That’s what David Brooks declares in yesterday’s New York Times. In the column, he argues (yet again) that limited-government conservatism is dead, and that what should take its place is an orientation that focuses less on “negative liberty (How can I get the government off my back) and more [on] positive liberty (Can I choose how to live my life).” We also learn from Brooks that since “The ‘security leads to freedom’ paradigm is a fundamental principle of child psychology,” it must be the right way to look at man’s relationship to the state.
Since Brooks cites Tyler Cowen’s contribution to Cato Unbound, now’s as good a time as any to carp about that essay. I can’t agree with Professor Cowen that the libertarianism of the future ought to share the Left’s focus on ‘positive’ liberties and make its peace with big government. The 21st century libertarianism he’d like to see, a doctrine that seems to view principled distrust of government as an anachronism, isn’t libertarianism at all. It’s modern liberalism with a greater appreciation for markets — Thomas Friedman without the mixed metaphors. If modern liberalism moves in that direction, the world will be better off, and if libertarians can help encourage that transition, we should.
Yet I don’t understand why the continuing resilience of the welfare state constitutes an “intellectual crisis” for libertarianism. An ideology is in intellectual crisis, it seems to me, when certain of its core tenets turn out to be wrong. That people still like the idea of free stuff from government doesn’t count unless libertarianism has been in crisis from its inception.
In any event, my guess is that any political prediction that Cowen, I, or any other aspiring Hari Seldon might choose to make will, in a matter of decades, look as quaint as one of those 1950s magazine pieces on our Jetsons-style future. Given the difficulty of predicting the future, we might do better to focus on what’s true instead of what we believe to be politically possible.
If the welfare state impedes human flourishing, if the drug war is an abomination, if the New Deal constitutional revolution was an intellectual fraud from top to bottom, then libertarians ought to say those things. Because they’re true. Because they’re not said often enough. And because describing the world accurately is the first step towards changing it.
What sort of changes are possible? Who knows? But even if you think the best we can hope for is a less-awful welfare state, don’t underestimate the clarifying effect of bold, uncompromising ideas. Such ideas can help make positive, incremental reforms possible. The welfare reform we got in 1996 — generally a good thing — looks more like Robert Rector’s program than Charles Murray’s “end welfare” thought experiment in Losing Ground. But would we have gotten that sort of reform if Murray had decided that imagining a world without welfare wasn’t worth the effort?
One of the most wonderful things about Brian Doherty’s history of libertarianism is how little the ideology’s founding mothers and fathers cared about what sort of bills might plausibly get out of committee. There’s no denying that 20th century libertarianism had elements of apocalyptic pessimism. But it’s hard to miss the equally broad streak of insane optimism. To stand in the middle of the Century of the State and proclaim a vision of a world unshackled, a world governed by the rule of “anything that’s peaceful,” that is, a world hardly governed at all — what could be bolder or more hopeful? The Audacity of Hope!
Sure, Hayek and Friedman were willing to accept aspects of the modern welfare state. But it’s only when divorced from historical context that they look like Moderates for Capitalism. In the (sparkly) teeth of New Frontier liberalism, Capitalism and Freedom proclaims that Kennedy’s inaugural address — “ask not what your country…” — was founded on a worldview unworthy of free men in a free society. It was, for its time, a radical book.
Writing in 1949, Hayek had an effective rejoinder to the idea that classical liberals ought to limit their aspirations to what’s currently politically possible:
We need intellectual leaders who are willing to work for an ideal, however small may be the prospects of its early realization. They must be men who are willing to stick to principles and to fight for their full realization, however remote. The practical compromises they must leave to the politicians. Free trade and freedom of opportunity are ideals which still may arouse the imaginations of large numbers, but a mere “reasonable freedom of trade” or a mere “relaxation of controls” is neither intellectually respectable nor likely to inspire any enthusiasm.
The main lesson which the true liberal must learn from the success of the socialists is that it was their courage to be Utopian which gained them the support of the intellectuals and therefore an influence on public opinion which is daily making possible what only recently seemed utterly remote. Those who have concerned themselves exclusively with what seemed practicable in the existing state of opinion have constantly found that even this had rapidly become politically impossible as the result of changes in a public opinion which they have done nothing to guide.
I’ll stop the Braveheart speech there. But just one more observation: Brooks’ (and Cowen’s?) notion that the modern world has outgrown the Liberty vs. Power paradigm is bizarre. Barring some miraculous change in human nature and the nature of government, that paradigm’s as enduringly relevant as anything gets in politics. There’s a reason “Skepticism about Power” is the section that opens David Boaz’s Libertarian Reader. That heuristic flows from observable truths about man’s nature and the state’s. Distrust of government lies at the heart of libertarianism and at the heart of the American experiment. Liberty’s future depends on rekindling it.