Contra Wilkinson and Gaus, libertarians should retain their idealism
The upcoming election in the United States features two deeply unpopular major-party candidates. One of them is a left-of-center politician with a long history of scandals. The other, Donald Trump, is arguably a neofascist demagogue with clear authoritarian tendencies. This has led to an unprecedented situation where the candidate from the Libertarian Party has non-zero chances to win the presidency but may also in some unlikely scenarios help propel Trump to the White House.
It is in this context that the Niskanen Center vice-president Will Wilkinson builds on a new book by Gerald Gaus to argue that idealism-driven political movements like libertarianism are almost bound to make things worse. Wilkinson proposes two major arguments for this conclusion.
First, he asserts that major institutional changes required to implement principled worldviews will of necessity face profound disagreement and will likely require horrible measures for their implementation. He cites the example of communists who killed millions in trying to reach their ideal. Secondly, he claims that major institutional changes are almost always ‘exotic’ and thus likely to be wrong because they are not based on experience of societies actually living with them. I would like to argue that while being superficially persuasive his arguments (and Gaus’s, to the extent that Wilkinson’s summary of them is accurate) do not remotely succeed.
To start with, Wilkinson’s key example — that of the communists — does not show that they abandoned any commitment to justice to achieve a perfectly just social order. Rather, and crucially, they never had a theory of universal, inalienable individual rights. They had a vision of how people would live in the communist society, they found that vision compelling and they did whatever it took to make it a reality.
Moreover, as a key quote from the Communist Party Manifesto demonstrates, the founders of communism treated the idea of universal individual rights with contempt. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels almost lamented the fact that the bourgeoisie “has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade”. While Marx and Engels clearly focused on the economic aspect (hence, they caricatured the laissez-faire position into one being entirely about trade), they clearly did not think much about abstract rights seemingly implying that even various Medieval privileges that they called ‘chartered freedoms’ were more reasonable.
Wilkinson could of course retort that liberalizing revolutions like the unfortunate French example had their huge excesses, and he would be correct in doing so. However, this would not help salvage his argument since it is much stronger. After all, Wilkinson claims that “a commitment to an ideal of perfect justice is a commitment to making things worse to make them better or it’s no commitment at all”.
The point about the need to avoid ‘exotic’ institutional changes is also unconvincing. This kind of argument could have easily been made in 1770 about virtually any modern institutional feature that most of us take for granted. From religious freedom (including the freedom to be an atheist or a Satanist!) to the total ban on slavery, from freedom to have a divorce to the one-person-one-vote principle. These things were completely exotic in 1770, and, according to Wilkinson’s logic, should not have been tried.
In addition to the flaws of argumentation, Wilkinson seems to imply that his favored approach is somehow far less risky than major liberalization but the history of his own country, the United States, suggests otherwise. FDR was not a wide-eyed political idealist by any measure, yet he brought the most important country for the world’s progress since the late 19th century onto the verge of fascism with his National Recovery Act that attempted to forcefully cartelize the whole economy. Only the determined resistance of the Supreme Court saved the day. A similar life-or-death moment for the relatively liberal society came after WW2 when FDR’s successor Truman rejected the advice of the mostly Keynesian economic experts and chose to dismantle the war programs and let the market economy employ the soldiers. Both of those decisions that took the U.S. society (and, arguably, the whole world) back from the brink look more like lucky accidents depending largely on the personalities involved than inevitable outcomes.
All that said, Wilkinson does raise an important concern about libertarianism. How can its adherents possibly achieve their goals when the vast majority of people would find their vision highly objectionable without major violence?
How radical liberalization succeeded in the past and can again
Interestingly, the question I just asked is closely related to the key question raised in the important book trilogy by Deirdre McCloskey on the origins of the Industrial Revolution.
McCloskey attempts to figure out whether it was institutional changes or the shift in the underlying ideas that brought the Industrial Revolution and the modern relatively liberal society about. She ultimately concludes that it was the latter but her approach seems to contain an important flaw. She (as well as Douglas North whom she criticizes) seems to be focusing on the theory that a one-time major institutional change (in this case, the Glorious Revolution of 1689) is sufficient to change the trajectory of the societal development because it dramatically changes the incentives people confront in their choices. McCloskey rightly argues that this is an implausible argument because it implies a sort of mechanistic incentive-based determinism.
However, the case for institutional changes can be modified to address this concern. It may be said that major institutional changes are not sufficient but necessary conditions for social progress. And the right major institutional changes work, despite engendering profound disagreement (at least initially), because they allow people to experience the reality that they could not have imagined before them.
As an example of such a change pre-dating the Industrial Revolution, consider not the Glorious Revolution but the abolition of monopolies by the English Parliament in 1623. This reform likely allowed a lot of innovation that would have never happened otherwise. It thus allowed people to experience the benefits of this innovation in their daily lives and see for themselves that goods and services do not need to be produced by highly exclusive guilds or other privileged actors, that life was actually better when this is not the case.
Libertarian reforms can succeed in a similar fashion. Of course, it is politically impossible to implement libertarianism wholesale at one step. However, if libertarians are correct in their perception that government policies of all kinds stifle human creativity and innovation, just as guilds and monopolies did in the early 17th century, then major changes in the libertarian direction will quickly result in visible improvements, and give people the opportunity to experience the world they mostly cannot imagine, or, in the words of Trevor Burrus, escape the “Statrix”.