Being Realistic About a Free Society

Classical liberals tend to promise too much when we talk about life under our ideal political institutions. This is not unique among ideological groups. Marx labeled his theory “scientific socialism” because he believed that he had discovered the fundamental pattern of history. His was a theory of everything. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis; capitalism passing into socialism passing into communism, marking the end of history and dawn of a Utopian age. Revolution was not merely desirable, it was inevitable.

The cliche that socialists and libertarians are not so different is essentially true. Both systems of political thought are extremely consistent and insightful given a few premises about human nature. Marxists believe it is extremely flexible and thus that the pursuit of self-interest according to bounded rationality will naturally be replaced by a genuine concern for the greater good as the internal contradictions of capitalism build up. Libertarians believe human beings cannot be trusted to deny their self-interest and thus view human nature as a fixed reality to be accounted for in the creation of functioning institutions.

This is my personal interpretation of a discussion better left to Thomas Sowell, but the rub is that classical liberals have much to be immodest and immoderate about. Our strength is our greatest liability. Many of us came to accept libertarian ideas for ourselves after growing up with other beliefs, which I suspect contributes to our confidence and urgent sense of belonging to an enlightened minority. Ironically, the same open-mindedness and, yes, skepticism that allowed us to challenge previous worldviews (why on earth did I support the Iraq War?!) may give us a false sense of comfort and certainty that now, finally, we understand the human world.

Five months ago I was a contented minarchist; now I think I might be an anarchist, but I am not sure. My belief that the initiation of force is unjust has led me to a place I cannot define. Certainty only impedes the search for truth. Defensive critics may reply that our ethical grounding, logical coherence, and emphasis on the insights of economics truly set us apart. I happen to agree, but that is all the more reason for us to take pains to avoid hubris.

If we we are to be taken seriously in the mainstream, classical liberals cannot simply adopt the position that government and other forms of institutionalized coercion are the problem and their rescindment is the solution, full stop. We have to offer a positive alternative. “Spontaneous order” is a very meaningful, serious concept but it is not a magical incantation. Obviously, only the fatally conceited would seriously attempt to prognosticate the structure of a spontaneously ordered institution, but if someone asks, “Who will build the roads?” we should be able to draw valid analogies to complex institutions such as the Internet and cases such as Wenzhou, China in arguing that a voluntary market can fulfill established roles of government.

Politics is practical: Who gets what, when, and how? Classical liberals have to answer those fundamental questions effectively, which requires arguments be specific and factual. They should also be intellectually honest, which I believe includes an acknowledgement that a totally functional, sustainable anarcho-capitalist society, for example, would still have traffic jams and deceptive advertising. The little annoyances of life, modern and otherwise, would persist in a free society, as well as uglier problems such as violent crime.

This brings me to my most important point about advocating a free society: Irrespective its institutions, a human society will always be flawed and imperfect because human beings are by their nature flawed and imperfect. We have to recognize the limitations of politics and economics. This may sound like an obvious point, but we should be conscious of it when we are talking about a free society. If we are not mindful of this fact, our thinking will be less sharp, more prone to cognitive biases; our rhetoric will be glib and lack credibility. This proposition also lies at the heart of classical liberalism’s critique of figures such as Rousseau, who argued that state action could overcome the limitations of human nature to create a more just, functional society. As Bastiat points out in The Law, this is unrealistic because public servants and politicians are cut from the same cloth as the masses they wish to shepherd. This critique applies equally to the nudgers who have declared a new age of government that can solve social problems by applying the implications of behavioral economics to policy interventions in their citizens’ daily lives.

Sometimes markets deliver unsavory results, but we should not be afraid to acknowledge them. Libertarians should welcome factual arguments. The facts are broadly-speaking in our favor, or rather we are broadly-speaking aligned with the facts, in a way that other ideologues cannot honestly claim (one of the most common paths to libertarianism is exposure to formal economics). Someone who blames the poverty of the third world on globalization can be easily rebuffed by an examination of foreign direct investment figures. Even a casual examination shows a clear correlation between FDI and economic activity. The poorest nations in the world are those who are locked out of globalization, not those tangled in its supposedly vampirish embrace.

Likewise, the emergence of a non-titled middle class during the industrial revolution points clearly to market capitalism’s tendency to undermine hierarchical social orders, as does the widely-established cycling of individuals between income groups. Being realistic about a free society and focusing on the practical dimensions of political philosophy will also enable classical liberals to structure their thinking about how to actually pursue a free society. Ending the Drug War, for example, could reduce the Federal prison population by fifty percent. Our true goal is not a more Utopian world so much as a less Dystopian one. If our rhetoric only appeals those who already agree with us, we have failed.