Commentary

This Catholic Magazine Thinks There’s a Libertarian Way to Ride a Bicycle. What?

Sigh. Alan Wolfe is writing about libertarianism again. In June he complained that libertarianism was “rigid” and obsessed with “purity,” under the ridiculous headline “Why libertarianism is closer to Stalinism than you think.” Now he’s claiming that “libertarianism embodies Max Weber’s nightmare of an iron cage,” whatever that means. The article is obsessed with ideological infighting, and this time he actually does manage to accuse Ayn Rand of a “Stalinesque purge” of Nathaniel Branden, her former lover and ideological partner. Thing is, she didn’t have Branden killed, which is pretty much the essence of Stalinesque purges.

Libertarianism? You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Yes, Rand and Murray Rothbard denounced lots of people for ideological deviation. Some fans of Ron Paul don’t find Rand Paul sufficiently libertarian. I myself find lots of people insufficiently libertarian, even some who are pretty libertarian. In my observation, ideological arguments, splits, and purges are pretty common in all ideologies. How many tiny socialist and communist parties are there? In the United Kingdom, the Jeremy Corbyn left has just purged the Blairites. In the Republican party lots of movements and candidates are battling for whatever combination of purity and electability they prefer. They all want to be the Reagan guy, though in 1980 the purest conservatives rallied around Rep. Phil Crane (R-Ill.), the conservative alternative to Reagan. In 1972 the McGovern campaign manager Frank Mankiewicz went to a meeting of a New York City Democratic club and came out several hours later musing, “Every little meaning has a movement all its own.” Ideologues argue.

I also find it amusing that Wolfe writes in Commonweal, a Catholic magazine, that libertarianism seeks to impose an orthodoxy.

But let me look at what I take to be the main point of the article:

Libertarianism, however, is not just a set of policy prescriptions, but an ideology. It is, moreover, a total ideology, one that addresses every aspect of how people live. There is a libertarian way of riding a bicycle, of taking your medicine, finding a spouse, giving blood, and even calling a cab (can you say, “Uber?”).

Is he kidding? In a world that has experienced Catholicism, fundamentalism, communism, national socialism, Islamic fundamentalism, and political correctness, he calls libertarianism “a total ideology, one that addresses every aspect of how people live?” How does such nonsense get published?

Let me just say that I’ve written books on libertarianism, and I’ve never used Uber, nor do I have any idea what the libertarian way of “riding a bicycle, of taking your medicine,” or of “finding a spouse” is supposed to be.

There are of course philosophies that are totalist or address “every aspect of how people live,” from peaceful but prescriptive religions to theocracies to 20th-century totalitarianisms. Let’s look at a more timely example, political correctness.

As Jesse Walker wrote earlier this year, the term “politically correct” began with Marxists seeking to impose ideological discipline. It gravitated to some feminist and leftist thinking between the 1960s and 1980s, also as a form of ideological discipline. Only later did it become a mocking term, first among freer-thinking leftists and then among conservatives. Note also the feminist slogan “the personal is political.” That too is an attempt to regulate thought and action, bringing them into conformity with a particular ideology. It might have derived from a 1970 essay by Carol Hamisch under that title and widely reprinted. Hamisch wrote:

One of the first things we discover in these groups is that personal problems are political problems. There are no personal solutions at this time. There is only collective action for a collective solution.

There’s a perspective that might have created an iron cage. A philosophy of “do what you want to do, so long as you respect the equal rights of others” is something very different. But Wolfe just can’t see that. He also claims:

Indeed, the libertarian conception of human nature seems curiously, even paradoxically, machine-like. Seemingly free to make our own decisions, in the libertarian utopia we would in fact be little more than slaves of rules that conform our choices to the rigidities of marketplace rationality….At a personal level, emotions such as envy, guilt, and sympathy would be forbidden us. Human nature, libertarians insist, is one thing and one thing only: the capacity to make choices based on the rational calculation of self-interest.

That’s a striking distortion of Ayn Rand’s philosophy. It has, as far as I can see, no relationship at all to non-Randian libertarianism. I suppose it’s true that libertarians discourage envy as a guide to action. But guilt and sympathy “forbidden …at a personal level?” The point of libertarianism is to respect each person as an end, not just a means; to allow persons to think and act as they please, so long as they respect the rights of others; and thereby to encourage human flourishing. You won’t find much scope in that agenda for forbidding personal emotions.

This is all very sad. You can tell that Alan Wolfe has read a lot of libertarian writings. Yet with all his reading, he has not got understanding; apparently his aversion to free-market economics blinds him to what libertarians are actually saying. Wolfe might want to reflect on something he wrote about modern Americans in his book One Nation, After All:

Above all moderate in their outlook on the world, they believe in the importance of living a virtuous life but are reluctant to impose values they understand as virtuous for themselves on others; strong believers in morality, they do not want to be considered moralists.

That just might be a description of many libertarians.

If The Princess Bride’s Inigo Montoya was here, he would say to Alan Wolfe, “Libertarianism? You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

David Boaz a native of Kentucky, is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and author of “The Libertarian Mind.”