Topic: Political Philosophy

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.

Privatize Marriage

Stephanie Coontz, a historian, suggests in the New York Times that government get out of the marriage business. Why, she asks, “do people — gay or straight — need the state’s permission to marry?”

For most of Western history, they didn’t, because marriage was a private contract between two families. The parents’ agreement to the match, not the approval of church or state, was what confirmed its validity.

For 16 centuries, Christianity also defined the validity of a marriage on the basis of a couple’s wishes. If two people claimed they had exchanged marital vows — even out alone by the haystack — the Catholic Church accepted that they were validly married.

So, she says, “Let churches decide which marriages they deem ‘licit.’ But let couples — gay or straight — decide if they want the legal protections and obligations of a committed relationship.”

It’s a great idea. Indeed, it’s such a good idea that I proposed it in Slate back in 1997:

So why not privatize marriage? Make it a private contract between two individuals. If they wanted to contract for a traditional breadwinner/homemaker setup, with specified rules for property and alimony in the event of divorce, they could do so. Less traditional couples could keep their assets separate and agree to share specified expenses. Those with assets to protect could sign prenuptial agreements that courts would respect. Marriage contracts could be as individually tailored as other contracts are in our diverse capitalist world. For those who wanted a standard one-size-fits-all contract, that would still be easy to obtain. Wal-Mart could sell books of marriage forms next to the standard rental forms. Couples would then be spared the surprise discovery that outsiders had changed their contract without warning. Individual churches, synagogues, and temples could make their own rules about which marriages they would bless.

One of the problems with this whole idea is that, as usual, the state has entangled itself in our lives. There are 1049 federal laws that mention marital status, most of them dealing with taxes or transfer payments. If marriage becomes a matter of private contract, the federal government will still have to decide whether to recognize all such contracts for the purpose of handing out marital benefits. And that doesn’t even get into custody, inheritance, property, next-of-kin, hospital visitation and other sorts of laws usually handled at the state level. Just another example of how the intrusion of the state into every corner of society makes it difficult to privatize any aspect of life. But it’s good to see the idea getting some discussion.

Hopkins on Gerson

Kara Hopkins has an elegant review of Heroic Conservatism, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson’s book, over at The American Conservative. Worth reading in full, but here’s a taste. Gerson on war:

Shortly after Gerson began scripting Bush, reporters noticed Biblical phrases creeping into the presidential rhetoric and wrote, with cryptologist’s glee, that Bush was sending coded messages to his Christian base. The truth was more perverse. As Presbyterian minister Fritz Ritsch noted, when Bush alluded to the hymn “There’s Power in the Blood” in a State of the Union text, he spoke of the “wonder-working power” not of the “precious blood of the Lamb” but of “the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people”—the world’s substitute saviors. Similarly, the president referred to the U.S. as “the light of the world,” which the “darkness” has been unable to put out—a clear invocation of John 1:1-5. As evangelical pastor Gregory Boyd pointed out, “In this paradigm, what applies to Jesus (“the light of the world”) can be applied to our country, and what applies to Satan (“the darkness”) can be applied to whomever resists our country. We are of God; they are of the Devil. We are the light; they are the darkness. Our wars are therefore ‘holy’ wars. With all due respect, this is blatant idolatry.”

And on Gerson’s big government conservatism:

[None of this is] to say that social justice isn’t a Christian concern. But Gerson is more stirred by abolitionists and activists like William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King Jr., and the sweeping social change they wrought, than he is by Christ’s own model, which was conspicuously short on political impact and long on individual acts of mercy. He implies that his giants—poverty, AIDS, illiteracy, genocide—are too big for hand-to-hand combat. Thus the Biblical call to “do unto the least of these”—the hallmark of which is personal sacrifice—must be replaced by government programs—the wellspring of which is coercion. If this constitutes an act of worship, it honors a failed god.

Again, worth a read. I haven’t seen Gerson get a favorable reading anywhere this side of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Post Script to Reason Letter; Non-Coercive Alternatives to Prohibiting Abortion

I have four acquaintances raising grandchildren as if they were their own.

Some charities will pay a woman’s medical costs if covering such expenses will help her decide to carry the baby to term.

From a libertarian perspective, individuals or charities paying a woman beyond her medical expenses should also be a viable solution. Remuneration would be for the woman’s time and physical effort (labor), not a “purchase price” for the child. The arrangement could stipulate, as surrogate motherhood contracts usually do, that payment is contingent on her putting the child up for adoption.

What about Fetal Rights?

In response to my letter on abortion recently published in Reason Magazine, several people have asked me, “What about fetal rights?” I addressed that issue in my original letter but it was edited out. Below is the letter I submitted with the portions that were deleted in bold.

Libertarian and Mother of Four

As a libertarian and a mother of four, I take issue with Radley Balko’s characterization of the abortion debate in “Getting Beyond Roe” (Aug/Sep) as being about “setting community standards” and that issues such as abortion “are best dealt with in those diverse laboratories of democracy, the states.” Abortion should no more be a question for local politics than slavery.

