The Other L-Word

Reading between the lines.
Jan. 31 1997 3:30 AM

The Other L-Word

Libertarianism is no longer afraid to speak its name.

What It Means to Be a Libertarian: A Personal Interpretation
By Charles Murray
Broadway Books; 192 pages; $20

Libertarianism: A Primer
By David Boaz
The Free Press; 336 pages; $23

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Are libertarians on a roll? If you begin with the recent election to Congress of Ron Paul, a former Libertarian presidential candidate; note the emergence of cyberlibertarians as a political constituency; factor in the collapse of communism; and quote Bill Clinton's admission that "the era of big government is over," you have what sounds like a compelling case. There are other signs as well: the rise of the Cato Institute as one of the leading Washington think tanks; and the general accrual of credibility to what, 20 years ago, was a fringe-y movement of Ayn Rand devotees and risqué Republicans.

Jacob  Weisberg Jacob Weisberg

Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Yet, there is an equally strong argument to be made that the United States is only moving toward libertarian-style minimalist government in the same way that you get closer to Paris when you drive east to the supermarket. Libertarian presidential candidate Harry Browne got less than 500,000 votes in 1996. This was an increase over 1992 but only a slight improvement upon the Libertarian vote in 1988, and a far weaker performance than in 1980. Meanwhile, leaders of the Christian right, whose aims are antithetical to those of libertarians, make the plausible claim that it is they who are winning converts and influence by the day. And if Clinton now knows to eschew "big government," members of the Republican Congress elected in 1994 have also learned their lesson about attempting to make government truly smaller.

The appearance of these two books counts as an entry in the plus side of the ledger. Each attempts to make libertarianism more respectable and popular. They are pitched, however, at different audiences. Charles Murray is a conservative trying to persuade other conservatives that the absence of restraint will in fact make people more moral. He rather reluctantly defends the legalization of drugs, prostitution, and pornography, and concedes that government has to play some more-than-minimal role. David Boaz, an official at the Cato Institute, sees libertarianism as neither conservative nor liberal, and aims to convert everyone. But while he is more ecumenical, Boaz is far more extreme. If you insist on keeping national parks or old-age pensions, he has some advice on the least bad way to run these things--but, given his druthers, he wouldn't run them at all.

Murray's more laconic account is based upon a classical liberal argument: Force is bad; cooperation is good; government is force; ergo, the only legitimate functions of government are to enforce voluntary agreements, and to prevent force and fraud. Murray accepts, though, that there also exist limited "public goods." The two he names are environmental protection and education. These exceptions to the rule of the minimal state are probably necessary to make libertarianism palatable to mainstream conservatives. The problem is that they require an admission--which Murray never makes directly--that decisions made by a democratic government within the boundaries of a constitution are not merely "force" but also "cooperation," albeit with a certain degree of legitimate coercion.

In an attempt to distinguish those public purposes that are tolerable from those that aren't, Murray posits that, to be valid, public goods either have to be "nonexclusive"--interventions from which everyone benefits--or else must arise to counter "externalities," costs passed on to others that, in practical terms, cannot be compensated, as in the case of the chemical incinerator that pollutes the air. What this scheme leaves unclear is why education and the environment are valid public goods while other efforts he opposes--insuring elderly people against poverty, say, or providing national health insurance--are not. Education and the environment are not purely nonexclusive goods. Some people who either don't have children or who don't like to visit national parks--or both--will be taxed to pay for them. And if the standard of nonexclusivity is not absolute, then programs Murray rejects, such as welfare and Medicare, can reasonably qualify. Anyone may fall upon hard times, and most people anticipate being around long enough to benefit from nationalized health care for the elderly.

Murray's next strategy is to try a series of more pragmatic arguments against government action. To show how little sense regulations make, he proposes a thought experiment. Why not give consumers a choice, he asks, about whether to use regulated or unregulated products (unregulated products, he stipulates, would have to be labeled as such). This merely demonstrates that Murray has failed to understand his own argument about externalities as a basis for public goods. The point of regulation is not merely to protect consumers, but to protect innocent third parties. Of course consumers would be better off if the government gave them the right to buy appliances built by polluting factories and low-cost child labor. (In fact, consumers already can, so long as the pollution and child labor are foreign and not domestic.) These regulations exist for the benefit of those who live downstream from the factory and the children who would otherwise be working inside it.

Or, to take an example of regulation employed by Murray, consider the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit. Murray says there is no reason to keep people from harming themselves. But speed limits don't just prevent people who willingly take the risk of driving faster and more dangerously from hurting themselves. They improve the odds for the children in the back seat, and for the safe driver in the opposite lane, whom the reckless driver might plow into. With this example, Murray undercuts himself in another way. He says regulation only gets more onerous over time. But the national speed limit is an example of precisely the opposite point. In most states you can now drive 65 or 70 on freeways. Like many conservatives, Murray high-dudgeons himself into the Jeane Kirkpatrick position of ascribing historical inevitability to a trend that is actually in the midst of reversal.

Murray involves himself in more serious contradictions by drawing in arguments from his earlier books, each of which presents a different case against public action to fight poverty. In Losing Ground (1984), the work that made him famous, he contended that government anti-poverty programs had done much to create the underclass. In The Bell Curve (1994), he said that some people--namely blacks--were genetically inferior, a condition that government could do nothing about. In What It Means to Be a Libertarian, he says government intervention is morally wrong.

He means these arguments to be mutually reinforcing: Government social programs don't work; they can't work on account of human nature; and if by chance they do work, they're morally unjustified anyhow. But this triple argument in the triple alternative actually obliterates itself. In The Bell Curve, Murray contends that government can't really help people. In the version of that argument given in What It Means, he asserts that "most government interventions are ineffectual" because "modern society has the inertia of a ponderous freight train." But if government can't reroute the freight train in a better direction, it's hard to see how it can derail it. The metaphor undermines the Losing Ground Murray, the guy who writes that "[u]ntil the government began masking the social costs created by large numbers of fatherless children, civilized communities everywhere stigmatized illegitimacy." The "futility" thesis--government can't help--and the "perversity" thesis--government makes problems worse instead of better--are at odds. If government can't do anything, how can it do so strongly the opposite of what it intends?

Dimly aware of this problem, Murray brings in a more sweeping illegitimacy thesis--government is unjustified--to trump all the others. But this exposes his underlying bias, which casts doubt on the critiques of government in both Losing Ground and The Bell Curve. The three Murrays play a kind of fugue throughout this book. In fact, there seems to be a fourth Murray struggling to get out. This is the Charles Murray who says late in the book that he half-supports the idea of a negative income tax--a guaranteed income for everyone. This would seem to violate all the aforementioned principles. It would create a powerful incentive (of the kind attacked in Losing Ground) for people not to work; it would be an attempt to help people who The Bell Curve says can't be helped anyway; and it would certainly violate What It Means to Be a Libertarian's admonition against forcing people to pay for dubious public goods. What Murray likes about the idea is that it would finally discharge society's obligation to members of the underclass. They might not be better off, but they would have to quit bellyaching. Combined with a new, heartfelt attack on civil-rights laws (Murray says bad, prejudicial discrimination is inseparable from good, economically sensible discrimination), this passage leaves one with the sense that in declaring himself a libertarian, Murray has not yet removed the final veil.

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