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How to Love Liberty More Than a Libertarian Economist

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I have a deep and abiding love for liberty—which is why I find myself so often in disagreement with libertarians.


Libertarians love liberty too, of course, but they tend to love liberty a bit differently. I love liberty in an earthy, elemental way. I love liberty because I need it—like I need air and food—for human flourishing. In contrast, the libertarians I’ve encountered tend to love liberty primarily as an abstraction. Indeed, the most ideologically consistent libertarians I know seem to love the principle of liberty in a way that undercuts the reality of liberty.

Love is often blind, and this type of love leads libertarians to have a blindspot about human nature. By not accounting for how humans behave in the real world, libertarians can set themselves up for a fall.

As the ancient Greeks used to say, when the gods want to punish someone, they give him what he prays for. That would certainly be true for anyone praying for a libertarian state. If such a request were granted the libertarian state would quickly be replaced by one in which freedoms were broadly curtailed. A prime example of what I mean can be found in the way libertarianism would have dealt with the recent housing crisis. Consistent libertarians would say that we must not separate choice from consequences, and so the proper response would be to let the banks fail and the mortgage holders lose their homes.

Let’s concede for the sake of argument that the libertarians are right and that this would have been the proper and preferable response. What would have been the effect of such a policy? The answer depends on whether you assume that America is secretly composed of 300 million libertarians. If it is, then we can expect that everyone would shrug and stoically accept their fate, even if it meant the annihilation of our economy. If it were not, then the result would be that few people would have the stomach to accept such consequences. The citizens would empower both progressives and the government to help them avoid the consequences of their actions. That is essentially what happened with the non-libertarian safety net that we already had in place. If Americans had endured the forced austerity required by pure libertarianism it would have lead to an even more empowered and intrusive government.

Libertarianism could be, in theory, the greatest political theory of all time. But in reality it suffers the fatal flaw shared by all utopian schemes: a failure to account for how humans actually behave.

This is why I believe conservatism (the non-ideological variety) is superior in reality to libertarianism. At its best, conservatism takes a realistic accounting of human nature before making policy proscriptions. It starts with what is possible in the earthly realm rather than what is merely preferable in the realm of pure abstraction. Conservatism recognizes that there are unchangeable and contingent variables that must be factored into every political equation. Indeed, conservatives agree with Edmund Burke, who said:

I cannot conceive how any man can have brought himself to that pitch of presumption, to consider his country as nothing but carte blanche, upon which he may scribble whatever he pleases. A man full of warm, speculative benevolence may wish his society otherwise constituted than he finds it; but a good patriot, and a true politician, always considers how he shall make the most of the existing materials of his country.

For libertarianism to be effective would require a revolution to wipe the political slate and start with a country that is nothing but carte blanche, a slate upon which they may scribble whatever they please.

At least that is what would be required at the macro level. At the micro level they can follow the lead of libertarian economist Bryan Caplan and retreat within their own “beautiful Bubble.”

Unlike most American elites, I don’t feel the least bit bad about living in a Bubble. I share none of their egalitarian or nationalist scruples. Indeed, I’ve wanted to live in a Bubble for as long as I can remember. Since childhood, I’ve struggled to psychologically and socially wall myself off from “my” society. At 40, I can fairly say, “Mission accomplished.”

Why put so much distance between myself and the outside world? Because despite my legendary optimism, I find my society unacceptable. It is dreary, insipid, ugly, boring, wrong, and wicked. Trying to reform it is largely futile; as the Smiths tell us, “The world won’t listen.” Instead, I pursue the strategy that actually works: Making my small corner of the world beautiful in my eyes. If you ever meet my children or see my office, you’ll know what I mean.

Caplan is an admirably consistent and realistic libertarian. He not only follows the logic of libertarianism wherever it leads (e.g., pacifism) but is fully aware that since he can’t make the world libertarian, he can at least retreat into his own libertarian world.

Of course he is only able to do this because non-libertarians make it possible. As Steve Sailer writes in the comments to Caplan’s post:

Of course, if there were a big war, it would be nice to be defended by all those dreary American you despise.

And, the irony is, they’d do it, too, just because you are an American.

Caplan responded to this claim by saying:

But doesn’t Steve make a good point about my lack of reciprocity? All these Americans stand ready to protect me. Don’t they deserve my appreciation?

Frankly, this is the kind of attitude I entered my Bubble to avoid. Three points:

1. I pay good money for these protective services. So I don’t see why my American defenders deserve any more gratitude than the countless other people – American and foreign – I trade with.

2. Since my American defenders are paid by heavy taxes whether I like it or not, they deserve far less gratitude than my genuine trading partners, who scrupulously respect the sanctity of my Bubble.

3. In fact, I think my American “defenders” owe me an apology. My best guess is that, on net, the U.S. armed forces increase the probability that a big war will adversely affect me. While they deter some threats, they provoke many others. If I lived in a Bubble in Switzerland (happily neutral since 1815), at least I’d know that I was getting some value for my tax dollars.

Caplan titled his post “Reciprocity and Irony” yet he seems to miss the irony that despite being such a hardcore libertarian he doesn’t place much value on liberty.

(I’m not referring to the monetary value, though Caplan seems to undervalue that as well. The “heavy taxes” that go to defend his freedom likely amount to about $1,200 a year. How is that not a bargain? Is the price per freedom per day not equal to the cost of a Starbucks latte?)

What Caplan misses in Sailor’s criticism is that the “dreary Americans” are not protecting him because of the pittance he pays in taxes. They are protecting him because they love liberty more than he does.

Caplan’s libertarianism leads him (rightly, I believe) to embrace pacifism. As he says, the foreign policy that follows from libertarian principles is not isolationism, but opposition to all warfare. The is internally consistent yet self-defeating since the conclusion is that libertarianism means loving liberty only to the point that you are not required to defend it by means of warfare.

In contrast, I—like many other veterans in America—served my country (fifteen years in the Marine Corps) precisely because I loved freedom. I loved it so much that I was willing to sacrifice some of my own freedom, or even my life if necessary, to secure it for myself, for my nation, and for libertarian pacifists like Caplan. He is able to afford the luxury of living in his beautiful bubble because other Americans have bought that liberty for him. For over two centuries, American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines have paid the cost necessary to allow people like him to live freely. We have provided him with the safety and security he needs to crawl off in his elite bubble and forget that people like us exist.

Caplan is free to move to Switzerland, though I suspect he’ll keep his Bubble in Arlington, Virginia. As a libertarian economics professor at George Mason he’s smart enough to do the calculus. He knows that his optimal choice is to stay put and keep free-riding on the benefits provided by other people—whether liberal, conservative, or libertarian—who love liberty more than he does.

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).

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