Answering Michael Lind’s Question: Why Is No Country Libertarian?

Last week at Salon, Michael Lind raised a question he thinks “libertarians can’t answer,” namely, “If your approach is so great, why hasn’t any country anywhere in the world ever tried it?” He elaborates:

Why are there no libertarian countries? If libertarians are correct in claiming that they understand how best to organize a modern society, how is it that not a single country in the world in the early twenty-first century is organized along libertarian lines?

Lind regards the non-existence of a libertarian country as a slam-dunk refutation of libertarianism. “If socialism is discredited by the failure of communist regimes in the real world,” he asks, “why isn’t libertarianism discredited by the absence of any libertarian regimes in the real world?”

Maybe because when political communities adopt libertarian institutions, principles, and policies such as property rights, freedom of speech and association, freedom of contract, free trade, and legislative checks and balances, the results are generally good, and when communities adopt antithetical institutions and policies the results are generally bad.

Reflecting on those big-picture realities, one is led to the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals. The ideal is a polestar that helps direct our aim. But that is all. I don’t know a single libertarian who thinks that, if we just keep pushing, some day we will all live in Libertaria.

Why are there no full-blown libertarian regimes in the real world? The answer to this question is so obvious it’s a wonder Lind hasn’t thought of it. Libertarians have actually explicated it in detail. It’s called public choice theory.

Most countries throughout history have been ruled by thugs and thieves. Fleecing ‘enemies’ for the benefit of ‘friends’ has been the central art of politics from time immemorial (see Plato, Republic, book I). Socialist George Bernard Shaw expressed the essence of politics in most times and places when he said, “A government with the policy to rob Peter to pay Paul can be assured of the support of Paul.”

To pursue a consistent libertarian agenda, the profession whose stock in trade is plunder would have to vote away their much of their power, prestige, perks, and even, in many cases, their jobs.

Public choice theory unpacks the implications of the simple fact that the pursuit of self-interest operates in politics as fully as in private commerce. The collective interest of every industry is to grow. Name a single profession that seeks to reduce its profits, sales, or market share! The political sector is no different. Limiting and scaling back government is contrary to the class interest not only of politicians but also of bureaucrats, lobbyists, activist groups, and much of the media, which would have fewer controversies and scandals to cover if government were smaller and less important.

Big government, moreover, is truly an addiction — an appetite that grows with feeding. Beneficiaries of the transfer state lobby to expand their benefits, potential beneficiaries lobby to expand eligibility requirements so they can get a slice of the pie, and disfavored interests lobby for their own policy privileges to “level the playing field.” Some groups may be willing to relinquish their special tax breaks, regulatory preferences, or entitlements, but only if everybody else does too; nobody wants to be the sap who makes a unilateral sacrifice. To paraphrase Garrett Hardin, where politicians pretend that government can and should play Santa Claus, interest groups rush to their “ruin,” seeking rents, windfalls, and other wealth transfers “without limit — in a world that is limited.”

In addition, each disaster spawned by government intervention (e.g. the recent financial crisis) sets the stage for further interventions (e.g. the stimulus program). Blame-shifting politicians attribute their policy debacles to “market failure,” the liberal media disseminate the anti-capitalist narrative, and rationally ignorant voters typically are too busy to research the issue for themselves.

Libertarian politicians exist, but they are the exception to the rule. The only way a thoroughgoing libertarian regime could arise is if libertarians become a governing majority. That is improbable given the permanent aggregate interest of the political class in growing government, the advantages of incumbency, and the patron-client relationships that multiply as government expands.

Nonetheless, libertarians should not be daunted by Lind’s question. All he has really shown is what we already know — there’s too little freedom in the world! Even if there never is a fully libertarian country, libertarian reform is obviously possible and arguably more necessary now than ever. Our government is freaking out of control, as anyone knows who’s been following the IRSEPA, and NSA scandals, to say nothing of Washington’s red ink nightmare.

As my colleague Iain Murray likes to say, in a nod to Thatcher, “Socialism is great fun until the other guy’s money runs out.” America is on a disaster course. When disaster strikes, frightened people may follow the pied-piping demagogue. But good people may also turn to those who respect them enough not to pander for their votes and who have been right from the start.

America’s peril makes libertarian insights and advocacy more valuable, not less. To abandon the philosophy and agenda of liberty, as Lind not-so-subtly counsels, would be both foolish and wrong.