Why I No Longer Consider Myself A Libertarian

libertariansDavid Henderson shares the following anecdote on EconLog. I hope he will forgive me for quoting it in its entirety. The context, however, is crucial for the point I’m about to make.

As such, those on the left or the right of America’s political spectrum may regard the proposals I offered in this book as an incoherent hodgepodge. Following my son’s advice, I totally deny that and instead make a counteraccusation: many on the right and left have made a fetish of what is nothing more than a problem of engineering: sometimes government is the right tool for the job, and sometimes it isn’t.My own thinking on this issue was strongly influenced by occasional debates I have had with two of my colleagues at the Naval Postgraduate School–Francois Melese and David Henderson. Francois and David are what you could loosely characterize as “libertarian” in their world view, and we often argue about the role of government in society. One particular “clash” stands out in my mind, because it helped me crystalize my thinking on this matter. So we were talking while eating lunch at the Taco Bell in downtown Monterey of all places. Suddenly David, a man in his sixties, excused himself, got up, and ran outside. What had happened was that he had seen several young men bullying and roughing up another young man, and David had gone to intervene.

In thinking about what David had done, I finally understood how he and other libertarians could see their vision of limited government as a viable means of running a society. Such a society would be entirely workable if most people behaved like David! And I realized then that no answer would ever emerge from ideological debates over the size of government because it was the wrong question to ask in the first place.

This is from the recently published book by my Naval Postgraduate School colleague Jonathan Lipow. The book is titled Survival: The Economic Foundations of American National Security. It was recently published by Lexington Press.Whenever Jonathan and I talk about economic policy or defense policy, we find ourselves disagreeing. But the conversation is always pleasant. You can see why from the above quote.

I don’t think, though, that most people would have to behave like me for a limited government to work. I think the number is well below half. And the main bullies we would have to focus on restraining are the ones in government.

For most of my life I have considered myself strongly libertarian. The story illustrated above highlights exactly the problem with libertarianism, although Mr. Henderson doesn’t realize it. I that the number of people who must behave as described is well below half. I’ve also been fortunate enough to know quite a few people who behave in that manner. I have some truly great friends. Now that I’m out of public schools, I seldom witness the kind of bullying described. When I do, I too try to behave as described. I leave it to others to decide whether I succeed or not.

Even so, the problem with libertarianism as a philosophy is exactly this. It’s not so much that it requires too many people to act this way. It’s that some parts of the libertarian philosophy itself actively reduce the number of people who will act this way. This kind of behavior is socially and culturally bred. The western world, and indeed the anglosphere in particular, developed a culture over the course of centuries that led to this kind of behavior. When you grow up and live your life surrounded by it, it’s easy to think that it’s universal to the human race.

The simple truth is that it isn’t universal at all. Outside of the western world, this kind of behavior isn’t developed and encouraged at all. Even within the western world, it’s strongest in the nations colonized by Britain.

That doesn’t mean you won’t find this kind of behavior at all outside the western world. You most definitely will find it. But not in anything like the numbers needed to sustain anything like a libertarian society. There’s a reason that libertarianism as a philosophy developed in the English speaking world, and a reason that it hasn’t spread much outside of that world. It requires cultural norms that simply don’t exist.

Beyond that, libertarianism leads to its own downfall through its insistence on open borders. If you import too many people who don’t act as Mr. Henderson, eventually you can no longer sustain your libertarianism.

To be completely clear, I personally still greatly prefer to live in a more libertarian world. I thrive in it. My friends and family thrive in it. But a perfect libertarian world must necessarily lead to its own downfall. The only way to maintain a libertarian-ish world is to maintain a culture that can support it. That’s why these days I consider myself not a libertarian but rather a Christian nationalist libertarian (in that order). The first two are an absolute necessity in order for the third to function.

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