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FUSION

Libertarians Need to Get Real About Politics

June 6, 2024

By Daniel Klein and Zachary Yost


All libertarians will agree that government exists in the United States. Thus, they will agree that governmental evil is afoot. They will also agree that that evil may be greater or lesser. Since it is fanciful to hope to eradicate governmental evil entirely, the conscience calls libertarians to mitigate governmental evil.

To do one’s part, one must formulate and assess rival evils. America has a two-party system, Democrat and Republican. That contest is not the only one; there are contests between rival evils that cut across the two parties and that divide either or both of the parties. But the choice between Democrats and Republicans remains highly salient. Given these choices, we contend that libertarians should usually favor Republicans over Democrats.


Mirror Images—Not

One way to dodge the taint of partisan politics is to dodge the call to recognize the central contest between Democrats and Republicans. And one way to do that is to maintain, as Johan Norberg recently has, that the matter is moot since the two parties are “mirror images” of one another.

Anthony Downs’s Economic Theory of Democracy, which builds on the mathematician Harold Hotelling, did not use an ice-cream sellers analogy to explain the relation between the two major parties, but others have. Suppose two ice-cream sellers compete in selling their ice cream to the bathers strewn uniformly along a beach. The key lesson is not that the two sellers would price their ice cream competitively; it is assumed that they charge the same price. And the key lesson was not that they would differentiate their products; it is assumed that they sell the exact same ice cream. The key lesson is that, with choosing location along the beach as their only decision, they would each locate so as to garner about 50 percent of the market.

Similar logic can theoretically be applied to a two-party system. Each party adjusts its appeal to garner sales. The equilibrium in the model is 50-50. Another set of decisions, such a scenario in which one garnered 49 percent while the other garnered 51 percent, would not be an equilibrium because the first would relocate to increase its market share.

Despite its value in explaining the 50–50 tendency, much about the ice-cream seller analogy for politics is misleading. In real life, the issues are myriad, and some kind of coherence extending over positions on the myriad issues must be formulated and expounded. Under these conditions, the premise of an electorate consisting of voters with settled preferences and, accordingly, a “median” voter becomes highly misleading.

  People’s interpretations of the differences between the two brands, Democrat and Republican, are inchoate, inarticulate, and disjointed. These interpretations are a matter of ongoing cultural struggle in which each party continually refashions its image or differentiation from the other party. Party leaders and entrepreneurs continually influence voters’ interpretations as to the differences between the parties.

In real life, further, some do not buy from either ice cream seller—they stay home or vote sideways (that is, they choose third parties, write-ins, “none of the above”). Tweedledee may fail to motivate. Why root for a team that is the mirror image of the other team?

  And even if one were able to tag positions on each of the myriad issues as “left” versus “right,”and make those tags common knowledge, the way each party cobbled together positions on the myriad of issues would not be the same. Also, they would not

necessarily achieve their overall goal by being moderate on each issue. Many other factors can upset a mirror-image tendency (sometimes called platform convergence), including the primary system, donor influence, and energizing activism; multi-peaked preferences; third-party turbulence; emphasis on reelection as opposed to initial election; and candidates prioritizing the common good above winning office (imagine that!).

The tendency for each party to garner 50 percent support makes sense. But a

tendency for the two major parties to end up being mirror images of one another has much less sense behind it. Until someone provides a reason to suppose that nature would produce two parties that are mirror images of one another, we should figure that they are not mirror images. Instead, we should figure that there is a dime’s worth of difference, even a trillion dollars’ worth, until proven otherwise.

When a libertarian contends that there’s not a dime’s worth of difference without providing argumentation to demonstrate the existence of such a freakish state of affairs, we might suspect him of dodging responsibility to do his part in preventing the greater evil. A number of passions may seduce one from that responsibility. We applaud, ardently, all that Johan Norberg does to identify the good and argue for the good, but we reject his assertion that left and right are mirror images of one another.

