The problem with responding to Alan Wolfe’s feeble attempt to critique libertarianism is that one might appear to be defending the particular people he targets: namely, Rand Paul and Ayn Rand. (Rand Paul was not named after Ayn Rand. At least Wolfe avoided that error.) I want to defend the libertarian philosophy without defending Rand Paul or Ayn Rand because:
Rand Paul doesn’t claim to be a libertarian, which is good because he isn’t. For example, he is not a consistent noninterventionist in foreign policy; he’s merely more cautious than his rivals and prefers that Congress be asked for declarations of war. Let’s not conflate constitutionalism with libertarianism. As Paul said in 2010, “They thought all along that they could call me a libertarian and hang that label around my neck like an albatross, but I’m not a libertarian.” That should dispose of the matter, unless one has evidence he is lying or has changed his mind. Even if, relatively speaking, he is more pleasing to libertarians than any other major political figure, that does not make him a libertarian. So Wolfe is wrong when he writes, “If Paul were to win the Republican nomination, libertarianism’s unfitness for the modern world would be revealed for all to see.” Libertarianism’s fitness or lack thereof has nothing to do with Rand Paul.
Ayn Rand, for all the virtues of her philosophical system, was hardly a model libertarian, a label she also rejected. She endorsed the limited monopoly state as well as intellectual property, which is problematic for a politics rooted in freedom; she lacked insight into the nature of historical capitalism; and she was not a principled noninterventionist in foreign policy (though she was better than some of her followers.) Wolfe writes that Rand, “for all her talk of freedom, was an authoritarian at heart. She was intolerant of dissent and conspiratorial to a fault.” But contrary to Wolfe, her personal failings cannot be held against her political philosophy. Surely he can see the distinction between political philosophy and personal conduct. Rand’s chief political principle was that no person — including the persons who run the state — has the right to initiate physical force against another person. (Wolfe doesn’t mention that.) If Rand was intolerant of dissent or conspiratorial to a fault (whatever that means), what does that have to do with this principle? She neither aggressed against those who disagreed with her nor called on the state to do so. Anyone who disliked her intolerance was free not to to associate with her. Clearly, Wolfe is using the term “authoritarian” equivocally. An authoritarian state necessarily aggresses against people. A person with an authoritarian personality need not. The kind of government Rand favored — although too much for a consistent libertarian — would not have been authoritarian. (See Rand’s writing, for example, on censorship.)
So even if we were to grant everything Wolfe says about Rand Paul and Ayn Rand, it would tell us nothing about the libertarian philosophy. I will leave it to others to examine Wolfe’s belief that libertarian electoral politics are impractical because most people won’t accept the philosophy. (However, he asks a good left-libertarian question: “How, exactly, does one get government ‘interference’ out of business when business wants it there most of the time?”)
Before proceeding, I must perform an act of charity, which is more than Wolfe does in his article. The title of the Reuters blogpost is “Why libertarianism is closer to Stalinism than you think.” Since the word “Stalinism” appears nowhere in the piece, I will assume that an flamboyant editor wrote the headline. So let’s not hold Wolfe responsible for it. The article is bad enough already.
Speaking of charity, you’ll not find it here: “To keep them [pure libertarians] pleased, Paul must from time to time speak directly to their fears. His effort to hold up a Senate vote on extending the NSA’s authority to collect Americans’ telephone records served that need well.” Is Wolfe saying that Paul’s defense of Americans’ privacy is merely a cynical political move? Has Wolfe evidence to support that charge? And how does he square it with his contention that Paul is a libertarian, since libertarians genuinely detest government surveillance? It sounds as though Wolfe supports extending the NSA’s authority to collect phone data on every American and that he believes opposition is based on irrational fear.
Behold Wolfe’s indictment of the libertarian philosophy:
For libertarianism is among the most rigid of modern ideologies. The theorists who formulated its core principles were seekers after political purity. They created an ideal world designed to work perfectly — but only if human beings acted consistently. Society, to them, was like a Swiss watch: Let every part play its designed role, and the whole thing would run on its own accord.
This is pure polemics void of serious content. It’s just silly to say that libertarian theorists sought political purity as though that were an end in itself. What they sought was a world without aggression; where free and peaceful social cooperation (including but not limited to voluntary exchange in the market) was extended to all areas of life; where no one could treat others like property. The theorists sought to formulate a philosophy that consistently served that end.
Anyone familiar with the major libertarian thinkers would surely know that a world “designed to work perfectly” was no part of their intention. They were attempting nothing of the kind. In fact, they were not trying to design any kind of world at all. Major libertarian thinkers all had some version of F. A. Hayek’s views on the impossibility of designing — planning — society, a view based on the limits of human knowledge and of reason. It would be contradictory to advocate freedom while trying to design the world because free people would inevitably disrupt the designer’s plans. (Hayek emphasizes that point in The Road to Serfdom.) No libertarian sees society as anything like a Swiss watch, and suggesting such a thing marks one as ignorant of libertarianism. Society runs “on its own accord” not because people “act consistently” or play their designed roles, but rather because freedom generates bottom-up institutions (including but not limited to the price system) that coordinate endlessly diverse individuals’ joint and several activities.
Admittedly, rigidity is present, but only in this respect: You may not treat other people purely as means to your ends because they are ends in themselves. You may not tread on them. If it pleases Wolfe to equate that prohibition with a religious view of sin, so be it. Others will see it differently.
If you want more of Wolfe’s polemics, see this piece of nonsense:
[According to libertarianism,] individuals are free to act in their self-interest — indeed, are required to [!] — but if they grow lazy or are swayed by emotions or altruism, society’s best achievements will come crashing down around them.
I would comment but I have no idea what this means. He adds that “however inspiring libertarian principles may be to the truly committed, they are elitist at their core.” I wish Wolfe had attempted to substantiate that claim. If no one may treat another as property — if all are “equal in authority” — how can the philosophy be elitist?
(Incidentally, I’ve criticized Wolfe before. See “Market, State, and Autonomy.”)