What's wrong with liberty?


Is there any trouble with liberty? According to Christopher Beam there is. In New York magazine he has a decent crack at the philosophical nut of libertarianism, but comes up well short. The question the article asks is “do we want to live in their world?” ‘Their’ being libertarians. His answer is not only that we don’t, but that we are not likely to. He might be right on both counts, but not for the reasons expressed.

The meat of his argument appears to be that libertarianism takes things too far, but his understanding of the scholarship is weak. Bucketfuls of libertarian ink have been spilled on monetary reform, but in a paragraph devoted to this subject, he mentions only a gold standard. His conclusion is that this is “a policy that most economists agree would lead to economic meltdown”. Firstly, a return to a gold standard is not the only game in town, but more importantly since when was it a good idea to listen to most economists?

For Mr Beam, “There’s always tension between freedom and fairness. We want less government regulation, but not when it means firms can hire cheap child labor.” This is a false dichotomy, and not only because fairness is a completely subjective term. It is the fruits of capitalism that have allowed the postponement of work to become a norm for the children of the developed world. While in the developing world, prohibiting children from working often forces them into criminality and prostitution. Most people working on the ground know this and work around it accordingly.

A central criticism Mr Beam throws at libertarians is they need to bend their principles. In fact, libertarians have been working at the dirty coalface of politics and policy for years, inventing and promoting incrementalist policies that often don’t adhere to the full picture of their personal ideals. It is indeed a tough balance between principal and political power, but libertarians have never been afraid to trade in a little bit of the former for the latter. Perhaps, on occasion too much. But to suggest that the movement has been snooty towards politics is just plain wrong. The two most recognisable figures in the libertarian pantheon,  Hayek and Friedman, were not afraid to get their hands dirty when the need arose.

Mr Beam is not entirely uninformed about the key figures and pressures in the libertarian movement. However, he is remarkably ignorant of the ideas and policy successes. To be fair, anyone would find it hard to satisfactorily bring down a political philosophy in a couple of thousand words, especially one that is mostly right.