We contend that nature has played out naturally: Downs is right about the 50 percent tendency, and the two parties do indeed differ. They are not mirror images of one another. We believe that the difference is substantial. And Republicans are the lesser evil.


Milton Friedman and the Lesser Evil

In a 2005 interview, Milton Friedman said: “I always say I am Republican with a capital ‘R’ and libertarian with a small ‘l’.”

More than 50 years earlier, in 1953, Milton Friedman wrote: “I see no objection to his [the economist’s] saying, ‘In my opinion…A is the best policy to achieve our agreed

objectives. However, if you do not like A for political or other reasons, B is the next best policy,’ and so forth.”

To make this more concrete, think of A as some notional agenda of classical-liberal reform—perhaps, in Argentina’s case, as represented by Javier Milei. The “A” is the most appealing to libertarians and classical liberals. But, for those who don’t live in Argentina, such a program may simply not be politically viable. In that case, Friedman urges the classical liberal to be comfortable saying, “I favor classical liberalism but in a choice

between two less-good options, I think that B is the one that is less less-good.”

In light of A > B > C, let’s consider some of the tropes repeated in libertarian circles and used to avoid the choice between B and C: “all in,” “Never-B-er,” “endorsing,” and “unfit for office.” We treat these to expose the faulty reasoning behind libertarian attitudes about political realities.

Some critics claim that any endorsement of a political option is equivalent to support without reservations—going “all in” for that choice. But when Friedman says that, with A off the table, he supports option B over option C, is he going “all in” for option B? No, of course not. He’s simply saying that, in a choice between B and C, B is less less-good than A than C is. And since that choice—between B and C—is highly relevant, civic virtue calls us to say so—and act accordingly. To act otherwise isn’t admirable, it’s shirking.

When Friedman says that A > B, does he therefore declare himself to be a “Never B-er”? No, of course not. In a choice between B and C, he’ll opt for B. Politics often calls us to make choices that are not completely satisfactory.

Does that then mean Friedman is “endorsing” B? Well, he’s endorsing the statement B > C. But he is not endorsing the statement B > A. He transcends the atavism of sheer

binaries—Us-Them, Friend-Enemy—by maintaining: A > B > C. Friedman recognizes that politics is about lesser evils (Is it B or C?) and about elevated notions of directional good (What is A?). Each description of politics is true—but also incomplete on its own.

When Friedman says that A > B, then, is he saying “B is unfit for office”? Well, maybe. But who else is unfit for office? Let’s make a list. And when we face a choice between two people unfit for office, B and C, we ought to avoid the least fit.

And, besides, in this matter, we should get past our atavistic instincts to concentrate on personality as the key consideration in politics. In some respects, personality is important and goes a long way. But in the business at hand, assessing our rulers, we should not let ourselves be swayed unduly and distracted by personality. We should focus on the fact that the contest is between a Democrat and a Republican, and in the case of executive positions, between a Democrat administration and a Republican administration. When choosing between parties and different sets of administrative officers, the front man’s fitness is rather secondary.

The more important question is: Whose blend of atavism, delusion, superstition, fanaticism, vanity,ambition, and groupthink is worse, the Democrats’ or the Republicans’? Who has a better appreciation of voluntary affairs as spontaneous order and of how Paris is fed? Who better understands that government is a special player, whose specialness is chiefly defined by its institutionalizing initiations of coercion? Who better understand the classical-liberal sense of liberty? Who has a truer love of life? Who better understands the reasons for saying that by and large the governmentalization of social affairs is a sham and a menace?

If Javier Milei is best, by all means, say so. But don’t stop there. Don’t condemn B and C as too mean to rank, putting a pox on both houses, perhaps with the assumption that, anyhow, there’s not a dime’s worth of difference.

It’s fine to criticize the lesser evil as evil. But one should be able to make plain, like Friedman in 1953, the lesser in “lesser evil.”

