Market Liberalism at the Washington Post

Three years ago a Washington Post editorial conceded: “Sometimes libertarians deserve to win an argument.”

“Gee, thanks,” I wrote at the time. ”I’m glad libertarian arguments against over-regulation made sense to the editorial writer in this case. But I’m disappointed in the suggestion that this is a rare occasion.” After all, libertarians and Post editorial writers no doubt agree on a lot of basic principles – private property, markets, the rule of law, limited constitutional government, religious toleration, equality under the law, a society based on merit and contract not status, free speech, free trade, individual rights, peace – though of course we disagree a lot over just how closely public policy should adhere to such principles.

And indeed, the three editorials in Sunday’s Post demonstrate some of the market-liberal values that libertarians and Post editorial writers share. A strikingly good lead editorial, “Redefining human rights,” raps Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for saying that the Obama administration would “see human rights in a broad context,” in which “oppression of want – want of food, want of health, want of education, and want of equality in law and in fact” – would be addressed alongside the oppression of tyranny and torture. “That is why,” Ms. Clinton said, “the cornerstones of our 21st-century human rights agenda” would be “supporting democracy” and “fostering development.” The Post sternly warns:

This is indeed an important change in U.S. human rights policy – but the idea behind it is pure 20th century. Ms. Clinton’s lumping of economic and social “rights” with political and personal freedom was a standard doctrine of the Soviet Bloc, which used to argue at every East-West conference that human rights in Czechoslovakia were superior to those in the United States, because one provided government health care that the other lacked. In fact, as U.S. diplomats used to tirelessly respond, rights of liberty – for free expression and religion, for example – are unique in that they are both natural and universal; they will exist so long as governments do not suppress them. Health care, shelter and education are desirable social services, but they depend on resources that governments may or may not possess. These are fundamentally different goods, and one cannot substitute for another.

Precisely (though we probably disagree about whether it is desirable for such services to be provided by government)! A second editorial deplores flaws in the criminal justice system that continue to send innocent people to jail, including two men who were released this month after spending more than 25 years in prison. It’s a topic that Cato media fellow Radley Balko has been covering regularly. And finally, an editorial on the Federal Trade Commission’s antitrust case against chipmaker Intel. The Post is by no means as critical of antitrust law as libertarians often are, but it does warn that “the agency’s actions are aggressive and potentially worrisome.” And it concludes, more cautiously than I would, but still by noting that consumers have been prospering during this alleged anti-consumer behavior:

The chip market is highly concentrated, and Intel has long been the dominant force. Yet year after year, consumers have benefited from more powerful and cheaper computers. The FTC is right to keep a close eye on the industry and on Intel, in particular, but it must use its power wisely and with restraint. 

As David Kirby and I wrote in “The Libertarian Vote,” the United States is “a country fundamentally shaped by libertarian values and attitudes.” Despite all the assaults on liberty of the past decade, that’s a point that politicians and pundits should keep in mind. And editorials like these remind us that the ideas of individual rights, the rule of law, and competitive markets are still widely held.