The Spectacle Blog

Hyperbole Chic

By on 10.20.08 | 8:03AM

Jacob Weisberg, who as far as I know is friends with one libertarian, just comes out and says it: Libertarianism is dead. Not only that, but libertarians' collective refusal to admit that their devotion to free markets is dead wrong is reminiscent of Marxists who felt that the Soviet Union fell more on account of clerical error:

The argument as a whole is reminiscent of wearying dorm-room debates that took place circa 1989 about whether the fall of the Soviet bloc demonstrated the failure of communism. Academic Marxists were never going to be convinced that anything that happened in the real world could invalidate their belief system. Utopians of the right, libertarians are just as convinced that their ideas have yet to be tried, and that they would work beautifully if we could only just have a do-over of human history.

Never mind the fact that the empirical data actually support the view that market liberalization has been a success in those countries that have dared try it. And never mind the fact that Weisberg casually skips over the libertarian interpretations of the events of the last few weeks. He doesn't have to look into them and accord any merit to these points. To Weisberg, the narrative is settled just because he says so.

Weisberg would have us believe something terribly wrongheaded -- that libertarianism is the diametric opposite of communism, and proposes a utopian ideal.

That is, frankly, preposterous.

Libertarianism is the antidote to the utopian worldview that justifies government proposals. When politicians want to use a club where a hammer will do, libertarians provide solutions that empower ourselves over the politicians who'd like to be seen as saviors.

When government sets out to accomplish something, it demands that its solution be the only solution to problem. A government monopoly forces people to behave in a way they wouldn't behave otherwise. In other words, you have to assume that everyone's behavior can be molded.

On the other hand, classical liberals accept that people are not sheep. Government solutions are tricky and frequently stupid. Market-based solutions can also be tricky and oft-times stupid. In the latter instance, stupidity is rewarded with bankruptcy. In the former, stupidity is frequently rewarded with reelection.

Which is the more idealistic, then? The view that government can fix problems more handily than the people who understand the problems better (because they experience them)? Or the view that someone in the marketplace will eventually figure it out?

The worst thing you can say about libertarians is that they are intellectually immature, frozen in the worldview many of them absorbed from reading Ayn Rand novels in high school.

Interesting. Accuse others of immaturity by pointing out they read big books in high school. Weisberg not only doesn't understand classical liberalism, he also doesn't understand irony.

Like other ideologues, libertarians react to the world's failing to conform to their model by asking where the world went wrong. Their heroic view of capitalism makes it difficult for them to accept that markets can be irrational, misunderstand risk, and misallocate resources or that financial systems without vigorous government oversight and the capacity for pragmatic intervention constitute a recipe for disaster.

All the "dangers of the markets" pointed out can be ascribed to the government as well. In fact, in the realm of the government, it's worse, because everyone is forced to suffer.

Anyway, Weisberg's "analysis" is precisely the thing that plagues punditry today -- a refusal to understand the details. If anyone other than Weisberg pitched that article to Slate, it never would have been accepted, because Slate's style is overreporting. In the rush to write the "Libertarianism Is Dead" piece, Weisberg forgot the very thing that makes his journal so interesting.

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