Why, Michael Lind asks, hasn’t any country fully adopted libertarianism? It’s a difficult question to answer, but I don’t think that the answer damns libertarian political philosophy. That libertarian policies have worked, even in isolation, is good evidence that some of it is right and that it’s worth considering the rest. But also, a good libertarian theory of social change, informed by the theory of spontaneous order, may think that a “libertarian” society has to be developed over time. This answer isn’t a cop-out, because it’s what an advocate of democracy would have needed to say during the Middle Ages (and democracy, at first, was tried and failed!). Lind’s is a difficult question with a difficult answer, but Lind’s isn’t the only right answer.
Before defending the main argument, allow me to first tackle another problem with the question: what do we mean by libertarianism? One answer is that libertarianism is a comprehensive political philosophy that advocates unique political institutions, and this is what I assume Lind has in mind for the bulk of this response. But, libertarianism (‘big L’ Libertarianism) can also be a political platform that looks to inform policy through current institutions. And this isn’t only reserved for politicians and those who simply support the party. Academics could also fall in the same group. Milton Friedman, I think, was one example. Ludwig von Mises, a supporter of modern democracy, is another. The few libertarian policies implemented — privatized social security in Chile, the deregulation of the air-travel industry in the U.S, et cetera — have been mostly successful. These are the kind of things libertarians want to do: changes at the margin, with the hope of one day becoming a major political force.
Given the success of many of the libertarian policies experimented with so far, why hasn’t this general approach been more ubiquitous in our legislation? We live in a democracy, and to one extent or another our laws and style of governance reflects on the majority of American opinion. Libertarianism has certainly become more popular recently, but it’s still in the minority. Comparatively few people believe there should be no minimum wage, or that the financial industry should be completely deregulated. The latter, despite relatively strong evidence — see, for instance, C. Romer (1986) and H. Rockoff (1974) — that life without a central bank and extensive regulations wasn’t as bad as people think it would be. (Maybe some think that the recent financial is unambiguous evidence of the instability of the banking industry, but there are good reasons, with some probability of being right, that the evidence is not so strong.)
What about those who advocate more radical, comprehensive political reforms, including institutional changes? But, aren’t the past 200–300 years strong evidence in favor of the libertarian position? Let me explain the “libertarian position,” or at least how I see it. Libertarians are essentially liberals, but with strong “anti-government” priors which reveal themselves when they make short-term policy recommendations. Like all liberals, libertarians look forward to greater pluralism, which is exactly what happened during the transition from autocracies to democracies. They think that the transition towards greater pluralism isn’t over, and they search for institutions of governance that will make some part of society (for example, bleeding hearts with a concern for social justice may want to maximize the well-being of the worst off), or all of society, better off. I think — and I’m not the only one — we should be a little bit more agnostic with regards to where we expect governance to go, but in this broad respect they’re much like all other liberals. The big differences are in our policy recommendations, and this has already been explained above. If most people disagree with us, and always have, then there’s not much we can do about it.
But, there is evidence that things may change in the future. Despite the early failures of democracy, in ancient Athens for example, the past 300 years have witnessed the gradual replacement of the relatively autocratic and authoritarian political regimes that were the norm for much of political bureaucracy’s history. It was a victory for classical liberalism, whether of the continental strand (e.g. Rousseau) or the Anglo (e.g. Hume; for the difference see the first chapter of Hayek’s Individualism and Economic Order). Since libertarianism is part of this tradition, democracy is undoubtedly a great victory (even if we’re not the only victors) and a great vindication of the ideology. This gives some legitimacy to the belief that things will get more “libertarian” in the future.
The strongest evidence against libertarianism is the fact that, for some stretch of times, many countries did approximate what a libertarian society would have looked like with past standards of living. The U.S. and Australia, for example, had free banking systems for at least part of their financial history, and ultimately replaced them with central banks. The modern welfare state did not begin until the late 1880s, but it has become the norm for the developed world. We did try something like libertarianism, and it looks like it has failed — although, some would say that its own success was its undoing, given that the rapidly rising standards of living between 1870–1920 allowed for, to a large extent, the modern welfare state (I think this is implicit in, for example, T.H. Marshall’s “Citizenship and Social Class“).
[Edit: Yea, the y-axis is mislabeled. Absolute pluralism, or something like that, would be at the origin, and the higher up the y-axis the point is the less pluralistic.]
But, someone may have passed the same judgment on democracy after witnessing its “success” in ancient Athens. Yet, like Democracy in the past, there is some evidence that libertarianism may be on the rise. In parts of Europe, the welfare state looks different from what most might expect. Countries like Sweden and Germany may have universal healthcare systems and low cost public education, but they also enjoy a relatively free business environment. It’s those that still retain the strong anti-business political bias, such as France and Spain, who are doing the worst in the crisis. The U.S. is a very different country today than it was between ~1933–70, and despite the crisis, it’s not clear that Obama’s “New New Deal” will inspire anything like Roosevelt’s New Deal did. Immigration laws may be relaxed, more drugs may be legalized, and society will become more liberal, but this is in line with the libertarian philosophy. Even if something like universal healthcare is eventually introduced, the welfare system may elsewhere move in the opposite direction. Take, for example, the recent revival of the school voucher system.
Why wasn’t democracy a smashing success in Athens? Maybe because democracy wasn’t the “optimal” institutional framework given those times’ economic conditions and the relatively unequal distribution of power. Maybe libertarianism isn’t “optimal” given our framework, but what if it could be at some point in the future? Perhaps institutions will evolve in such a way to restrict the power of the state to decision-making within a relatively narrow spectrum. In fact, I don’t think this position is strictly libertarian. Other liberals ought to be in full agreement, even if their priors suggest a transition in a different direction. We all recognize that governments make bad decisions — even if we don’t all agree on what a bad decision is —, and if governments gradually improve, then the impact of bad decisions, over time, should fall. Libertarians have good reason to keep their priors. Libertarian policy that has been implemented has, on average, turned out to be positive.
I think Daniel Kuehn is right to argue all of this suggests that libertarians know better than other people. If you’re of different opinion than someone else you must believe that your opinion is right, otherwise there would be no reason for you to believe in it. But, this is no different from Daniel, who thinks he knows libertarians are wrong. When reasonable people think they’re right they imply a more probabilistic approach, where being “right” is really being a certain percentage sure. Reasonable people include most libertarians. We have strong priors in certain directions, just like non-libertarians have strong priors in other directions. And, it’s clear that libertarians have good reason to have strong priors (even if they’re not the only ones with good reasons). In other words, there’s nothing obviously wrong with libertarian ideology.
In summary, the evidence can be reasonably interpreted to be in favor of libertarian ideology. At the very least, it is not obviously contrary to libertarian ideology. Therefore, it’s reasonable that some people may attach strong priors to whatever is considered a libertarian position. Non-libertarians may not agree. Reasonable people can disagree. But, what is clear is that Lind’s argument is not as good as some may think.