The Triumph of Incoherence
Whenever I read Andrew Sullivan declare the triumph of something, I prepare for the cognitive dissonance to follow. He is a master in that art. So, what is one to say about this Sullivan effort, The Triumph of Libertarianism?.
The Triumph of Libertarianism. Really?
What is libertarianism? It is governance by laissez-faire civil society. It is anti-Statist.
Who in their right mind is going to claim that we are riding a crest of anti-Statism? Indeed, it’s precisely the opposite. We are riding a crest of putrid statism, particularly with regard to the political economy of the permanent war State.
Let’s look closer at Sullivan’s little blurb. What is he actually identifying libertarianism to be? Easy…Friedman’s 2nd Generation Chicago School, or if you prefer, “Friedmanite Liberalism.” And what are the defining characteristics of this?
Income tax rates are way down. Numerous industries have been deregulated. Most price controls have been abandoned. Competitive labor markets have steadily displaced top-down collective bargaining. Trade has been steadily liberalized. Simultaneously, the intellectual climate has shifted to be dramatically more favorable to libertarian insights. Wage and price controls were a standard tool of economic policymaking in the 1970s. No one seriously advocates bringing them back today. The top income tax bracket in the 1950s was north of 90 percent. Today, the debate is whether the top rate will be 35 percent or 39 percent.
Sullivan then informs us that a liberal today can safely spout Friedman. This, I gather, is the reason for the “triumphalism.” But then Sullivan can’t help himself and veers off into some tangent about Thatcher and Reagan. Opines Sullivan:
It is to see libertarian ideas as an ideology, not a useful way to critique excessive and counterproductive government intervention, when appropriate depending on the circumstances. Again, Reagan did not say “government is the problem,” he said, “In our present crisis, government is the problem.” The present crisis of 2010 is not the present crisis of 1981. And the failure of the conservative imagination in understanding this is one of the right’s deepest current problems.
I’m not sure what Sullivan means here. I think he is saying that the key to being a “triumphant libertarian” and a good conservative is a proper imagination necessary to divine Reagan; apparently, this is critical for determining when price controls constitute good public policy.
But enough with Sullivan. He is actually getting the “liberal stuff” from Tim Lee, The Return of Bottom up Liberalism. So let’s take a took. Lee uses an obscure post by whiny academic lamenting the lack of a robust “leftist” blogosphere. For Lee, this is a cause for celebration. That the lefty blogosphere is dominated by “neoliberals” like Matt Yglesias is proof positive of an “impressive libertarian winning streak.” Matt Yglesias represents the “Triumph of Libertarianism.”
Lee uses this post, No enemies on the Left, as proof positive. Writes Lee:
One way to interpret this is to say that Matt is a moderate libertarian with a redistributionist streak, but I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it. Rather, what’s happened is that liberalism in general has internalized key libertarian critiques of earlier iterations of liberal thought, with the result that a guy with a largely Friedmanite policy agenda can plausibly call himself a liberal. And actually, this shouldn’t surprise us at all, because Friedman called himself a liberal too.
Well, you can call Yglesias a “moderate libertarian,(the now defunct “liberaltarian”)” if you like, but I would also point out that he also lugs around a pretty sizable authoritarian streak. Yes, he may question occupational licensing from time to time, but he also waxes poetic about Blackwater. IOZ calls him an odious, totalitarian, albino squirrel for a reason.
Using the likes of Yglesias to pound chests and declare the return of “bottom-up liberalism” is exhibit A of what I call libertarian incoherence(i still haven’t got around to publishing part II of my three part series regarding the “Trouble with Liberty.” Part II deals with this exact issue).
“Bottom-up Liberalism” is the rehashing of the “enlightenment distinction between civil society and State.” Libertarianism historically proper had done away with this delusion of this distinction, jettisoning the State in favor of laissez faire civil society. For reasons discussed in this post, libertarianism in the United States in the 20th century became associated with restoring this distinction. Today, led by Cato acolytes, this “restoration project” is usually discussed in terms of marginal tax rates and “deregulation.” Tim Lee is another perfect example. Cast in these terms, the “restoration project,” whose roots derive from the Mont Pelerin Society, is declared a success. But I don’t see it that way. I look at the the National Security State, the Military Industrial Complex, and the evolution of the most vast State intelligence apparatuses in human history, and I see abject failure.
Nick Turse’s The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives destroys any pretense of any “enlightenment distinction between civil society and State.” Turse’s scholarship is analogous to some extent to the New Left’s deconstruction of the myths of corporate liberalism. In this case, however, the radical non-libertarian left takes down the “restoration project.” I’ll give ya’ll a clue here. It’s not the likes of Chris Beam or any other from the bevy of establishment progressive writers who actually take down Cato. It’s Nick Turse.
Tim Lee writes historical revisionism like this:
Wage and price controls were a standard tool of economic policymaking in the 1970s.
That’s a half truth. They weren’t really “standard tools;” rather they were last ditch desperate measures to stabilize the crumbling Bretton Woods regime. Bretton Woods transitioned to Chicago. And Chicago hit the wall in 2008. TARP, the bailouts, the increased monopolization of money and credit were measures to stabilize Chicago in an analogous way that the wage and price controls of the early 1970s were invoked to stabilize Keynesian Bretton Woods. But this type of stability comes at the price of resiliency, meaning that increasingly draconian measures have to be employed to stabilize against increasingly minor shocks to system. The system has to transition to a new “regime.” But what alternative rules-based “capitalist regime” is there to transition to? (1) Oligarchy (2) Anarchy
So, I would suggest why there is good reason to be afraid of this massive National Security State, Intelligence Apparatus that has evolved. And when I read Wilkinson or Drum on these matters, I will point out that they engaging in an anachronistic debate–debating Keynes vs Hayek with respect to regimes that no longer exist.
A coherent debate would be around what type of regime you want to live under going forward. But don’t expect oligarchy vs anarchy to be the topic of polite political debate…