What Is Libertarianism?

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Tyler Cowen says “It would be interesting to see a progressive try to sum up an intelligent version of libertarianism.” It’s initially tempting to respond to that by listing the intelligent points that I’ve heard made by libertarians, and then explain how a sound progressive politics conducts by incorporating those critiques and moving forward to a higher synthesis. But the observation that self-identified libertarians make valid points on specific issues is different from trying to construct the best case for the ideology as such. So here goes.

I think libertarianism is best understood as a kind of esoteric doctrine. There’s strong evidence to believe that people who overestimate their own efficacy in life wind up doing better than those with more accurate perceptions. It follows that it’s strongly desirable for society to be organized so as to bolster myths of meritocracy. This will lead to individual instances of injustice and to a lot of apparently preventable suffering, but over the long-term the aggregate impact of growth (which, of course, compounds) on human welfare will swamp this as long as we can maintain the spirit of capitalism.

A separate issue is the welfare of the world’s poorest. Progressive internationalists have this kind of dopey vision of trying to make trade and immigration policy win-win-win for everyone by using redistributive taxation to ensure that everyone shares in the benefits. That sounds nice, but it means that in addition to trying to conquer people’s racist and nationalistic instincts you’re also engaged in a fight to pry wealth out of the hands of the wealthy and powerful. As a political strategy, it doesn’t really make much sense. Why not simply join forces with the wealthy and powerful so as to create a political coalition that’s plausibly capable of overwhelming xenophobia and creating borders that are relatively open to the flow of goods and labor?