely mentioned at all. Of the four references in the index, two are to offhanded remarks that the War on Poverty was a waste of money, one is to a statement that uninsured poor people are a regrettable consequence of economic growth, and one is to a statement dismissing arguments that poor women should have abortion access. One wonders how Cooke can formulate a political program without even noticing that America contains nearly 50 million poor people.

But that is because Cooke has other issues on his mind, like guns and abortion. He very much likes guns, and very much does not like abortion. (For an ostensibly “new” right-wing politics, this seems an awful lot like the old stuff.) Not only does he believe in the vigorously defending the right to have guns, but he wants America to actually “normalize guns and gun ownership.” (Emphasis added.) Heaven knows what the purpose of this would be; Cooke doesn’t say.

On abortion, though, Cooke makes an important point. The abortion debate is about one issue alone, which is the definition of “taking a life.” What abortion rights proponents consistently fail to realize is that their arguments can never be persuasive to the pro-life side, who view abortion as the murder of a human being. Everything hinges on that one question. If abortion is murder, then nothing can justify it, period. When Planned Parenthood says that “only 3%” of their services are abortion-related, it’s irrelevant. If abortion is murder, then the percentage is irrelevant. A nonprofit claiming that only 3% of its work consisted of mass slaughter would have a difficult day in court.

Thus, the pro-choice side needs to give up all the arguments of the variety “if you don’t like abortion, don’t have one,” since “if you don’t like murder, don’t kill someone” would never fly. Their argument needs to be, first and foremost, that it isn’t murder, that “a life” is a fluid and imprecise term about which there can be no scientific resolution, only differing instincts. On this, the pro-choice side is actually on very strong grounds. Every position on this is going to ultimately be arbitrary; “when does a life begin?” is a question with no more of a definitive answer than “when does one stop being simply unshaven and start having a beard?” Cooke is nevertheless exactly correct to point out that this is the central question in the abortion debate, and that everything else is evasion.

The book is less novel and contrarian than one might hope, though. By the end of it,  you may be hard-pressed to remember the distinction between conservatives, libertarians, and conservatarians. That’s because this is largely some rancid old wine in an unsightly new bottle. Cooke does encourage conservatives to give up the gay marriage fight, but he is uninterested in it as a basic right and is more concerned with the “very real threats that the partisans of gay marriage are posing to individual liberty” by legally mandating businesses serve gay and straight customers equally.

And yet the manifestos of Cooke and Boaz are still worth reading. Why? Because they are clear and systematic expositions of the authors’ respective philosophies, and because there is tremendous benefit in engaging with wrongheaded arguments that are stated well. The Left would benefit from appropriating the precision, accessibility, and organization of conservative writing.

It’s true that there are some teeth-grindingly irritating things about each author’s writing style. Boaz has fully mastered Patronizing Libertarian Voice, with which (male) libertarians use highly irrational arguments to dismiss every other politics as the beliefs of a child, while loudly insisting on their faultless rationality. Cooke drizzles his Oxford education all over the page (we get plenty of highfalutin italicizations like pace and Weltanschauung, plus, oh dear, “to wit”), but then reverently quotes from lumbering galoots like Andrew Breitbart and Kevin Williamson* as if they were Oscar Wilde.

But the titles do not lie. These are manifestos. They lay their cases before the public, and if you are of the type swayed by chintzy syllogisms and references to the Founding Fathers, you will doubtless end up converted. In its classic form, the art of the manifesto entails layering spirited rhetorical packaging atop extremist politics and patent untruth, and by this standard David Boaz and Charles Cooke are two sublime artists of the manifesto.

* Lest it be alleged that Kevin Williamson does not merit the cruel appellation “galoot,” I cite the following evidentiary point: Mr. Williamson is supposedly a “theater critic” for The New Criterion. And yet Kevin Williamson is such a droolingly inarticulate violent numbskull that he is unable to sit through a whole theatrical performance without picking up a neighboring audience member’s phone and throwing it across the roomKevin Williamson is a galoot.