Scoring the Lesser Evil

Criteria for large ethical judgments are inherently vague. Any effort to specify them will remain incomplete, as with aesthetic sensibilities. But it is useful to break down the objects of judgment, in this case tendencies of Democrats and Republicans.

To that end, we assembled a list of issues and scored them on which party is better, by and large. By“better,” we do not mean better according to consensus opinion at leading libertarian organizations, such as Reason and Cato, which we admire and to which we feel gratitude. Nor do we mean “better”according to an application, on the policy issue, of the principle of augmenting direct-liberty. Rather, by“better” we mean according to our own judgment of desirability. (The two of us largely agree, though Klein is less anti-abortion than Yost.)

The issue areas filled red are ones where we deem the Republicans to have the collective advantage. The blue areas show Democrat advantage. Purple is when we assess a draw. White issues we punt on, for any of several reasons. We state these judgments not to prove them, but just for the purposes of consultation. The reader may ask herself: On how many of the following judgments in favor of Republicans can I really justify a contrary judgment?


Figure 1: Lesser-evil scorecard


The Best and Worst in Congress and among the Governors

In addition to comparing the parties as a whole, we list our picks for best and worst in office (as of May 2024). The selections are not the result of deep study—our point here is the conceptual formulation and general result, not the specific individuals whose names happen to appear in each cell.

For Congress, we consulted sources (including 1, 2, 3, 4), but our selections are based also on persona, judgments of trusted colleagues, and so on. In each cell the listing is by the alphabet, not a ranking.

We also have a column on state governors, but for that we pull directly from Cato’s 2022 fiscal policy report card without modification—and here the listing is by rank (with most worst first for the worsts lists).

Once again, others may reach different conclusions. In our judgment, though, the best

Democrats are far, far worse than the best Republicans. Indeed, for members of Congress,

it is unclear whether the best Democrats are better than the worst Republicans. If the

reader cannot really quarrel with the judgments expressed here, that provides a clear basis for favoring Republicans over Democrats, even though their policies and candidates are far from perfect.


Figure 2: The best and worst in Congress and among the state governors.


Checking the Abuse of Power

A party’s policy agenda in office isn’t the only reason to prefer one party over another. We should also think about their relation to the broader political ecosystem. In other words, we need to consider not only what each party wants to do, but also how the rest of society will check their doings.

When it comes to protecting citizens against abuses of power, there’s a clear

difference. Such abuses are checked not only by divided government by also by public opinion. Now, who faces more challenge, the Democrats or the Republicans? The media,

entertainment, academia, the legal profession, the government sector in general, and most other arrays of cultural institutions heavily lean Democrat; they hold Republican

officeholders accountable, demand transparency, blow whistles, and check the abuse of power.

When Democrats abuse power and trample liberty, however, those voices often act as lapdogs, gaslighters, propagandists, and cheerleaders. That is a huge reason for classical liberals to want officeholders to be Republican; they face vastly more criticism and opposition; they are less likely to get away with major violations of freedom (or, at least, violations that Democrats do not also want to perpetrate).


Building a Coalition 

Party politics is somewhat like a team sport. Indeed, that might be one reason libertarians eschew it: They are afraid they let themselves be swept up by team spirit.

On a team, no one gets to play with a squad composed of people who agree with them on every issue. It’s tempting to fixate on difference within the same team. But it’s counterproductive when that leads us to ignore the differences that separate the teams.

We can illustrate the logic of coalition by returning to the compound statement, A > B > C.

  Again, think of A as a classical-liberal agenda, B as the Republican program, and C as Democrat program. People with preferences over the three can be divided into three

disjoint groups: Those who rate A first, those who rate B first, and those who rate C first.

But there are other ways to divide up the population. An important one is: Those who rate A last, those who rate B last, and those who rate C last.

Professional libertarians and classical liberals spend much of their time arguing that A is best.There is virtue is that. But virtue also calls us to mind worst-case scenarios. In human experience generally, upsides are less up than downsides are down. Perhaps we neglect arguing about which option is last. That neglect could be excused if B and C were equally bad.

