“Why Are There No Libertarian Countries?”

One of my best students from my former life as an English teacher in the 1970s recently posed this question to me on the Facebook page for my book:

H, thoughts on this? “Why are there no libertarian countries? If libertarians are correct in claiming that they understand how best to organize a modern society, how is it that not a single country in the world in the early twenty-first century is organized along libertarian lines?”

He provides a link to the Salon article from which the question comes, “The Question Libertarians Just Can’t Answer”.

It’s a useful question, though I don’t agree that libertarians and classical liberals can’t answer it. Three answers to it come immediately to my mind. Those reasons start to come clear when we ask the same question in a different way:

Why has the age-old struggle for human liberty not yet been won by the forces of liberty anywhere in the world?

When we ask it that way, its big-picture answer is obvious, isn’t it? That’s a very hard fight; it’s taking some time.

The article’s author, Michael Lind, seems to believe that countries make choices:

If libertarianism was a good idea, wouldn’t at least one country have tried it? Wouldn’t there be at least one country, out of nearly two hundred, with minimal government, free trade, open borders, decriminalized drugs, no welfare state and no public education system?

But countries don’t make choices, individuals do. And the actual public policies of any country are rarely if ever chosen. Rather they emerge from a complex interplay of political, economic, and social forces, themselves the results of a struggle of IDEAS in society. Until a critical mass of people in any country believe that individual liberty, limited government, private ownership, and freedom of exchange are necessary for human beings to flourish, there will be no libertarian countries.

The intellectual battle for liberty is a hard fight. In my opinion the forces of light are gaining on the forces of darkness, but, no, they have not prevailed … yet.

Why not? Off the top of my head I see three main reasons.

The first is that it’s hard for people to understand that high standards of living for all, in a peaceful, benign social order, can emerge spontaneously as the result of human action, without any governmental design, planning, or direction. Many people naturally fall prey to what F.A. Hayek called the fatal conceit, the idea that useful institutions and practices in society must have been designed and set up by smart people in authority. They don’t comprehend spontaneous economic order—that from private ownership and freedom of exchange emerges our fantastically complex and productive economy. They see the immediate, desired effects of government intervention in the economy; but have not learned, following Frederic Bastiat, to see the indirect, undesirable, unintended, negative consequences of that intervention.

The second reason why the intellectual struggle for liberty is not finished, and perhaps it’s a big part of the explanation for the first, is that many opponents of liberty—Karl Marx and John Maynard Keyes come first to my mind—wrote very persuasively, and the confusion they wrought is taking a lot of time, argument, and the accumulating weight of historical evidence to clear up.

The third reason is that power is very tempting, even to well-meaning people.  Bad people who lust for power over others will of course oppose liberty, and they will justify their violations of individuals’ rights with propaganda, with intimidation, and with dazzling rationalizations in terms of the general will, racial superiority, or the good of the volk or the proletariat.

But power is also seductive and tempting to good people who want to make the world a better place. Especially if they have fallen prey to the fatal conceit, if they do not understand, in Hayek’s words, “how little they really know about what they imagine they can design,” they will be tempted to use government power to provide all the “good things” the modern welfare states try, however badly, to provide: old age insurance, deposit insurance, health insurance; restrictions on wages and hours, and on hiring and firing; restrictions on what people may buy and sell, or who may buy and sell it; subsidies to the poorest individuals and the richest corporations; and I can’t stand to think more and list more of the innumerable ways governments, in the words of Christopher Coyne’s new book, do bad by doing good.

That’s why there are no libertarian countries. Too many people still don’t understand liberty, or they want it for themselves but not others.

I sometimes think of classical liberals promoting the ideas of liberty as being like Frodo and Sam, struggling gamely, doggedly, all but hopelessly, against the awful power of Mordor, to climb Mount Doom and destroy the ring of power.

This is not to say, of course, that all the proponents of expansive government are or intend evil. Not at all. Another reason why promoting liberty is difficult is that most of the advocates of expansive government oppose full-fledged liberty—“minimal government, free trade, open borders, decriminalized drugs, no welfare state and no public education system”—with the energy of those convinced they are right.  They have the best of intentions, those paving stones of the Road to Hell.

It’s a continuing challenge for classical liberals to promote liberty in the face of such conviction.

But hey! taking the long view, we just got started! John Locke’s 2nd Treatise of Government was published only 323 years ago, The Wealth of Nations only 237 years ago. Legal slavery in the U.S. went by the board just back in 1865; in developed countries the law now recognizes that women have the same rights as men. Apartheid has fallen in South Africa; the Berlin Wall is down; in twelve states gays are now allowed to choose life partners on the same legal basis as straights; two states have stopped putting people in jail for smoking pot—Hey! We’re making progress!

It’s true there are no libertarian countries yet, but history isn’t finished.

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