Can you remember when libertarians stood for something good? Okay, maybe you can’t, but let’s at least acknowledge the arguably reasonable notions that libertarianism once represented.
Many people, including some of us who identify as left-wing progressives, can see the appeal of a political approach that combines fiscal conservatism with liberalism on social issues. It would be quite nice if we lived in a world where individuals would have full freedom in their private lives and be protected in their civil rights, and where governments could closely restrain spending, keeping taxes low.
Unfortunately, we don’t live in that place. Passionate, concerted effort is still required to help others gain and maintain basic human rights, both here in the West and especially in the developing world. Monumental challenges like global warming, widespread malnutrition, and the threat of pandemic disease can best be addressed through the blend of a mixed economy alongside representative governance.
Conditions simply don’t exist today in which classic libertarianism either makes good sense or can attain broad popularity. Perhaps they never will.
But my biggest complaint is that far too many who still claim the mantle of libertarianism don’t actually believe in the value of small government or in protecting civil liberties. Instead, they appear far closer to the reactionaries of the past, more interested in preserving the entrenched positions of the privileged than in seeing any meaningful reforms. The ‘liberty’ in libertarian seems to apply only to the freedom for the powerful to defend their advantage.
Consider this quote from a recent essay by Peter Thiel, president of Clarium Capital:
The 1920s were the last decade in American history during which one could be genuinely optimistic about politics. Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women—two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians—have rendered the notion of “capitalist democracy” into an oxymoron.
By this reasoning, then, rolling back the clock a hundred years or more is the best prescription for what ails us. If only we could go back to that glorious Gilded Age in American history, when capitalism stood unquestioned as a force for good, when millionaires openly wielded their political power without compunction, when white males occupied all the positions of power and influence, then maybe all our other problems would go away. Yeah, as if.
Scarier yet is this astonishing statement from Thiel: “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.”
Yes, really. If you read the rest of his essay (which isn’t very long), you’ll see that Thiel is not saying this simply to be provocative, or as a point of sophistry. No, he truly means it. For him, freedom and democracy are no longer compatible.
That doesn’t sound much like someone who would be proud to endorse the American Declaration of Independence, or who would view the U.S. Constitution as an inspired source of wisdom and guidance.
And, as a matter of fact, Thiel pretty much admits that he has no great desire to remain a citizen of the United States, nor even, for that matter, to be an active participant in engaging with the rest of us in our messy world of democratic politics. His lofty goal, instead, is to run away into cyberspace, outer space, or to his own private island. I kid you not.
In our time, the great task for libertarians is to find an escape from politics in all its forms—from the totalitarian and fundamentalist catastrophes to the unthinking demos that guides so-called “social democracy.”
It saddens me to realize that some people actually think like he does, and that they can’t understand why the majority of us find their ideas so objectionable. But what’s most confounding is that they have the effrontery to label themselves as ‘libertarian’, which, to my mind, does insult to anyone who genuinely supports the doctrines of social liberty and fiscal conservatism.
Whatever Peter Thiel and his type are, they are not classical libertarians; a better moniker for their views might be establishmentarian, since what it seems they really want is to maintain and support the traditional power establishment, or, failing that, to construct a new, glorious, permanent and restricted country club environment of their own.
So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye…
Mike Treder is a former Managing Director of the IEET.