If we concern ourselves with the worst option, and we think it is C, we will find that now we are coalescing with some who rate B first. Meanwhile, much of our semantics have been set by those who rate C first, and they will say that all such adversaries of C are “right- wingers” and “conservatives”. Even when those epithets are unwelcome, there is only so

much resistance one should make to them. The more that one fights off being called “right” and“conservative,” the more one seems to shift the conversation back to which (A, B, or C) is first. By adamantly disavowing “right” and “conservative”, one not only takes the focus off of C being last but perhaps gives the impression that B ranks last—or that B and C are tied for last.

Classical liberals feel solidarity toward fellow classical liberals, that is, fellow

believers in A being first. We suggest that it is also proper to show some solidarity toward fellow believers in C’s lastness. “Some solidarity” does not mean agreeing about everything. But it does accept the political imperative of choosing sides in the salient contest between B and C.

Like all cases where the lesser evil is preferred, this suggestion will not please

purists. Our answer is to emphasize not only the possible goods to be achieved through coalition, but also the much worse evils to be avoided. If C is not just the worst alternative but less preferable by along way, as we think it is, virtue might make that latter solidarity— among believers in C’s lastness—imminent. All hands on deck!


The Libertarian Party Reduces Liberty

So far, we depicted the political choice as binary: support Republicans or Democrats. But there are third parties—including one, the Libertarian Party (LP)—that explicitly appeal to libertarians and classical liberals who are deeply unsatisfied with the two major parties.

We think the promise of an ideologically “safe” option is usually a mirage and sometimes counterproductive. The LP draws off more voters from the Republicans than from the Democrats. Sometimes, that doesn’t affect the outcome. When it does matter,

the LP helps get Democrats elected—promoting the very outcomes that libertarians should regard as the worst available option. There’s no justification for a third party that can aspire only to making matters worse.

In fact, the LP harms Republicans even more than face-value numerical estimates indicate. Besides diverting votes on election day, the LP promotes a niche libertarianism characterized by aloofness and vanity . The LP flatters the libertarian that he is too good, too superior, too clever, to roll in the mud with the Republicans. That vanity suffuses

libertarian opinion and media. It quells libertarian involvement and support in ways that go beyond the voting booth.

We emphasize again that the consequences of libertarians forgoing practical

political involvement is not inconsequential. The 2020 election was decided in 5 states that swung from Trump in 2016 to Biden in 2020. In three of those states (Wisconsin, Arizona, and Georgia) the vote for the Libertarian candidate dwarfed Biden’s margin of victory by 20 to 50 thousand votes. In Pennsylvania, Biden’s margin of victory exceeded the Libertarian vote by a mere 1100 votes. The potential effect is even larger when one factors in the numerous libertarians and classical liberals who didn’t vote at all.

  This is not just an intellectual failure, but also a moral one. Civic virtue goes off to work, gets its hands dirty, washes off the dirt at the end of the day, reflects in the evening, and readies itself for the next day. Civic virtue involves not only avoiding the greater evil but also making evils less evil. We make our governors better not only by promoting the better governors, but by making governors better. We have a two-party system, Democrats and Republicans. We need better Democrats and better Republicans. How shall we make better Democrats and better Republicans? Rather than wishing a pox on both houses, libertarians might meet people at those houses and try to persuade them as they have persuaded themselves.

 

The Truth about Left and Right

Some libertarians tout a niche that is orthogonal to “left and right.” They often speak of authoritarianism “on both the left and the right.” Such remarks fall into the trap of a left- right spectrum. We take this opportunity to shed light on “left and right.”

It is said that our notion of “left and right” goes back to the French Revolution and involves attitudes toward the ancien régime. That is not true. The 1789 distinction is not our notion. The older distinction differs in multiple ways from our notion, as the French social theorist Marcel Gauchet has explained (see also this).The present understanding of the terms dates back only to around 1900.

