November 19, 2008 2:03PM

Libertarians Can’t Win

I was pleased to read Ezra Klein’s reaction to this month’s installment of Cato Unbound, in which he defended libertarians’ honor. Well, sort of:

This also gets at the weird nexus between libertarianism and corporate interests. Anti‐​state is not the same as pro‐​corporation, and insofar as a lot of liberals understand libertarians to be simple corporate stooges, they’re not quite right. In certain places — notably tech and patent issues, which is one of those spots where government policy and corporate interests converge — there’s nearly unanimous opposition to the position that’s most closely associated with corporate profits. And so Cato doesn’t get a lot of contributions from the recording industry.

But there are plenty of spaces where corporations or other wealthy economic actors see profit in avoiding or repealing certain regulations and laws — energy is notable here, as is the estate tax — and so libertarians find themselves rather well‐​funded. And then there are spaces where corporations want to profit from a service the government currently controls — like Social Security — and libertarians are quite happy to create an ideological argument for corporate self‐​interest. Crucially, it’s not that libertarians are always and everywhere in favor of corporate profits, but that they often are, and corporations find that useful, and so you have frequent marriages of convenience that also end up ensuring that the priorities of professional libertarians priorities are those that most effectively support corporate profits, as those are the projects that get funded.

It sounds to me like what Ezra is saying here, in an extremely back‐​handed fashion, is that libertarians aren’t corporate stooges at all. When the interests of corporations happen to align with what we regard as good public policy, then corporate interests tend to be our allies. Otherwise, they tend not to be. Which, as far as I can tell, is exactly how it should be.

It’s interesting that this discussion is coming up at a time when the biggest issue on the economic policy agenda is how many more hundreds of billions of dollars the American taxpayer will be forced to give to large corporate interests in Detroit, Manhattan, and elsewhere. Strangely enough, you’ll find people on the left‐​hand side of the political spectrum cautiously endorsing government handouts to some of the nation’s largest and most dysfunctional corporations, while scholars here at the Cato Institute have been sharply critical of welfare for large corporations.

Now, I don’t doubt for a minute that liberals’ support for government handouts to giant corporations is based on their sober assessment of the policy merits, rather than a dedication to “corporate profits” as such. But it is a little bit frustrating that when libertarians take a firm stance against the interests of large corporations, we don’t get praised for our independence so much as getting attacked for our ideological rigidity. These charges can’t both be right: we can’t both be solicitous corporate shills and inflexible ideologues. If people are going to question our motives, I wish they’d at least get their story straight on exactly which kind of intellectual dishonesty they think we’re engaging in.