Damon Linker recently wrote a critique of libertarianism, apparently unaware that the majority of libertarians are anti foreign intervention. See his article: Libertarianism’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea at The Week.com
Ideas have consequences — and bad ideas have bad consequences.
Yeah, bad ideas sure do have bad consequences. Deirdre McCloskey’s work shows that changing ideas and attitudes towards merchants (to become more positive) are what caused a massive improvement in human quality of life since the 1800’s. See her video here.
Into this category I would place the extraordinarily influential libertarian idea of “spontaneous order.”
Damon disparages the idea of spontaneous order, but he shows that he doesn’t understand what he’s talking about.
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.
It’s not just in the absence of governments, it’s even while living under governments and under government regulation. See Jeffrey Tucker’s post to understand Hayek’s insights a little better:
Let’s say you set out to plan the world. “If we possess all the relevant information,” writes Hayek, “if we can start out from a given system of preferences, and if we command complete knowledge of available means, the problem which remains is purely one of logic.” We only need to plug in the right data into our calculus and issue orders. The problem is that this solution presumes the unsolvable problem has already been solved: gaining that information.
So far it might appear as if Hayek is describing a world of disconnected chaos and uncoordinated randomness, a nihilistic social order of swirling unpredictability. That is not the world in which we live. Why not? Because of the existence of institutions like prices, mores, habits, signaling systems of culture and learning — of knowledge that we all possess, not always consciously but mostly inchoately. They are institutions which we ourselves have not created but they assist us to making the most of our lives. – Jeffrey Tucker, My Own Coming to Terms with Hayek
Damon proceeds with:
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.
Firstly, notice how Damon has set up an impossibly high standard: perfect freedom, which never existed under the state either.
Secondly, it’s almost as though he is entirely unaware of libertarian efforts at explaining historical examples of anarcho-capitalism and/or private law. See a huge list in my earlier post: “But we don’t have data on anarcho-capitalism”. Or see Anarchy Unbound by Peter Leeson, an outstanding book showing real world examples of self-governance through history, with an economic lens applied for analysis. Economic theory helps us to understand what’s going on, and what principles enable people to secure social cooperation. This is surprisingly true even in circumstances where you wouldn’t ordinarily believe that it is possible, such as where society is diverse or where groups are composed solely of “bad eggs” (pirates, gangs). I wrote a post about the book here: Anarchy works better than you think.
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.
Actually, it is disputable. Firstly, absent the state, we would see private entrepreneurs providing all sorts of services – it’s just not so easy to see this currently because the government (whether intentionally or not) blocks it. This can be through regulation, taking resources that could be used to do it (crowding out) or outright outlawing competition to entrench itself as the monopoly. The efforts of the private sector can also be denied via regime uncertainty as Robert Higgs writes about
Secondly, see Don Boudreaux’s article, Government didn’t build that – essentially making the point that all sorts of infrastructure is privately built -“FedEx, privately built oil and gas pipelines, private schools, private insurance companies, privately built skyscrapers.” And yet you don’t see people running around saying that Amazon ‘owes’ its success to the existence of FedEx. Government provided infrastructure might be important (in the current world) – but the existence of government infrastructure is not responsible for business people’s successes. Besides, there’s also the equivalent opposite argument – government wouldn’t have anything to tax (steal) if it weren’t for productive members of society.
How about the culture of general law-abidingness that we call the rule of law?
How about The Myth of The Rule of Law by John Hasnas? “1) there is no such thing as a government of law and not people, 2) the belief that there is serves to maintain public support for society’s power structure, and 3) the establishment of a truly free society requires the abandonment of the myth of the rule of law.”
The Federal Reserve’s regulation of the money supply?
How about – The Federal Reserve is responsible for punishing savers at the expense of borrowers, causing the boom and bust cycle and helping the government fund warfare? I recommend Murray Rothbard’s What Has Government Done to Our Money? and Jörg Guido Hülsmann’s The Ethics of Money Production.
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?
See The Machinery of Freedom: Illustrated Summary by David Friedman and The Market for Security | Robert P. Murphy to get an idea of how these might work in the free market. Oh yeah, and under free market provision of these things you actually have stronger recourse if there’s police brutality, see earlier post “Occasional Police Brutality is the price we pay for Law and Order”
Now to the ridiculous foreign policy argument Damon makes:
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.
As the libertarian tradition would predict? Most libertarians are against foreign intervention to begin with! Often times, one intervention leads to even more negative consequences further down the line.
The most moronic comment Damon makes here is to suggest that just because one political order is overthrown, that this somehow creates a perfect libertarian experiment. See the points Scott Horton makes on the Tom Woods show from around 10-13 minute mark, episode from September 19, 2014, The War on ISIS: Another Round of Idiocy:
“We look back in hindsight: The only mission the Americans actually accomplished, the entire time that they were in Iraq, was to help the Iranian backed Shi’ite militias kick all the Sunnis out of Baghdad, and make it an 85% super majority Shi’ite city, ruled by the 60% majority Shi’ite Arab population of the country. It was a minority ruled Sunni Baathist dictatorship not a Sunni Islamist one, a Baathist one – meaning, Saddam was basically a communist in olive green with a beret and a clean shaven chin, but he was representing the Sunni minority tribes and all that, and lording it over the Shi’ite. And what bush did was he had the army and the marine corp change that. And make Baghdad a Shi’ite city. So what does that mean? It meant that the parties that Bush chose to put in power, to be the leaders of the Shi’ite community to take over the new government in Baghdad. By the time America left, they didn’t have one reason left to compromise with the Sunnis at all. We’d given them all of Baghdad, so from their point of view the Sunnis can rot in the sun. – Scott Horton
Libertarians and other anti-war activists had been warning about this all along:
“Well intentioned and well informed commentators have been warning this all along, Bob Dreyfuss, Justin Raimondo and others from 2003 on” – Scott Horton
So rather than creating a perfect libertarian experiment, the United States ended up helping one side over another. Oops. Guess Damon missed that part.
In both cases, spontaneity brought the opposite of order. It produced anarchy and civil war, mass death and human suffering.
Did Iraq suddenly decide to become a libertarian or anarcho-capitalist nation? Clearly not. It was not spontaneity, but foreign intervention that actually turned a bad situation into an even worse one. The libertarian view is entirely consistent with this idea. See David Henderson’s An Economist’s Case for a Non-Interventionist Foreign Policy.
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.
This was not spontaneous order. You know what’s a bad idea? Making dishonest representations about things you don’t understand.