Around 1900 in France there as a major shift in the operative significations

(meanings) of the signs “left” and “right.” In the new significations, “left” almost always spells the governmentalization of social affairs. The new significations picked up in the

United States in the 1920s and have since conquered political culture through much of the world. We would argue that from the Woodrow Wilson presidency up to today, it has been the Democratic Party that has emerged as the country’s left party.

With one party being the left party, its opponent in a two-party system is therefore “the right.” As Marcel Gauchet puts it: “For there to be a left, there must be a right.” Since the 20th century, the right has designated all those who oppose the left, and that includes those who oppose the governmentalization of social affairs. Opposition to the left has little to do with the politics of 1789.

To illustrate the change, consider the following English Google Ngram charts:


Figure 3: Ngrams (English corpus), 1880–2019: left-wing and right-wing (source)



Figure 4: Ngrams (English corpus), 1880–2019: leftism and rightism (source)

You will note that "right" emerged as a label in response to the emergence of the term "left" around 1920. And you will notice that "rightism" is never really a thing. That’s because it’s not—"right" really just means non-left.

These semantics developed in France, where the term left emerged a few decades before it did so in English.


Figure 5: Ngrams (French corpus), 1750–2019: homme de gauche and homme de droite (source)

Figure 6: Ngrams (French corpus), 1788–2019: parti de gauche and parti de droite (source)

Figure 7: Ngrams (French corpus), 1788–2019: politique de gauche, politique de droite, politique du centre (source)

These Ngrams beautifully reflect Gauchet’s account. We said that significations of “left” and “right”changed around 1900. The older significations were about seating in parliament. The older significations differed from the current significations in two respects:

 

  1. The basis for seating on the left or the right was, generally speaking, opposition (left) to or support (right) for either the current regime or the established political order. (Think of the chief magistrate sitting facing the assembly: The right were his right- hand men, as it were. The left were his opposition.) Then, after 1900 or so, as Gauchet writes: “[T]he contrast with the Ancien Régime faded and it became increasingly apparent that the crux of the conflict was the organization of society.” In other words, in the 20th Century leftism becomes directionally socialistic, mild or otherwise; it is directionally pro-governmentalization of social affairs; it is directionally pro-centralism; it is directionally pro-collectivism. Thus, if the current regime was socialistic, its supporters were still on the left; “left” was no longer about where one sat in the assembly.

  2. The older “left” and “right” based on seating was highly fluid and circumstantial, dependent on momentarily issues and power holders. “Left” and “right” were the argot of political journalism and not people in society at large; “left” and “right” were not widely used labels for political camps or identities—as shown clearly by the French Ngrams. Then, after 1900 or so, “left” starts to be a popular political identifier. Once there is a “left,” adversaries, irrespective of their diversity, are stuck being called“right,” whether they like that new label or not.


  Our interpretation of left and right is bolstered by key passages of Gauchet’s too-little-known 1996 article; we have gathered the key passages and posted them here. One essentially point he makes is that “while the left was at least mythically one, the right was in practice divided.” That’s because “right” amounts to non-left. Rather than depending on a single set of objections, there are many reasons one might oppose the left. Steven Pinker made a similar point when he noted that those on the left see any deviation from their ideas as a turn to the“right”. Gauchet even suggests that the category of the “right” is, in important ways, a projection of leftist categories on those who reject those ideas. “For there to be left, there must be a right,” he says.


Rothbard was Wrong on Right and Left 

Many libertarians have been profoundly misled by Murray Rothbard’s essay “Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty”. Rothbard epitomized niche-libertarian selfishness, tearing down Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, William F. Buckley, and any other rival in leadership, rather than befriending those spirits and coalescing against greater evil.

