Do Libertarians Have Answers?

Libertarianism: If Not Now, Then When?

Joel S. Hirschhorn

With the meltdown of the American economy, what better time to ask: Can libertarianism come to the rescue?


Perhaps the most interesting statement in the Wikipedia discussion of libertarianism is that

There is no single theory that can be reliably identified as the libertarian theory, and no single principle or set of principles on which all libertarians would

Nevertheless, I think it is fair to say that libertarianism includes the belief in economic freedom that emphasizes removing corporate subsidies and other favoritism to special interests and provides maximum freedom to individuals to pursue financial success and security. It also seems to me that authentic libertarians would be agonizing over the current historic growth in governmental ownership of what we thought were private, corporate enterprises.


We seem to be seeing more authoritarian government being justified by the current economic recession and the public demand for rescue of the economy and alleviation of the considerable pain inflicting so many millions of Americans. What I find myself intrigued by is this central question: In these terrible economic times, is it not reasonable to think that if libertarianism was ever to have a chance of attracting very broad public support as an alternative to what the US has had for many, many decades, would this be the time? That is, if American capitalism that has prevailed for so long with the support of the two-party plutocracy-run government has clearly failed, then why not demand a fundamentally different paradigm?


After all, what we are witnessing right now is the demise of “free enterprise” and the growth of more authoritarian government. Government, through the Federal Reserve, is eager to print and borrow more money, with no limits in sight. Not exactly what libertarians would prefer. So I have been examining websites with a libertarian orientation to see whether there is a serious effort to offer an alternative to what President Obama and Congress seem totally committed to do with the aim of stimulating the collapsing US economy.


I found a very thoughtful article by Sheldon Richman in The American Conservative critiquing the New Deal that current politicians seem intent on replicating. Here is an excerpt from it:

Yet with all this government activism, the U.S. economy, despite halting attempts at recovery, could not shake the Depression. In 1937 and 1938, the financial system went into an unprecedented secondary depression, with a new stock-market crash and unemployment climbing back to over 20 percent.

Jim Powell notes in FDR’s Folly that the New Deal further eroded the banking system; raised taxes; made hiring workers, particularly unskilled blacks, prohibitively expensive; increased the price of most goods, including food; and discouraged investment. This is hardly the New Deal we’re taught in school. As historian David Kennedy put it,

Whatever it was, [the New Deal] was not a recovery program, or at any rate not an effective one.

…The New Deal did not, therefore, end the Depression. …What can we learn from all this? That money is too important to be left to the state. One way or another, government mismanagement of the monetary system wrecked the U.S. economy. It’s happening again now. The only permanent way to avoid a repetition is to place the system where it belongs: in the free market. … individual liberty is the first casualty when bureaucracy expands to manage the economy.”


If minimizing the role of government in our lives and economy is an essential feature of libertarianism, then it does not that appear to be much public or political interest in it. If greed and irresponsible economic behavior by both government and private entities in past years has brought us to the current awful recession, then is anyone interested in selling a libertarian alternative based on sound money and free markets?


Who better to look to than Ron Paul. He recently addressed the House Financial Services Committee’s hearing on the Madoff Ponzi scandal. He noted out that Bernard Madoff was operating under the supervision of the SEC, that more regulation will only make the fraudulent operations easier because they can claim to be approved by the government, and that two of the biggest government-run Ponzi schemes are the Social Security system and even the monetary system itself. Paul supports abolishing the Federal Reserve and the SEC, and returning to an honest monetary system based on gold and/or free competition in currencies. He says outright that

we need to get rid of the bad policies, the monetary system, and these mountains of debt. …we’re gonna hire more bureaucrats and we’re gonna appropriate more money we don’t have. …We’ve been doing this for 78 years, and we’ll do it again, but believe me, this will not solve our problems.


I did not notice any significant media coverage of Paul’s views and certainly no rush of politicians with far more power to him or his views. In other words, if Paul is probably the best spokesperson for libertarianism in the country, and if he is right, then there clearly is no significant public or political interest in libertarianism in these historic and terrible economic days. Personally, when Paul said:

We could return to sound money. We could balance our budget. There’s a lot of things that we can do. But the worst thing that we can do is perpetuate the bad policies that gave us this trouble in the first place. And that is that we no longer, over the last quite a few decades, believed in free-market capitalism.


I think he got it right. But I am forced to conclude that libertarianism is dead as a door nail and doomed to remain a marginalized and insignificant movement offering a home for the relatively few that seek intellectual shelter in a true alternative to the current dominant economic system. Paul’s revolution is going nowhere, yet another marginalized effort that does not threaten the status quo plutocracy. After all, when the US economy splinters, as it already has, and the nation does not turn to the one true alternative to it, what else can we conclude?


If libertarianism offers the better solution, then the path that President Obama and Congress are on, with the support of the mainstream media, corporate America, and most of the public will prove painful and fruitless. This means a lot more pain and suffering for most Americans. Maybe, come 2012, Ron Paul can run again for president and say “I told you so.”

[Contact Joel S. Hirschhorn through]


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