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The Left vs. Libertarianism

John Collins - 24th June 2011

Stephen Metcalf’s Slate Article attacking Libertarianism sadly seems to say more about the state of the American ideological Left than it does say anything about the Libertarian tradition. For a start it is full of glaring factual inaccuracies, particularly relating Libertarianism's three leading lights Friedrich von Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and Milton Friedman; all of whom he portrays as faux intellectuals and corporate hacks who were dependent on business largess for their research.

As Democracy in America points out regarding Hayek and Mises:
“This attempt to marginalise two great thinkers is as lazy as it is dishonest. A little light googling is enough to establish the basic facts, but it seems Mr Metcalf could not be bothered...Mises fled Nazifying Europe and resettled in America...where his visiting post at NYU was funded by several businessmen. Mr Metcalf clearly means to suggest that Mises depended on subsidies from the simpatico rich because the quality of his work failed to qualify him for a legitimate professorship. But this is ridiculous to anyone who has bothered to read any of the man's scholarly work. To fair-minded, curious liberals I would recommend Mises' 1929 book Liberalism (free online), which makes a powerful case for a cosmopolitan, internationalist politics of free people, free movement, free trade, and peace against the grain of its era's calamitous trend of truculent racialist nationalism. It remains a relevant and inspiring work. You certainly don't have to agree with everything Mises argues to see that he was one of the good guys...As for Hayek, his post at the London School of Economics, from which he famously debated Keynes and cemented his reputation in the world of "polite discourse", did not involve corporate sponsorship.”

Furthermore, Metcalf seems utterly wrong in his historical determinism. Nozick’s most famous work Anarchy, State, and Utopia did not break the levee of the ‘polite Fabian consensus’ and Hayek did not receive his Nobel prize as a consequence of the changed environment it created as Mr. Metcalf seems to insinuate. The 1970s gave birth to the free-market back-lash not because of some ivory-tower intellectual writings or left-wing anomie, but because of the economic forces of stagflation tearing down the Keynesian consensus. The fact that these phenomena were vividly predicted by Hayek and Friedman decades earlier merely added to their intelectual credibility. With hindsight, this is of course not to say that the alternatives offered by Classical Liberals (as Milton Friedman described himself) were better, merely that they had been correct in pointing out the limits of central planning and Keynesian policy making. Their insight was that the State was not the panacea that many had come to believe; an idea which has since been widely acknowledged including by Democratic presidents Clinton and Obama.

The failure of the Left since the 1970s, it seems, has been a failure to pinpoint and refine what the state can do right and sell it to the general public. Furthermore it has been a failure to innovate in the face of the State’s shortcomings. Meanwhile the success of Right wing ideologues has been to portray the State as incapable of doing anything at all and to roll back its frontiers regardless of objective facts regarding its successes. The motivation for this article can be found in this inadequacy of the Left. Lacking a positive vision in the wake of the Democratic Shellacking in 2010 there is a tendency to retreat into caricature and corporate bashing. Hence this article’s attempt to nullify the intellectual foundations of this school of thought by portraying it as subservient to corporate America. The problem with this argument is that it is simply wrong. To take just one contemporary example: the coherent Consequentialist Libertarians were arguing from the very start (wrongly in my view) against the implementation of TARP (something which clearly benefited corporate America on the the taxpayers dime).

The inability of the American left to capitalise on their control of the three branches post 2008 to implement a new agenda for American politics highlights the fact that the Democrats lack ideological rigor and are instead a party of disparate interests and populism. Given that this has translated into generally pragmatic policies over the last several years should be greeted with a sigh of relief by the American public. In the meantime the Republican Right has undertaken to crudely co-opt libertarian values and construct an ideological rigor out of the one that collapsed with Lehman Brothers. It is one based on demagoguery, economic-fallacy and unfounded existential-panic. Furthermore it has only served to exacerbate America’s current economic woes and threatens (perversely through a misguided attempt to prevent such an eventuality) to bring on a financial disaster if their fiscal demands for raising the debt-ceiling are not met.

If Mr. Metcalf’s revisionist understanding of these economists were to become ensconced as a gospel of left wing ideology it would leave American politics all the poorer. Disagree as one may with the conclusions of these adherents to the classical liberal tradition there is hardly a doubt among respectable academics as to the quality of their work. The Road to Serfdom enjoys a level of admiration among Economists rivalling the General Theory and the Wealth of Nations. Meanwhile, Friedman’s explanation for the Great Depression remains a starting point for all contemporary analyses. In choosing such patently brilliant thinkers to try and demolish Mr. Metcalf has left himself grossly outmatched. He would have done well to have stuck with contemporary libertarian pretenders and left these veritable giants of western intellectualism to someone more able for the task, his own credibility would have been the better for it.