Posts tagged Mark Lilla

Column on Further Distorions of Libertarianism

Further Distortions of Libertarianism

Tibor R. Machan

In his essay “The Tea Party Jacobins,” with its hyperbolic and besmirching title, Mark Lilla, whose The Reckless Minds: Intellectuals in Politics I once favorably reviewed, advances the notion that the Tea Party’s “libertarian irruptions … [attracted] individuals convinced that they can do everything themselves if they are only left alone.”

I am reminded of this point by Andrew Hacker’s essay “The Next Election: The Surprising Reality,” in The New York Review of Books (August 18, 2011), which quotes Lilla favorably. But check this: Libertarians demonstrably do not believe what Lilla claims they do. Libertarians aren’t “convinced that they can do everything themselves if they are only left alone.” What they believe, instead, is that free men and women can do things much better than bureaucrats and politicians, mostly in voluntary associations. Teams, orchestras, clubs, corporations, choirs, and many other such associations aren’t “individuals convinced that they can do everything themselves.” No libertarian I have every known–and I have known a great many, having edited one of the first collection of essays by libertarians for Nelson-Hall Publishers of Chicago back in 1973 (The Libertarian Alternative)–is convinced of such an idiotic idea. None want to do things “themselves.” What they want is not to be coerced into associations to which they may object, especially by the government. They don’t believe people ought to be forced to contribute to social security, medicate, and similar programs not of their own choosing. It is a complete non-sequitor to hold that this means they want to do things by themselves.

Comments like those by Lilla suggest to me that critics of libertarianism are running very low on bona fide objections to the position. Instead they need to make it appear that the libertarian positions embraces ideas that it clearly does not embrace or even remotely implies. Only that way can they come of up with criticisms of it.

This has been going on for centuries, actually. For example, Marx argued that individualists, the libertarians of yesteryear, think they are self-sufficient and defend the right to private property so as to make use of what they own arbitrarily and selfishly. As he put it, “the right of man to property is the right to enjoy his possessions and dispose of the same arbitrarily, without regard for other men, independently from society, the right of selfishness.” This line of criticism, along with the charge that free market advocates believe in atomistic individualism, has been repeated over and over again, not just by the Left but also by the Right. And it is bunk.

In fact, the main thing that the right to private property secures is the individual’s liberty to choose how to dispose of his or her labor or resources. It is this choice that bothers the critics who all contend that they, not you or I, can decided best how we ought to use our labor and goods. Indeed, under socialism your and my labor is public property and to be allocated as the party leaders decide because they have the requisite knowledge, something you and I supposedly lack. (Why they but not we is an unanswered question!)

Anyway, Lilla and his ilk just don’t want to deal with the bona fide libertarian viewpoint. They need the nonsense they impute to libertarians so as to make the position appear ridiculous. But contrary to what they suggest, it is not at all ridiculous. It does not hold that people are all isolated atoms who believe they can fend for themselves, all alone. No sane person believes this. But once you allege that some people do, they can be dismissed as nut cases, which is just what it seems Lilla & Co. would like to do with the Tea Party folks. One cannot help thinking that what these critics are after isn’t to get it right about politics and economics but to secure for themselves the exclusive authority to call the shots for everyone.

Column on Dogmatism on the Left

Dogmatism on the Left

Tibor R. Machan

As a loyal reader of books, articles and columns by members of the American intellectual left, I marvel often at just how blind these folks can be to their own dogmatism. Folks like these routinely charge those whose politics and economics they dislike with this sin, as if all those who reject Keynesian economics suffered from mindlessness instead of seriously disagreed with them. The likes of Paul Krugman do not deign to argue with their adversaries only to denounce them and label them something distasteful, such as “market fundamentalists”. (This clearly suggests that those who are convinced of the merits of free market capitalist economics couldn’t possibly have come by their view through study and reasoning but simply signed up to their “dogmas” from blind faith!)

But Krugman and others, like Mark Lilla–both of whom write regularly for The New York Review of Books, which has what its editors and contributors evidently believe the ultimately smart take on anything political and economic–are quite dogmatic themselves. This comes out when one reads them frequently and notices that they often simply assert their highly disputed positions without acknowledging that these require support, argument, evidence, etc.

Take as an example Mark Lilla’s recent contribution to a forum in TNYR where several of the favorite writers offer up their ruminations about the recent midterm elections. As a casual aside in his commentary Lilla makes this point: “The Tea Party remains a real problem for the GOP, and it will grow between now and 2012, as the party must deliver on what it promised, and knows it can’t: without serious cuts in the fastest-growing items in the federal budget–Social Security, Medicate, and defense–about which there is no social consensus, the deficit will continue to grow in the near term if taxes are not raised, another taboo.”

That bit about how the deficit will continue to grow in the near term if taxes are not raised” is, for Lilla & Co., a simple article of faith, in no need of argument. Never mind that there are quite a lot of serious and bright economists who disagree that raising taxes is the answer. I am no expert but even I can think of at least one reason to doubt that wisdom of raising taxes, never mind about its morality (isn’t extortion a moral problem for these people?). Haven’t the likes of Lilla ever heard of Frédéric Bastiat’s point about what is seen versus what is not seen? Or of Arthur Laffer’s point about how you can tax people only so far after which they stop producing and start spending their assets or simply abandon the market places but for the most essential, minimal involvement? Ok, maybe these points can be refuted–which I very much doubt–but surely serious commentators owe it to their readers to at least suggest how they would handle them.

Bastiat’s position suggested that often when governments take money out of people’s pockets and spend it on so called public works, they overlook the fact that they have also robbed the economy of honest versus artificial spending (spending that does not represent the genuine intentions of those whose wealth is being spent). Sure, officials of the government can easily point to the results of their public spending–all those shovel ready jobs Mr. Obama once liked to mention (but later admitted didn’t really exist); but hidden behind these are the losses of jobs from the fact that income and credit are depleted and in consequence productivity–jobs–are not much needed. The taxes have deprived people of their opportunity to spend their own wealth in favor of politicians and bureaucrats stepping in, as if the latter and not the former had superior knowledge of what sort of spending needs to be done.

In any case, my limited point here is that people like Lilla are dogmatic about their views, seeing no need to justify them, just as they accuse people in the Tea Party of being the same. Sure, being university faculty these folks are probably more articulate and erudite about rendering their positions, invoking their version of history and calling upon their famous experts in various disciplines. But in the end that is not what makes one knowledgeable about political economy. It is what Ayn Rand liked to call “argument by intimidation.” My bunch has fancier intuitions than yours! End of argument.

This way of going about the business of commenting on current affairs betrays lack of real interest in solving problems. Instead it suggests that such folks see it sufficient to rely on appearance as opposed to substance when they confront their opponents.