There has been much interest in libertarianism in recent years, especially among young people. Many feel like libertarianism’s moment is coming. On the other hand, the rise of far-right and far-left sentiments among other sections of the young adult population is perhaps putting a brake on this optimism. Will libertarianism’s time come soon, or is it just wishful thinking?
The Core Libertarian Dilemma
The recent interest in libertarianism stems from a desire to reform society to provide more liberty for everyone. However, libertarianism’s critics say that libertarian policies, as they are articulated in the platform of mainstream libertarian parties around the world, will result in less freedom for many people if literally implemeted right now. Those without a job and without any means of production would be forced to take any job available, including sex work, for example. Many also extrapolate the effects of libertarian policies from their hypothetical application to our current society, and conclude that such policies will lead to rampant corporate capitalism with a large slave-like underclass. Some even conclude that libertarianism allows for the effective reinvention of slavery, or would otherwise lead to neoreactionary societies.
Would a pro-liberty policy platform potentially lead to such illiberal effects? Libertarians themselves generally say no. They say that the current rampant corporate capitalism and economic inequality is a result of centuries of past government action, and that by removing government intervention things will somehow automatically return to their normal functioning within a reasonable timeframe. In an ideal libertarian society, the kind of capitalism that will prevail will be small business entrepreneurship, and the American Dream would be in reach for the average person again.
So which camp is right?
Would the removal of all government intervention overnight result in the return of society to its pre-intervention state, or would it just magnify the current inequalities?
Ideals are one thing, but to judge reality one must look at the evidence available. In the 1980s, led by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, government regulations in the financial world were substantially relaxed, compared to the previous era. While these governments do not represent real libertarian governments, they did enact a substantial number of policies aimed at reducing the size of government. Therefore, if libertarian immediatism really leads to more liberty for all, it would have been proven by at least some aspects of Reaganomics. As more than thirty years have already passed, there should be enough time to see plenty of results.
So what are the results of Reaganomics? Firstly, there has been an increase in the wealth gap and a consolidation of corporate power driving small businesses out of the marketplace. The market may be theoretically freer from an economist’s point of view, but it is actually less free from a practical point of view, because the barrier to entry has been raised many times. Secondly, the increase in the wealth gap has led to a revival of far-left ideas in the West. While some older people may think of the 1960s as college communism’s heyday, that time is actually right now. The popularity of far-left ideas among today’s youth has risen to a level never seen in the West before. Thirdly, the rise in crime that has accompanied the increasing rate of poverty has made many neighbourhoods unsafe, and has led to a necessary dramatic increase in the law enforcement budget. In short, Reaganomics has been a disaster for liberty, except for the most wealthy 1% (whose liberty is also at risk if college far-lefts get their way eventually, I must add.)
The Case for Libertarian Gradualism
The failed Reaganomics experiment shows us that theoretically libertarian policies may not necessarily have a libertarian effect, especially in the longer run. As centuries of government intervention has already led to enormous levels of artificial inequality, simply withdrawing such intervention overnight will not work. Withdrawing all government intervention simply allows previous government-sponsored inequality to continue and even accelerate. This is because gross economic inequality also leads to inequality in power, and those with enormous power can always continue to distort the system to their advantage, even if they are not governments. Those with a big enough amount of wealth and hence power would effectively be able to become Kings over their economically dependent subjects. Libertarianism in this sense would be effectively no different from the neoreaction. As observed in the Reaganomics experiment, there will not be a trend towards self-correction back to liberty for all either. Meanwhile, the vast majority of people who were disadvantaged by previous government policies will find the new situation even more unfair for them, and will eventually revolt, perhaps by installing a far-left government using people power.
Therefore, while the goals of libertarianism are noble, we must remember that their proper application is in an ideal world, a world where centuries of big government has never occurred. No matter how much we may wish this was the case, this is simply not the society we find ourselves in. Therefore, while libertarian policies should be developed and libertarian ideas should be kept alive, it is not always in liberty’s interest that libertarian policies be applied immediately in every sphere of life, especially where the economy is concerned.
That said, libertarianism still has a major role to play, in the here and now.
In practical political terms, I self-identify as a liberal, and I take that to mean the support of policies which lead to practical liberty (as opposed to only the theoretical liberty promised by libertarian immediatism). I am a firm believer in practical liberty, because I believe that a politics built around only theoretical liberty would be essentially meaningless to most people, and ultimately discredit the idea of liberty altogether. However, the practice of practical liberty must still be well informed by the theory of liberty. The practice of liberty must not be allowed to evolve into simply what feels good, otherwise liberalism will simply evolve into statist progressivism.Therefore, liberalism must be informed by libertarian ideas and debates, even if in practice not all libertarian ideas will be accepted as immediate policy goals. Consequentialist liberalism should only be allowed to reject libertarian policies when such policies clearly lead to a loss of liberty in practice. In other words, libertarianism can play an important part in keeping all liberals, including the most consequentialist of liberals, honest in their devotion to liberty.
Libertarianism’s inspiration for the current world should of course extend beyond the purely theoretical too. While many libertarian ideas are regarded as esoteric and impractical in the current world (e.g. abolishing the public fire service and replacing it with competing private sector fire services), many other libertarian ideas are really not that impractical. Take marriage privatization for example. There is nothing impractical about marriage privatization, as long as it is executed in a well-considered manner, after many years of serious debate and policy development. The reason why both sides of mainstream politics will not talk about marriage privatization is because of their ideological attachments: the right to social conservatism, the left to the vague idea that somehow privatization is always no-good. Libertarians who encourage discussion around the idea of marriage privatization are thus helping to develop an idea whose time has perhaps come, but whose development is hindered by the traditional political divide.