To make his case for libertarian purism, Rothbard misses the major shifts in significations occurring around 1900. He anachronistically projects our political categories all the way back to 1789, as though the left today were still fighting royalism, aristocracy, and the confessional state. He also fails to acknowledge what Alexis de Tocqueville saw in the 1830s, that a new sort of confessional state was being built, and that the new quasi-religion has been advanced especially by the left.

Rothbard claimed that “conservatism is a dying remnant of the ancient régime of the preindustrial era”. Rothbard wrote of developments from the French Revolution:

Soon there developed in Western Europe two great political ideologies, centered around this new revolutionary phenomenon: the one was Liberalism, the party of hope, of radicalism, of liberty, of the Industrial Revolution, of progress, of humanity; the other was Conservatism, the party of reaction, the party that longed to restore the hierarchy, statism, theocracy, serfdom, and class exploitation of the old order. Since liberalism admittedly had reason on its side, the Conservatives darkened the ideological atmosphere with obscurantist calls for romanticism, tradition, theocracy, and irrationalism. Political ideologies were polarized, with Liberalism on the extreme ‘Left,’ and Conservatism on the extreme ‘Right,’ of the ideological spectrum. [G]enuine Liberalism was essentially radical and revolutionary…

Make no mistake about the cosmic nature of the contest: “[B]y its monumental breakthrough, this Revolution of the 18th century transformed history from a chronicle of stagnation and despotism to an ongoing movement advancing toward a veritable secular Utopia of liberty and rationality and abundance.”

Throughout the essay, Rothbard insists on making “conservatism”, derived from the ancien régime, the nemesis of liberty. He is unable to make out the true signification of “left” from around 1920. He fails to see that “right” chiefly means anything adversarial to left. We feel that there is little point in arguing against that semantic. Thus, the right is more diverse than the left, and libertarianism is “right” in that it is deeply adversarial to the left.

Rothbard fails to see that one of the many meanings of “conservative” is the effort to conserve classical liberalism—as in George Will’s The Conservative Sensibility. In modern terms, classical liberalism belongs to the American “right”. Rather than assessing the real state of political debate, Rothbard invokes the familiar pox-on-both-houses argument: “Republicans and Democrats remain as bipartisan in forming and supporting this Establishment as they were in the first two decades of the twentieth century.” As we’ve argued, this conclusion encourages the political irresponsibility that continues to plague libertarians.

 

Libertarian Confusion about Conservatism: Hayek

If Rothbard is influential among libertarians, self-described classical liberals often invoke Hayek’s “Why I Am Not a Conservative” to explain their own political position. Hayek is one of our favorite 20th Century thinkers, but we find that essay unsatisfying.

The most aggravating thing is that Hayek does not come to grips with the fact that what gets called “conservatism” in the wild is a being with not only a “head”—a set of ideas—but a “body” or coalition of voters, officials, and institutions. The body involves many filthy cracks, cavities, and crevices.

Hayek does not come to grips with the fact that the conservative party, when it governs, takes custody of a whole governmental sector that it is now charged with paying for, maintaining, and administering; that is struggling to govern, and hence win a majority, and to maintain political stability; that it struggles throughout to fend off what it regards as the greater evil.

Classical liberalism, meanwhile, is often merely a “head”, led by perhaps several professors, public intellectuals, and salient publishers, magazines, or, now, blogs and video channels, without the concerns and defilements of a body. It is a luxury of heady liberals and libertarians to remark on such profane concerns for “who should have a greater influence on public affairs”. Indeed, Hayek confesses that “what I have called ‘liberalism’ has little to do with any political movement that goes under that name today”. And he concludes the essay by explaining that he writes in the role of “the political philosopher”, leaving the rest to insidious and crafty animals.

Furthermore, a head attached to an entire body and responsible for actually governing cannot verbalize classical-liberal principles so much, supposing those are the head’s preferred principles. It will be attacked by masses within its ranks who happen to prefer some other principles; it will be attacked by libertarians for being insincere and hypocritical since it fails to abide by those principles; and it will be attacked by the left as extreme and ideological.

