Lind on Libertarianism

Michael Lind is at it again, proclaiming the death of libertarianism on the op-ed pages of the Financial Times. “The two great trends now,” he writes, “are the collapse of libertarianism as a political force and the rise of economic populism.”

In the piece Lind provides a potted history of America’s evolving political economy. In the opening act of 1932-1968, New Deal welfare-state liberalism occupied the political center, flanked on the left by economic populism and on the right by Eisenhower-style “dime store New Deal” conservatism. Then came the shift to the right during 1968-2004, when welfare-state liberalism was shunted to the left, a newly assertive libertarianism occupied the right, and moderate conservatism commanded the center. Now, according to Lind, anxieties over globalization have led to the rout of the libertarians and the rebirth of populism. So we’re back to where we began, with welfare-state liberalism in the center (where, according to Lind, it rightfully belongs).

I’ll concede that we’ve seen a cyclical shift in recent years somewhat along the lines Lind describes. The political terrain has become more difficult for supporters of free markets and limited government, and more inviting for Lou Dobbsian populism.

But we need to be careful to distinguish between cyclical and secular change. Lind focuses on the back-and-forth of the pendulum and misses the fact that the whole clock has been moving. And it’s been moving in a generally libertarian direction.

Lind merrily proclaims that welfare-state liberalism has reclaimed the center that it occupied during 1932-1968. But he ignores the fact that welfare-state liberals today are dramatically more libertarian on economic issues than their predecessors in their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Nobody these days seriously supports a return to a 70% top income-tax rate, or Keynesian fine-tuning, or interest-rate controls for banks, or the phone monopoly, or regulated trucking; nobody touts nationalization or wage-and-price controls as cures for what ails.

The economy today is dramatically more competitive and entrepreneurial today, and markets are dramatically less regulated, than was the case a few decades ago. And notwithstanding Lind’s fond hopes for a return of the New Deal liberal ascendancy, there is little reason to believe that this huge secular shift is going to be reversed in the foreseeable future.