Libertarianism vs Social Democracy

“They thought all along that they could call me a libertarian and hang that label around my neck like an albatross, but I’m not a libertarian.” Rand Paul

“The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.” Frederic Bastiat

Last week, Rachel Maddow’s K.O. of Rand Paul via a vis the 1964 Civil Rights Act garnished quite a bit of attention and derision of libertarianism by the mainstream press. Paul’s immediate disavowal of his views the next day might have squelched the “racism” charge, but it afforded ample opportunity for the chattering classes to self-congratulate themselves on the QED demonstration of the untenability of libertarianism in modern political discourse. In other words, libertarianism is an academic or philosophical discussion, but it is not a serious political theory. Of course, the political tenability of libertarianism is not something that would ever drive the 24 cable news cycle; the real ulterior political theater here was the effective neutering of the “Tea Party movement,” of which Paul claimed the mantle of leadership. In that regard, I think the chattering classes have it right. Paul soon retreated behind the GOP establishment, and whatever “threat” he may have posed to the establishment ended up having the half-life of a store-bought banana.

Frankly, Rand Paul and Rachel Maddow aren’t the players I would recommend in terms of representing any meaningful libertarian vs social democracy debate. First of all, Rand Paul is not a libertarian, and Maddow is a mildly vulgar politico. Maddow’s argument could have been eviscerated by a radical libertarian, but it’s an argument that would also disqualify that same person from making a living in politics, no doubt. Maddow’s premise that the 1964 Civil Rights Act desegregated the lunch counters, or that politics desegregated the lunch counters is inaccurate. In fact, it was radical social direct action that desegregated much of the lunch counters, and was social direct action which finally prompted passage of the 1964 bill. But, in many ways, it was just a triumph of the Status Quo. An examination of historical and contextual circumstances to warrant a broadening of anti-discrimination laws for public accommodation seems a bit lame. A more radical examination of the historical context should have been able to make the case for reparations of and redistribution of property, while disregarding some commerce clause rationale enforcement of public accommodation to illegitimately claimed property. What Maddow, as a good Fabian gradualist, celebrates is a law, much of which should have been in effect as an implied consequence of the 14th amendment ratified a century earlier, and restrictions on the freedom of association as a means to counter-act the continued status quo in illegitimate property claims as a result of inability to enforce the 14the amendment for a century. Of course, soon after the passage of the 1964 Civil rights Act, the US Federal Government would embark on instituting the New Jim Crow, built on the back of the Drug War, a war legally sanctified by a broad interpretation of the commerce clause. And 45 years later, The United States has the largest prison population in the world, half it comprised by african americans. But the likes of Maddow are too busy appealing to the 1964 Civil Rights Act as if it were the Sine qua non of racial justice.

There actually is a rich history regarding the libertarian vs Social Democracy debate in the United States. I would reference the original debate between Benjamin Tucker and George Benard Shaw. Read this background piece to gain a historical appreciation of the “two worthy opponents.” There are two political documents that can summarize that debate, Tucker’s State Socialism and Anarchism and Shaw’s The Impossibilities of Anarchism. In the end, Tucker is making a moral argument against State Socialism and Shaw is making an economic argument against libertarianism. For various reasons, this original debate would fade into the vapor of history, but it would be reborn a few generations later in the 20th century as the Socialist Calculation Debate. But this was a purely economic debate, in terms of neoclassical economics, regarding the efficiency of Walrasian Auctioneer to set prices, in lieu of any need for a market economy. Pareto neoclassical welfare economics seemed to imply that equilibrium in a market economy could be better simulated by the actions of a central price setter and taker. It was the culmination of the Shaw argument, so to speak. However, it would be Hayek’s Knowledge Problem that would tear down the pretense of neoclassical state socialism. The “libertarians” would eventually win that debate. And Hayek would become famous for writing the “Road to Serfdom,” that turned the economic argument against the Social Democrats to warn against authoritarianism, but he was merely arriving at the same conclusions that Tucker had warned against 60 years earlier.

Advocates of Social Democracy would adjust to promoting a “mixed economy” to getting around the economic limitations of neoclassical socialism, but “Public Choice” as a discipline would poke serious holes in political corporatism. The Fabian Socialist argument against libertarianism was never a moral argument, but rather an economic argument, a utilitarian argument. The body of work of libertarianism has since taken down the Fabian economic argument. Now, in many ways, the tables have turned, with social democrats primarily relying on “moral arguments” whereas the libertarians resort to economics. But the moral arguments of the Social Democrats often reduce to mere symbolism. But symbolism does not free a man. Sometimes, liberty has to be seized. Liberty is not a sanctioned gift from the political classes.

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