Community standards are the greatest threat to individual liberty there is. They have led to witch trials, kangaroo courts, censorship and egregious takings through eminent domain. And now Balko would like to let them decide the reproductive fate of women. Our country is not a democracy, not even a federalist democracy, but a constitutional republic — a country in which the Constitution protects individuals against majoritarian trespass. As far as individual rights are concerned, the Constitution is useless if it can’t protect one portion of the population from being forced into involuntary servitude by another, no matter at what level of government the enslavement takes place.

The right to have an abortion per se is not the issue, but the right to self-determination, the right not to be used as a means to an end against one’s will, the right not to be considered a communal resource — in short, the right for women to have the same control over their own bodies and their own fates as men.

Perhaps Roe was decided wrongly, not because it nationalized a right to abortion, but because it was decided in reliance on the wrong precedents. The 13th Amendment is more germane to the abortion debate than the Griswold v. Conn. line of cases and their amorphous right to privacy. Blackmun, in Roe, showed sympathy for the plight of women but also a profound paternalistic disrespect for those very people he was trying to help. To hinge the right of women to control their own bodies on privacy instead of every individual’s right, whether male or female, not to be treated as a public resource indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of what is at stake.

I believe abortion is morally wrong, but I also believe that in a conflict between mother and fetus, a woman’s right must always take precedence. A human being’s rights under the law increase with maturity. That has been the tradition under Anglo-American law as well as world wide for most of history. To suggest that a fetus has the same rights as a mature adult individual borders on the perverse. A woman’s rights should never be placed second to the needs of her fetus. To do so is to treat women first and foremost as communally owned vessels for bringing forth life and only second as autonomous individuals.

For those, like myself, who believe abortion is fraught with moral difficulties, the correct course of action is to teach, communicate, and discuss the importance of valuing human life with our daughters, our female neighbors and our friends. We must help them come to the correct conclusion based on good clear reasoning and the strength of our convictions. To force a woman to carry a pregnancy to term and give birth unwillingly is involuntary servitude, no matter what the rationale. Pregnancy and birth are the most dangerous work most women will ever do. To deprive them of medically feasible means for escaping those dangers, let alone planning their lives, is to treat women with the greatest disrespect.

There is no question that decisions about abortion are horrendously difficult, but just because a decision is difficult doesn’t mean women aren’t fit to make them. Life entails many difficult decisions, often involving life and death. Men make decisions about how to protect their families and their way of life; unfortunately sometimes those decisions involve going to war. Women, like men, make decisions about what is best for their families and their way of life; unfortunately sometimes such decisions involve abortions. Fetuses are potential children, not full grown adults, and women are full grown adults, not children. It is time we start treating each with the respect and dignity they deserve.

I Gave You My Heart, You Gave Me a Pen

I’ve been a John Cusack fan since Sixteen Candles. Thus his recent unflattering comments about Cato kinda sting.

I think Cusack is a smart guy who has been misinformed. As Tom Firey notes, Cato scholars, like Cusack, are keenly interested in making it harder for Congress and the president to start wars. I recently offered a proposal for reforming veterans’ health care. One of the proposal’s main selling points, to my mind, is that it would force Congress to confront many of the costs of war that the current system hides.

I even agree with some of what Cusack said. Cato scholars certainly don’t have “any monopoly on insight into anything.” And I’m sure we come across poorly at times. 

But do Cato scholars really want, as Cusack has written,  ”the total liberation of corporations”? If I were really a corporate tool, would I have just penned an oped where I smeared the entire health care industry as a pack of “rent-seeking weasels”? 

If Cusack could see how poorly we get along with most corporations most of the time, he might give Cato another look.

News Flash: Neocons Hate Ron Paul

So Ron Paul’s record fundraising haul has rattled the cubicles on 17th Street, forcing the Weekly Standard to run a hit piece on him, offering the limp zinger that he’s the “don’t tase me, bro” candidate, named for the fellow who got zapped at a John Kerry event earlier this year*.

It’s not surprising that the neocons hate Ron Paul, for his policy views, of course, but it also seems likely that they’re envious. As Cato’s president Ed Crane and chairman Bill Niskanen pointed out over four years ago

The neoconservative agenda is a particular threat to liberty perhaps greater than the ideologically spent ideas of left-liberalism. Always a movement of bright intellectual leaders, neoconservatism has mostly been a movement with a head but no body. One rarely runs into a neocon on the street.

That’s what makes it so obvious that the Standard’s lament that

Paul supporters organized the event on their own with minimal coordination with the campaign.

is an apt reflection of their envy that an unlikely fellow like Paul has had such a genuinely grassroots groundswell of support, and has been pushed forward by his supporters rather than attempting to cajole them into line. It’s equally funny that an ostensibly conservative magazine criticizes his views not just on foreign policy, but grouses that

He hates the Iraq war. He hates the rest of our foreign policy. He pretty much thinks we shouldn’t have a foreign policy. He hates our bloated and meddlesome federal government. (What’s that they say about stuck clocks?) He hates abortion. He hates the Treasury and floating currency.

That sounds fairly conservative to me. But it’s funny to see the Standard squirm at the realization that the ideas of peace and freedom are rousing the electorate.

*[Update: A reader advises that the tasing incident took place at a John Kerry speaking engagement earlier this year, not in 2004. I regret the error.]