Austin Bramwell claims that it is difficult to get an answer from libertarians about the current financial crisis. Why? “Libertarianism has two faces,” he writes, “which I call the comic and the tragic.”One says that markets are flourishing and personal emancipation is proceeding apace, so every day in every way things are getting better and better. The other sees the dead hand of the state crushing individual freedoms with rapid, stultifying government growth.
Bramwell concludes that libertarians “react to circumstances as the mood dictates.” Maybe. I’m sure you could find specific libertarians and conservative fellow travelers of libertarianism who, say, in the span of the 1990s went from bemoaning a Clintonian era of big government — from Hillarycare to Ruby Ridge — and closed the decade by praising the fantastic growth and innovation of the markets during the Internet-boom economy. I know in over a decade of column-writing, I’ve had my bouts of triumphalism and pessimism. But for the most part we are talking about distinctly different people here, even if they would all describe themselves as libertarians.
There is almost no overlap between the people who see agree with Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch that this is a libertarian moment and the Rothbardians who believe we never should have junked the Articles of Confederation. Or the libertarians who cheered the Internet boom of the 1990s as a victory of markets over the state and the exponents of Austrian economics who saw that boom as an illusory product of the Federal Reserve’s loose monetary policies and artificially low interest rates. Thomas Woods, whose current book on the financial meltdown I reviewed this week in the Washington Times, doesn’t look back fondly on the dot-com era.
Saying that these different camps are inconsistent is like complaining that conservatism is contradictory because of a lack of commonality between the Weekly Standard and Commentary on the one hand and the American Conservative and Chronicles on the other.