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Libertarianism: If Not Now, Then When?

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With the collapse of the American economy, what better time to ask: Can libertarianism come to the rescue? Perhaps the most interesting statement in the Wikipedia discussion of libertarianism is that “There is no single theory that can be reliably identified as the libertarian theory, and no single principle or set of principles on which all libertarians would agree.”

Nevertheless, I think it is fair to say that libertarianism includes the belief in economic freedom that emphasizes removing corporate subsidies and other favoritism to special interests and provides maximum freedom to individuals to pursue financial success and security.

It also seems to me that authentic libertarians would be agonizing over the current historic growth in governmental ownership of what we thought were private, corporate enterprises. We seem to be seeing more authoritarian government being justified by the current economic meltdown and the public demand for rescue of the economy and alleviation of the considerable pain inflicting so many millions of Americans.

What I find myself intrigued by is this central question: In these terrible economic times, is it not reasonable to think that if libertarianism was ever to have a chance of attracting very broad public support as an alternative to what the US has had for many, many decades, this would be the time. That is, if American capitalism that has prevailed for so long with the support of the two-party plutocracy run government has clearly failed, then why would not a fundamentally different paradigm be seen as critically needed?  No, it seems to me that what we are witnessing right now is the demise of “free enterprise” and the growth of more authoritarian government. Government, through the Federal Reserve, is eager to print and borrow more money, with no limits in sight. Not exactly what libertarians would prefer.

So I have been examining websites with a libertarian orientation to see whether there is any kind of effort to offer an alternative to what President Obama and Congress seem totally committed to do with the aim of stimulating the collapsing US economy,

I found a very thoughtful article by Sheldon Richman in The American Conservative critiquing the New Deal that current politicians seem intent on replicating. Here is an excerpt from it:

“Yet with all this government activism, the U.S. economy, despite halting attempts at recovery, could not shake the Depression. In 1937 and 1938, the financial system went into an unprecedented secondary depression, with a new stock-market crash and unemployment climbing back to over 20 percent. Jim Powell notes in FDR’s Folly that the New Deal further eroded the banking system; raised taxes; made hiring workers, particularly unskilled blacks, prohibitively expensive; increased the price of most goods, including food; and discouraged investment. This is hardly the New Deal we’re taught in school. As historian David Kennedy put it, ‘Whatever it was, [the New Deal] was not a recovery program, or at any rate not an effective one…The New Deal did not, therefore, end the Depression. …What can we learn from all this? That money is too important to be left to the state. One way or another, government mismanagement of the monetary system wrecked the U.S. economy. It’s happening again now. The only permanent way to avoid a repetition is to place the system where it belongs: in the free market. … individual liberty is the first casualty when bureaucracy expands to manage the economy.”

If minimizing the role of government in our lives and economy is an essential feature of libertarianism, then there does not appear to be much public or political interest in it.

If greed and irresponsible economic behavior by both government and private entities in past years has brought us to the current awful recession, then is anyone interested in selling a libertarian alternative based on sound money and free markets?

Who better to look to than Ron Paul. He recently addressed the House Financial Services Committee’s hearing on the Madoff Ponzi scandal. He noted out that Bernard Madoff was operating under the supervision of the SEC, that more regulation will only make the fraudulent operations easier because they can claim to be approved by the government, and that two of the biggest government-run Ponzi schemes are the Social Security system and even the monetary system itself. Paul supports abolishing the Federal Reserve and the SEC, and returning to an honest monetary system based on gold and/or free competition in currencies. He says outright that “we need to get rid of the bad policies, the monetary system, and these mountains of debt. …we’re gonna hire more bureaucrats and we’re gonna appropriate more money we don’t have. …We’ve been doing this for 78 years, and we’ll do it again, but believe me, this will not solve our problems.”

I did not notice any significant media coverage of Paul’s views and certainly no rush of politicians with far more power to him or his views. In other words, if Paul is probably the best spokesperson for libertarianism in the country, and if he is right, then there clearly is no significant public or political interest in libertarianism in these historic and terrible economic days.

Personally, when Paul said: “We could return to sound money. We could balance our budget. There’s a lot of things that we can do. But the worst thing that we can do is perpetuate the bad policies that gave us this trouble in the first place. And that is that we no longer, over the last quite a few decades, believed in free-market capitalism.” I think he got it right. But I am forced to conclude that libertarianism is dead as a door nail and doomed to remain a marginalized and insignificant movement offering a home for the relatively few that seek intellectual shelter in a true alternative to the current dominant economic system. Paul’s revolution is going nowhere. After all, when the US economy collapses, as it already has, and the nation does not turn to the one true alternative to it, what else can we conclude?

If libertarianism offers the better solution, then the path that President Obama and Congress are on, with the support of the media and corporate America, will prove painful and fruitless. This means a lot more pain and suffering for most Americans. Maybe, come 2012, Ron Paul can run again and say “I told you so.”

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About Joel S. Hirschhorn

Formerly full professor Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison, and senior official Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and National Governors Association. Author of four nonfiction books and hundreds of articles.
  • I’m surprised to see this from you, Joel. Not surprised that you’ve been taken in by Ron Paul’s pseudolibertarianism, but that you seem to have turned against the statist-socialism you’ve advocated in your previous articles. You must be getting truly desperate.

    I would think that you would find the pro-business, anti-socialist bent of libertarianism to be incompatible with your support for things like socialized medicine and the labor cartel.


  • lpcowboy

    While there is currently more interest in libertarianism than any other time in recent history, the political and media establishement tend to mimimize its value.

    We don’t know when libertarians may re-obtain autonomy or political power. The western world failed to predict the timing of the fall of communism, and the many of the former communist states have turned to social-democratic governments rather than libertarianism. Technology allowing long-distance space travel would seem to put an upper bound on this timeframe, but probably won’t be achievable in our lifetimes.

    In the interim, I would note the US economic system has not collapsed. While economic indicators have fallen, to be considered colapsed individuals would have to refuse to accept us currency, bonds, and other government backed or dollar demoniated assets. If trends continue this will eventually occur, but to this point the “crisis” has yet to impact many individuals. In any case, this type of collapse would probably be ncessary for most people to consider a shift in government for purley economic reasons.

  • What a lot of people forget is that 70% of our economy is small businesses and entrepreneurs. While the other 30% may be going to hell in a handbasket, we still have that core and the powerful consumer sector to keep us going.

    It’s just like the bank panic, where the megabanks are getting a bailout which just goes after bad debt, while small local banks are still functioning and even lending money.


  • With the GOP in such disarray I hope the Libertarian wing of the Party will somehow wrestle control from the Christian Conservatives. I could see myself returning to the GOP in an instant should the Christian faction be obliterated. Lt. Gov. Steele may be the right man but a bitt to far right. I would have liked to see a dark horse candidate like former Sen. Lincoln Chaffee (RI) or Chuck Hagle or even Fred Thompson. America made a bold choice with Barack Obama. The GOP has a great opportunity to send a new message, especially to it’s own Christian base.

  • My favorite quote from Bush was- “I had to abandon some of my free market principles in order to save the free market” Of course Libertarianism can save the economy, you can’t save an economy with endless debt, make work programs, and the dollar printing presses at full steam. This is the mother of all ponzi schemes, and it’s going to crash even harder later if the same failed policies continue.