It is fine for the liberal head, represented by Hayek’s essay, to remain unattached to a body crawling with such animals. But it is unfair then to criticize consummate whole-body beings for filthiness. In the essay, Hayek repeatedly distances himself from the two main organized movements associated with liberalism: the “Continental liberalism” of the nineteenth century and the Democratic Party “liberalism” then current in North America. Not only does Hayek paint an unflattering picture of “conservatism,” but he sequesters his own philosophical image of liberalism from the actual politics of liberalism for roughly the previous century. Given the filthiness of “liberalism”in the wild, he even asks whether we should dump the tag “liberalism” and try “Whiggism”.

This is all very impressive on paper. But heady philosophers should recognize that

political reality calls for different attitudes—such as, taking into account the lesser evil. We like Hayek’s heady liberalism. We don’t like his condescension toward full-body politics.

Throwing punches to the conservative body as much as the conservative head, Hayek constructs a sprawling “conservative” strawman. He pins a number of features on it that are mainly unbecoming,and then proceeds to reject the “conservatism” he has constructed. Among the charges Hayek poses are that:


  • conservatism is "opposition to drastic change";

  • it "cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving";

  • it has a "fondness for authority";

  • "it neither understands those spontaneous forces on which a policy of freedom relies nor possesses a basis for formulating principles of policy";

  • it "does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it is used for what he regards as the right purposes";

  • it is "essentially opportunist and lacks principles";

  • it "reject[s] well-substantiated new knowledge because it dislikes some of the consequences";

  • it is prone "to a strident nationalism";

  • it is "frequently associated with imperialism".

 

In speaking of “change”, Hayek does not take due care to distinguish between change as brought about in voluntary affairs, including market innovation, and political or policy innovation. It is one thing to oppose economic dynamism. It is another to oppose political change, particularly when “drastic” and when that drastic change is mainly running in the direction of greater governmentalization of social affairs. Hayek does not do justice to opposition to drastic political change. It is natural and proper to maintain a presumption against drastic political change, even though, for liberalizations, that presumption will militate against, and compromise with, the presumption of liberty.

Hayek writes that until the rise of socialism, conservatism’s “opposite was liberalism”. Thus, “conservative” implies not liberal. But what are we to make of David Hume, Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke? They were hugely admired by Hayek. Were they not both liberal and in an important sense conservative? Why can’t a strong favor for liberty be combined with an opposition to radical and sweeping political change? Enough of both tendencies can be preserved to allow one to call himself a conservative liberal (see ch. 5 here). In the essay, however, Hayek begrudges conservatives from claiming Burke, noting that “even Edmund Burke remained an Old Whig to the end and would have shuddered at the thought of being regarded as a Tory”. Hayek’s error here is the premise that, since Burke is liberal, he cannot also be conservative.

  With the benefit of 64 years of hindsight, we criticize Hayek’s 1960 essay. But what is most important for doing justice to Hayek is that, as is well known, Hayek’s own

subsequent works, particularly “The Atavism of Social Justice,” the three volumes of Law, Legislation and Liberty and The Fatal Conceit, show marked developments in Hayek’s sentiments and in his theoretical formulations that have often been called conservative. In his 1979 interview with Robert Bork, for example, Hayek lamented “the change in morals,” the “contempt of traditional rules” in contemporary society, and the disastrous effects of John Stuart Mill’s encouragement of “a disregard for certain moral traditions.” Hayek never revisited his 1960 essay. But at least in some respects his thought and sentiment seem to have changed in a direction more favorable to conservatives and the best Republicans listed earlier.

 

Why Have Some Libertarians Shirked Civic Virtue?

Long ago, Hugo Grotius wrote that actions taken “in order to avoid a greater or certain evil, ought to be reckoned more useful than hurtful to the public also; because the lesser evil assumes the nature of a good.” We speculate that some libertarians today take a “pox-on- both-houses” approach to partisan politics because if they were to acknowledge the lesser evil they would feel as though they were identifying as Republicans.

