Another Odd Attack on Libertarianism, and Our Response

Michael Gerson in the Washington Post, “For the GOP, a risky wave to ride or turn back

In America, the ideology of libertarianism is itself a scandal. It involves not only a retreat from Obamaism but a retreat from the most basic social commitments to the weak, the elderly and the disadvantaged, along with a withdrawal from American global commitments.

Libertarianism has a rigorous ideological coldness at its core. Voters are alienated when that core is exposed.

Our response in today’s Washington Post:

Michael Gerson [“The GOP rides a risky wave,” op-ed, July 9] described libertarianism as “a scandal” because it “involves . . . a retreat from the most basic social commitments to the weak, the elderly and the disadvantaged.”

That is, he charged libertarians with a “retreat” from a welfare-state philosophy that is at odds with America’s heritage and with basic principles of limited government. Moreover, he charged libertarians with wanting to change policies that have not served the weak and the disadvantaged well because they encourage weakness and long-term dependence.

Libertarians warn that to continue down the current road leads to the Greek crisis, in which the cruelty of making commitments that can’t be kept is revealed.

Gerson also charged libertarianism with “rigorous ideological coldness.” He considers reason, arithmetic and a realistic assessment of what those “commitments” really mean to be “cold.” That says more about him than about libertarianism.

It might be kinder and gentler to try the Founders’ vision, the libertarian vision, of a limited state that provides a framework in which we can all enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Tom G. Palmer and David Boaz

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6 Responses to “Another Odd Attack on Libertarianism, and Our Response”

  1. Nicely said.
    Aren’t real “social commitments” met without resorting to force of law? If a “social commitment” requires government enforcement, isn’t that really a sign that society isn’t committed to it at all, but rather than some vocal subset of society wishes to make it so?

  2. Great letter, great post! Very Boudreaux-ish.

    Another angle, I suppose, could have been something along the lines of “we don’t oppose commitments to the weak, we just don’t believe governement has the right set of tools to do a good job”.

  3. Gerson makes a very common mistake with regard to libertarianism. He interprets a statement like “The state shouldn’t be involved in aid” as “No one should be involved in aid…”, or “We shouldn’t help others.” It’s as if the idea of non-state action simply doesn’t exist to him.

    When talking with people about this kind of thing, I always try to emphasize that as I see it libertarianism isn’t making much of a prescription. We emphasize the framework required for a liberal human civilization, and what you do with it from there is left to you. You can join a traditionally structured firm, or create a workers collective. You can purchase private insurance on a market, or develop a mutual aid network. We oppose monopolistic, collective decision-making, not x, y, or z lifestyle.

  4. “Great letter, great post! Very Boudreaux-ish.”

    With the caveat that Palmer is a bit more cautious when making a point, I’d agree. Anyway, this criticism underlies a strange paradox I’ve encountered many times when trying to express liberty principles, and that is the liberty minded are simultaneously accused of being feverishly passionate utopians on one hand, and cold automatons on the other. Clearly both these things can’t be true; truthfully, neither of them is.

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