Libertarianism's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea
Ideas have consequences — and bad ideas have bad consequences.
Just how bad the consequences turn out to be depends to a large extent on the precise character of the bad idea. A bad idea that influences no one isn't really that bad. It's just stupid, and instantly forgettable. But a bad idea that lodges in people's minds, fires their imaginations, inspires them to persuade others of its wisdom, and motivates them to make bad decisions in the world — that idea is truly bad.
Some bad ideas inspire world-historical acts of evil. "The Jews are subhuman parasites that deserve to be exterminated" may be the worst idea ever conceived. Compared with such a grotesquely awful idea, other bad ideas may appear trivial. But that doesn't mean we should ignore them and their pernicious consequences.
Into this category I would place the extraordinarily influential libertarian idea of "spontaneous order."
Now, regular readers will know that I believe we're living through something of a "libertarian moment," culturally speaking, and that I don't think this is all bad. On most of the conflicts wrapped up with the sexual revolution and its aftermath, for example, I'm on the libertarian side of the argument — though I also think libertarians too often ignore or skirt over the moral dilemmas that arise in a culture of sexual autonomy.
On economic issues, I have far less sympathy for libertarian arguments, but I'm happy that someone is making them. Libertarians can be obnoxiously fixated on one moral-political principle to the exclusion of all others. But their single-minded focus on the liberation of the individual from all forms of coercion makes them very useful to have around. Whether we're arguing about taxes and government regulations or the soft social coercion associated with received norms, practices, and traditions, it's a good thing overall for those in positions of political and cultural authority to have to justify themselves before the bar of individual liberty.
But that doesn't mean libertarians are always right — or even that they always avoid staking out manifestly silly and occasionally harmful positions.
The idea of spontaneous order might be the silliest and most harmful of all.
Simply stated, the idea holds that when groups of individuals are left alone, without government oversight or regulation, they will spontaneously form a social and economic order that is superior in organization, efficiency, and the conveyance of information than an order arranged from the top down through centralized planning.
Popularized by Friedrich Hayek and his fellow Austrian economists in the mid-20th century, the idea actually has its roots in the classical liberal writings of John Locke and Adam Smith.
Locke famously argued that government originates from a prepolitical state of nature in which groups of farmers establish a night-watchman state to protect their natural rights to life, liberty, and property. In this archetypal statement of classical liberal mythology, civilizational order (including the formation of stable families and the institution of private property) emerges spontaneously, prior to the formation of government, which is instituted for the sole purpose of protecting and preserving it.
Adam Smith expanded on this idea, applying it to the market economy, which he famously described as working its wonders as if it were governed by an "invisible hand." Set millions of people free to pursue their economic self-interest, Smith claimed, and they will spontaneously generate an economic order marked by wealth and growth that benefits nearly everyone lucky enough to reside within it.
Careful readers of Locke's Second Treatise on Civil Government and Smith's The Wealth of Nations will find much subtler views than the positions I've presented here. But it is the bowdlerized versions of their thought that have captured the American — and libertarian — imagination.
Populated by generations of immigrants from foreign lands who came to the New World in search of new lives with fresh starts, the United States quickly developed a civil religion predicated on the presumption that it's possible to "begin the world over again." Raised to recite that civic catechism, Americans have found it all too easy to believe that the achievements of American civilization flow from the spontaneous efforts of scrappy individuals toiling away in a state of natural freedom, with government either doing nothing significant to help or else standing obstinately in the way of even greater accomplishments.
No wonder so many Americans in the postwar period gravitated to the writings of Friedrich Hayek, the Austrian economist who warned that central government planning was bound to put us on "the road to serfdom." Rather than looking to the state to guide us — a goal that inevitably ends with it trying to enslave us — we would be better to recognize that the market economy and even civil society as a whole formed spontaneously, as the outcome of countless unregulated acts and decisions by millions of individuals over time. Going forward, Hayek concluded, individual liberty and prosperity depends upon allowing the spontaneous ordering of our collective lives to continue uninterrupted and uncontrolled by the state.
From Locke to Smith to Hayek, the lesson seems clear: Leave people alone, and a coherent civil order will spontaneously emerge and perpetuate itself.
This is utter fiction. A fairy tale. A just-so story that has as much historical veracity as Locke's happy talk about a prepolitical state of nature filled with spontaneously formed families and settled plots of legitimately gotten farmland.
The fact is that aside from certain very rare cases (see below), it's impossible to find human beings acting with perfect freedom outside of an already existing political order that shapes their decisions and determines to a considerable extent their behavior and range of possible choices.
President Obama got a lot of flack during his 2012 campaign for re-election for saying that wealthy business owners "didn't build that" all by themselves, but his point was indisputable. The president mentioned the internet, roads and bridges, firefighting, and other public works that make it possible for the market economy to function and thrive. He could have said far more. How about the culture of general law-abidingness that we call the rule of law? The Federal Reserve's regulation of the money supply? An independent judiciary for the settlement of civil disputes? Law enforcement at local, state, and federal levels that fights violent crime, fraud, corruption, monopolistic business practices, and a host of other behaviors that would otherwise scuttle the working of markets? And on and on and on.
The order we see at work in the United States and in other advanced democracies is anything but spontaneous.
But there is one situation where it's possible to see genuine spontaneity in action: when an established political order is overthrown. Now it just so happens that within the past decade or so the United States has, in effect, run two experiments — one in Iraq, the other in Libya — to test whether the theory of spontaneous order works out as the libertarian tradition would predict.
In both cases, spontaneity brought the opposite of order. It produced anarchy and civil war, mass death and human suffering.
In response, some libertarian-minded critics have claimed that this just goes to show the damage that tyranny does to individuals, robbing them of the capacity to govern themselves once they've finally been granted their freedom.
Quite so. But then that would seem to imply that postwar Iraq and Libya could have spontaneously produced a liberal democratic order only if its citizens had acted as if they'd already been enjoying life in a liberal democratic order.
That sounds awful unspontaneous.
Order doesn't just happen, and it isn't the product of individual freedom. It needs to be established, and it needs to be established first (sometimes by force), before individuals can be granted civic, economic, and social freedom.
The libertarian prophets of "spontaneous order" get things exactly backward, sometimes with catastrophic real-world consequences. Which is why it's a particularly bad idea.