Commentary

Libertarianism Lives

Reprinted from The Wall Street Journal © 2002 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
Political fashions come and go, but political principles endure. President Clinton noted some six years ago that the era of big government was over. Yet today, conservatives who should know better see a new fashion. George Will, high on his Hamiltonian horse in the Washington Post last month, seemed delighted that minimal-government conservatism was dead. And on these pages recently, Francis Fukuyama declared the libertarianism that followed the Thatcher-Reagan revolution to be in retreat. We’re all Keynesians now, apparently.

Well, we’re not. Nor are most Americans, though you’d never know it from the drone today in Washington. Indeed, you’d almost believe we’re all clamoring for tariffs on imported steel, welfare for agribusiness, and higher payroll taxes to save Social Security.

It’s easy to attack a straw man. Mr. Fukuyama does it after equating libertarianism with “an ideological hostility to the state in all its manifestations.” Yet the Founders who created this nation were libertarians. They didn’t use that word, of course, nor did they call themselves (classical) liberals or democrats. But they stood for basic libertarian principles: the equal right of all to pursue happiness, free from arbitrary interference, and government dedicated to securing that right. Respect for government’s limits is hardly hostility to government in all its manifestations.

But that simple, compelling vision of the proper relation between the individual and his government, which most Americans share with the Founders, is precisely what offends — because it restricts — so many in Washington today. Conservatives would use federal power to promote marriage — a fine end, but nowhere authorized by the Constitution they otherwise respect. Neoconservatives tout massive programs, domestic and foreign, to ensure “National Greatness,” whatever that means. Modern liberals have long thought themselves able, and authorized, to regulate and run the economy for egalitarian ends. And New Democrats are forever reinventing government, hoping to make it run with private-sector efficiency. Libertarianism is an affront to such ambitions. That’s why it’s constantly under assault by the politically ambitious — and why the issues of the moment must constantly be put in perspective.

  • Terrorism. It’s odd that libertarians have come under fire since Sept. 11, for we stand for nothing if not a wise foreign policy and strong national defense. Yet both Mr. Will and Mr. Fukuyama contend that 9/11 underscored the limits of libertarianism. The facile equation of isolationism with nonintervention is the problem. Thoughtful libertarians have never called for isolation. We have said, however, that America cannot police the world; and such policing as we do must be closely related to our national interests. Reasonable people can disagree about those interests, of course, and how to secure them. But that’s a far cry from isolationism.

    Ironically, the 9/11 attacks constituted a massive failure of government to do the main thing libertarians call upon government to do — protect us. Yet far from seriously examining that failure, officials rushed to acquire ever more power over American citizens, with marginal gains in security. In foreign affairs, then, the nation could well heed the libertarian call not for more but for wiser government. As a presidential candidate, George W. Bush spoke of the need for humility in foreign affairs, for a policy of restraint suited to a free people. That’s exactly right.

  • Globalization. No vision has championed global free trade more than libertarianism. Libertarian principles are so powerful here that critics have been mostly marginalized. The danger comes not from principled critics but from domestic interests like steel, agribusiness and the like, seeking protection from competition.

  • Social Security. The libertarian view on Social Security is gaining: More than two-thirds of Americans now favor privatizing Social Security. Internationally, more than a dozen nations have adopted some form of Chile’s highly successful retirement plan. Even the socialist president of Chile dares not tamper with those private accounts. They’re coming to the U.S. eventually. When they do, they’ll return about one-quarter of the federal budget to the private sector. Here again it’s libertarians who’ve done the most to promote this dramatic change in the way the world deals with old age.

  • Enron. Liberal pundits have charged that Enron’s collapse was a libertarian fiasco, yet the hand of intrusive government is everywhere. The company’s exotic capital structure was driven by our inscrutable tax code. And Enron’s accounting scheme was aided by the Financial Accounting Standards Board, a government-appointed monopoly that lent credibility to methods designed to deceive or evade. The true libertarian approach — market competition in accounting standards — would have yielded financial transparency, not collapse.

  • Judicial philosophy. Perhaps nowhere is the congruence between libertarian principles and American values clearer than in the domain of judicial philosophy. Americans don’t want judges running their lives. But they do want them checking overweening, unconstitutional government.

    Before libertarians joined the debate in the early 1980s, judicial philosophy was a sorry battlefield indeed. Liberals, after removing constitutional limits on expansive government during the New Deal, viewed the courts as forums for achieving what they’d been unable to achieve in the legislatures. Conservatives, outraged at judicial lawmaking, demanded “judicial restraint,” thus marginalizing the courts. Neither side was right. We needed neither activism nor restraint, but courts responsible to the Constitution. Fortunately, the Rehnquist court has heeded that call recently. It’s beginning to restore limited constitutional government.

The list could go on, but the point should be clear. Libertarian principles are here to stay, because liberty is America’s basic political value. Surveys repeatedly show that when lower taxes and fewer government services are pitted against their opposites, smaller government wins. Even term limits, which pundits say are passé, continue to triumph. Witness the recent effort by California’s political class to overturn their limits with a dishonest initiative, outspending the opposition 10 to 1. It lost big.

Regrettably, the larger lesson was missed, especially by Republicans, nominally the party of less government: There’s a constituency for smaller government to be organized and led. To do that, however, means understanding and articulating the principles. That’s the challenge.

Mr. Crane is president of the Cato Institute.
Mr. Pilon is Cato’s vice president for legal affairs.