Real libertarianism

Michael Kinsley rightly marks libertarianism as being “useful and undervalued” in American political discourse — and this historian of the movement says thanks. However, Kinsley tries not to go too far. He thus misunderstands some of the reasons libertarians advocate what they advocate and the advantages of their line of thinking.

First off, Kinsley conflates two distinct branches of libertarianism: the anarchistic and, to use the portmanteau of the movement, the “minarchistic” branch. It’s the first gang, a minority, that imagines recondite defense schemes. The minarchists believe in the classic Yankee Doodle vision of the role of government, one strictly limited to a set of defined powers with citizens’ rights otherwise unbounded.

That’s why libertarians are fans of the sadly neglected 9th Amendment, designed to debunk the idea that a right needed to be specified in the Constitution to be honored: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

Thus, the general libertarian vision does not deny the propriety of state action for such goals as national defense, general police powers and adjudication services in the defense of citizens’ lives and property — goals that in theory benefit all equally. Nor does it necessarily deny that certain public goods might require government action. But it does emphasize where government is not apt to be the optimal supplier of services.

Libertarians point out how such public provision, like with, say, drug law enforcement, meets no legitimate need, merely destroying people’s lives for violating someone else’s sense of how to live. Or how, whether in public schools or transportation, government tends to deliver goods or services not with market discipline and competition that helps ensure the lowest possible cost, but through political maneuverings designed to aid the well-connected. Waste, as long as it helps the favored, is welcomed and encouraged. (See most any government contracting process or the use of eminent domain to take some poor person’s house to help the likes of Donald Trump.)

And while the anarchists don’t speak for all libertarians, let’s give them their due with a question at the heart of libertarian foreign policy: How much of what we are forced to pay for as “national defense” actually defends the lives and properties of Americans, as opposed to fighting for state or ideological interests or dangerous global super-heroics at staggering expense?

Kinsley also has fun with the notion of privatizing roads. But why? Anyone who has ever driven a toll road, particularly one with a “fast-track” card reader, knows it’s easy to exclude nonpayers (impossible for a true “public good” in economists’ lingo) and to build them with private funds so that no one is on the hook for roads they never use. Road construction can then follow actual demand, helping eliminate waste and gridlock.

Kinsley seems to understand the moral vision of libertarianism — that it isn’t right to steal from someone to benefit someone else, or to force someone to do or not do something that isn’t harming someone else’s life or property. But then he tries to use his own preferences to decide what rights of personal autonomy are really “serious.” The Terri Schiavo Terri Schiavo case was not the apotheosis of libertarianism — to begin with, it was too sullied with complicated questions of whose autonomy was being respected. More than the “right to die,” libertarians defend the right to live the life of your choice.

The libertarian vision indeed privileges freedom over equality of outcome, and proudly. Its political and moral vision is deeper and simpler than Kinsley’s chin-scratching over balancing the “costs” of freedom. It’s about limiting as much as possible the areas of social life in which decisions are made and legitimized by people with guns ordering other people around or taking their money. (Anyone who doesn’t see the guns behind government has never tried disobeying a law.)

Reasonable men disagree about that line when whipping out guns and nonnegotiable orders becomes necessary. But every person of humane disposition and goodwill should agree with the libertarian goal of finding that limit — even when it seems eccentric.

Brian Doherty is a senior editor of Reason magazine and the author of “Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.”