One reason not to do that is that partisanship has professional consequences. If they acknowledged the lesser evil responsibly, others might subject them to familiar injustices. Lord knows,the pressures are great in such fields as journalism, big media, big tech, the policy community,academia, law, entertainment, the deep state, the rest of government—virtually all the commanding heights of culture.

Accepting that Republicans are the lesser evil also threatens the social acceptableness of libertarians. Those wishing to get on in the status games of DC or academia must be careful to avoid any “deplorable” utterances. One’s failure to adequately condemn the barbarian and unwashed is a way to ensure one is no longer included in the conclave nor quoted in the Washington Post. Libertarians may advocate the abolishing of this or that government intervention, but they must avoid saying the Democrats are more supportive of intervention and are the greater evil. They must avoid relating their policy judgments to partisan politics.

Over time, the blandishing of the left tends to lead one into intellectual corruption, denialisms, and lack of vitality. Deceit may start with concern for jobs or status. But ultimately it turns into self-deceit, which is the most fatal of all.

Other libertarians, such as Pierre Lemieux, don’t care an iota for DC conclaves, but instead fall into a purity trap. Practical day-to-day politics is far too dirty and complicated, and futile, so they retreat to flights of fancy, arguing over principles or abstract conceptions. When asked how their discourse advances human betterment, such purists often put forward a claim that the forces of history will eventually tend toward the truth, i.e., their vision. Or they might say that libertarian cogitation is a good unto itself, and that they thereby advance the good of the whole.

Were anti-political libertarians to acknowledge the lesser evil, they might be drawn into arguing about it. They might find that they have to move beyond their favorite formulas and presuppositions.They might embarrass themselves. An analogy is those who embarrass themselves after two glasses of wine and decide on teetotalerism—an understandable but extreme reaction.

  The sad tendencies—blandishing and flighty abstractions—are two ways that

libertarians make themselves harmless to the left. The two ways are sometimes combined, as when libertarian academics entertain the left with their flighty abstractions, like court jesters. We should remember, though, that the jester serves the king.

 

Conclusion

Libertarians certainly do not need us to inform them that the rights and liberties traditionally enjoyed by Americans are under attack. That much is agreed upon. The question is what should be done about it?

Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans steadily represent classical liberal sensibilities. We posit that it does not follow that the proper response is to then take one’s ball and go home in order to write blogs and books about how awful politics is and how no one will listen to our great ideas. The stakes are too high for that.

Rather, civic virtue requires us to deal with the world as it is, stinking muck and all. That means meeting with evil to mitigate evil. Indeed, it means admitting that we are evil: Man is fallen.

The only real alternative to this unpleasant reality seems to be to wait for the situation to erode so far, as it did in Argentina, that the people are willing to elect a libertarian economist to office from pure desperation. Not only would such a course mean untold hardship and destruction, as Argentina has experienced for generations, but it is far more likely that such a scenario would empower decidedly anti- liberal forces rather than a platoon of libertarian sages. In other words, Javier Milei’s success in Argentina might have been a happy fluke, considering all the dark forces at work.

  America’s two-party system will continue for the foreseeable future. We contend that the Republicans are bad, but obviously less bad than the Democrats. Given these two realities, libertarians and classical liberals who desire to preserve what is left of America’s liberal heritage have little choice but to get down into the muck and mire of practical politics, to make Republicans and Democrats better, and help defeat greater evil.

  Is it so hard to say A > B > C, as Milton Friedman did?

 

Daniel Klein is professor of economics and JIN Chair at the Mercatus Center at George

 Mason University. He is the author of Smithian Morals and Central Notions of Smithian Liberalism, and co-editor of Just Sentiments: 22 Smithian Essays.


Zachary Yost is a freelance writer and researcher focused on political theory, international relations, and economics from a right-wing liberal perspective. He blogs at The Yost Post.

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