Paul Krugman’s Foolish Fantasy of What Libertarianism Is

Well, that didn’t take long. The morning after The New York Times Magazine publishes the Gray Lady’s most charitable and understanding in-depth treatment of libertarianism since the modern movement’s emergence in the 1970s, Paul Krugman had ready his obligatory harrumphing dismissal.

Getting into his economic-wonk comfort zone as quickly as possible, Krugman perfunctorily brushes past the entire actual topic of the magazine article, the appeal of libertarianism to today’s youth, with this: “Polling suggests that young Americans tend, if anything, to be more supportive of the case for a bigger government than their elders.” (Which kind of depends on how you interpret the polls.) But then, keeping up with cultural zeitgeist is not exactly the strong suit of Mr. Twinkie Manifesto who, between his declaration that “The political and economic environment of my youth stands revealed as a paradise lost” (rightly pegged by actual leftist Arun Gupta as “mush-brained“), what Brink Lindsey dubs his nostalgianomics, his lamenting “the breakdown of marriage“, and his reliance on hoary references to Atlas Shrugged (“basically Dwight Eisenhower’s America”) as a proxy for libertarian attitudes, hasn’t gotten past the 1950s. A generation whose view of government is the rot of Game of Thrones rather than the G-Men of The F.B.I., and whose notion of heroic business owes more to the Hunger Games series’s black-market bazaar, The Hob, than to captains of industry, does not compute in that Pleasantville worldview. (The Times‘s Dave Kehr is more perceptive: whereas the H.G. Wells film Things to Come‘s portrayal of a decentralized period before the ascendance of a purportedly-beneficent world government was “a vision of hell to a progressive like Wells”, now “it looks like a land of opportunity, free from corporate oppression and technological tyranny. With her trusty bow and arrow, Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen would feel right at home”.)

Krugman waves a single word at libertarian economics like a vampire hunter’s crucifix: “phosphorous”.  (Not “phlogiston“?) The chemical’s contamination of Lake Erie is treated as a prime example of a problem which self-evidently can be fixed only by the regulatory apparatus of a benevolent government. Did somebody say water pollution? Charles Johnson elucidates that

statist anti-pollution laws are stopping small, local environmental groups from actually taking direct, simple steps toward containing the lethal pollution that is constantly running into their communities’ rivers — and … big national environmental groups are lobbying hard to make sure that the smaller, grassroots environmental groups keep getting blocked by the Feds.

No mention is made of the decades of substantial libertarian literature dealing with pollution, much of it specifically about water pollution. Murray Rothbard treated the pollution problem in a detailed section in his 1973 For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto and a lengthy 1982 article for the Cato Institute [PDF]. How far Rothbard’s take is from the visceral denialist, pro-existing-industry view of conservatives like, well, Paul Ryan (Krugman’s Exhibit A of libertarian “projection”), can be gleaned from his noting that “denial of the very existence of the [pollution] problem is to deny science itself”, that

if governments as owners of the rivers permit pollution of water, then industrial technology will — and has — become a water-polluting technology. If production processes are allowed to pollute the rivers unchecked by their owners, then that is the sort of production technology we will have.

and, most of all, that

The argument that such an injunctive prohibition against pollution would add to the costs of industrial production is as reprehensible as the pre-Civil War argument that the abolition of slavery would add to the costs of growing cotton.

Even the most cursory glance over the 1971 New York Times Magazine article “The New Right Credo — Libertarianism”, which is directly mentioned in the new NYTM piece, would reveal its lengthy section on the ill effects of pollution, which is mentioned no less than 17 times. (Not to mention that it’s also harshly critical of car culture.  But then again, what is more exemplary of the postwar Keynesian economy than the auto industry, with its triopoly stability and propped-up consumer demand?)

Krugman’s entire rejoinder to Milton Friedman’s proposal that tort law could effectively replace the regulatory state as a check on corporate power (only one of enough such examples to fill a book) — and his only actual attempt at addressing free-market proposals at all — is: “Really?” Really. Never mind that exactly that approach has been championed by no less of a foe of corporate power than Ralph Nader, much to the chagrin of more statist leftists like Doug Henwood, who chides Nader that tort “[l]itigation is an individualized solution to broad economic and social conflicts whose proper arena is politics, not the courtroom.” And while Krugman feebly notes the correlation that “people who denounce big government also tend to call for tort reform and attack trial lawyers”, Nader has never passed up an opportunity to note how “tort reform” and limitations on legal liability fly in the face of any consistent adherence to free-market principles.

Krugman sees the idea that “welfare programs are wasting vast sums on bureaucracy rather than helping the poor” to be as fictional as Ayn Rand’s novels. (At least he’s giving libertarians the credit of thinking that “helping the poor” is a good thing. And why not replace what little bureaucracy exists with direct payments to the poor?) Never mind the cutting criticism of the welfare state’s supposed beneficence from the real left’s Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven, as summarized by the New York Times itself:

Historically, they argue, public relief has served to regulate the poor, not assist them; to defuse political turmoil and discipline the labor force. From the Middle Ages, governments have extended relief whenever mass unemployment caused by economic dislocation begins to threaten political order. Once such flashpoints are passed, the relief rolls are constricted; whatever residual assistance remains is administered in such a harsh and degrading fashion as to stand warning for the laboring poor.

As an example of how out of touch libertarians are, Krugman notes that his experiences with the D.M.V. “have generally been fairly good… and I’m sure many libertarians would, if they were honest, admit that their own D.M.V. dealings weren’t too bad”. Few would say the same about the D.E.A.

Wrapping up his purported case that libertarian economics and antigovernment sentiment “is a foolish fantasy”, Krugman concludes that the American left-right spectrum will be undisturbed by libertarianism: “despite America’s growing social liberalism, real power on the right still rests with the traditional alliance between plutocrats and preachers.” But with the memory of the mid-20th-century Cold and culture wars fading, it is increasingly likely that such a Reaganite alliance will not define the future. Let the plutocrats and theocrats huddle together with the bureaucrats. Free-market entrepreneurs and sincere religious believers will no longer be their captive constituency, leaving their increasingly hollow power behind to join with their true worker and free-to-be comrades in a live-and-let-live, pluralistic, post-Twinkie world.

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