Synopsis: A Critique of Real-Existing Libertarianism

In a series of posts, I explore what in my view has gone wrong in libertarian thinking. I would see a mistaken focus on certain questions and, on the other side, blindness for others. In principle, this could be remedied. But I believe there are also some developments in libertarian thought that need to be criticized and even rejected.

Classical liberalism — not in the reinterpretation of Hayek or Mises — deserves greater consideration from libertarians, not just as a supposedly inconsistent proto-libertarianism. And even broader: Libertarians should appreciate the common heritage more, or often at least at all, with other political ideologies that are descended from an old liberalism in a wide sense. These encompass, for example, Social Democrats or certain strands in conservatism. What libertarians also need to address are ideologies not only on the Left, but also on the Right that are inherently illiberal or even anti-liberal. Standard libertarian criticisms are too shallow in my view.

I will list all articles in this series with short summaries here, and keep the overview updated. First the main articles:

  • Libertarianism and Representative Democracy: Many varieties of libertarianisms are highly critical or even hostile towards representative democracy. Even those that are not offer mostly only lukewarm support. This is unlike many classical liberals who viewed their liberalism and representative democracy as one program that needed to be defended as a whole. In this post, I start with the topic that I will explore further.
  • The Liberal Order — An Explanation: In the previous article I use the term “liberal order” in a specific sense that is not self-explaining. I try to make the notion concrete: It is basically a set of values and institutional requirements that developed out of an old liberalism: universality, equality, individualism, and liberty, as well as popular rule via representative democracy, the rule of law, and constitutional constraints. I also develop the concept of the shared intellectual heritage further.
  • Both Hayek and His Opponents Were Wrong: A common assumption among libertarians is that a liberal democracy with a welfare state is on the “road to serfdom.” There is an almost inevitable dynamic that drives the share of the government in the economy up, and in the final analysis to 100%, a fully planned economic order. Parallel with this, the political system is supposed to degenerate into authoritarianism where the two developments are intertwined and feed on each other. Hayek, but also Mises, but also many others have held such a view.— My contention in this post is that this claim is false. Welfare states have grown considerably, but only to a point. Mostly the share of the government, not only from the welfare state in anarrow sense, leveled off decades ago, and well below 100%. Liberal democracy remained in place. My tentative explanation for this development is that during times of fast economic growth, it is politically easy to expand the share of the government in the economy. When economic growth fell, this was no longer feasible. A larger share of the government leads also to a larger constituency that checked a further increase via the political process. — I then analyze why Hayek’s opponents, revisionist Social Democrats or Fabian Socialists, also believed that a welfare state would be the road to Socialism, only with a different take. For them it was a promise, for Hayek a menace. Both were then surprised by the actual development from the 1970s on, and tried to fix their worldview in similar ways, only with different moral judgments. — Maybe a liberal democracy leads to a larger welfare state, but it could also be a bulwark to keep it away from a fully planned economy.

Another sub-series of posts addresses more specific questions:

  • Libertarians as Useful Idiots: Libertarianism has been promoted by Russian state propaganda. Either oblivious to this or maybe sometimes also complicit in it, some libertarians have taken over a role as “useful idiots.”
  • It Began Long Before 2016: I explore here an example of how libertarians were targeted by Russian state propaganda, and speculate about further such influence campaigns. I will continue with this topic in upcoming posts.
  • Homeschooling is Not Illegal in Germany: Something that every American libertarian seems to know: the oppressive German government outlaws teaching your children. Guess what: it doesn’t. “Homeschooling” in a narrow sense is indeed not possible. But I argue the case here that the libertarian argument is weak and actually the German take mostly correct.

One focus in my series of posts is the “pipeline to the alt-right,” the remarkably easy transition of some libertarians to an ideology that should not be congenial:

  • The 19th Century Also Provides Some Lessons: I believe that the 19th century is perhaps more important to an understanding of our times than the rather extreme 20th century. Most ideologies have roots that go back to the time. And many developments are eerily similar to what we experience now.
  • March to the Right: The National Liberals (Introduction): The National Liberal Party split off from the German Progress Party in late 1866/early 1867. Initially, it had a rather consistent classical liberal program. But the party moved ever further to the right. This is the first of a short series of posts.

To understand my thinking, here are posts that are loosely related with the main line of argument:

  • Worldviews, Narratives, and Ideologies: I distinguish between ideologies and worldviews. The former are explicit arguments that appeal to reason, while the latter are intuitive panoramas of how one thinks the world works. I think that the interplay between ideologies and the implicit worldviews in the background can explain many developments that are hard to understand or incomprehensible only with a focus on the ideological side.
  • A Defense of the Term “Populism”: I would say that there is a distinct populist worldview that has an overlap with many other worldviews and can be a part of them, including libertarianism. I explain what I think sets this worldview apart.
  • Theories about a Conspiracy and “Conspiracy Theories”: A general post about the distinction between warranted analysis of actual conspiracies and the “conspiracy theory” genre. There is an overlap here with libertarianism because not a few libertarians are into “conspiracy theories.” A notable example would be Ron Paul in my view.

And then there are two series of posts that have a connection with the current topic:

  • Synposis: What’s Wrong with the Malthusian Argument?: I here blog about a book project. The Malthusian argument is an integral part of our culture. It has had a deep impact on many ideologies on the Right, but also on classical liberalism and libertarianism. The channel is not necessarily on a rational level, but via an associated Malthusian worldview that is widely shared. As I argue, the Malthusian argument has no merit, but not for the reasons that many libertarians assume.
  • Synopsis: Arguments for Free Migration: Classical liberals were consistently pro-free migration, but many libertarians treat this as an open question. I will blog about the topic in a series of posts, which is an offspin of another book project that is currently on the backburner.