Monday, June 10, 2013

The Myth of 19th-Century Laissez-Faire: Who Benefits Today?

by Roderick Long

Center for a Stateless Society

June 10th, 2013

Last week Michael Lind asked a silly question (“The question libertarians just can’t answer”): if libertarianism is so great, why hasn’t any country tried it?

The question is silly because the libertarian answer is obvious: Libertarianism is great for ordinary people, but not for the power elites that control countries and determine what policies they implement, and who don’t welcome seeing their privileged status subjected to free-market competition. And ordinary people don’t agitate for libertarian policies because most of them are not familiar with the full case for libertarianism’s benefits, in large part because the education system is controlled by the aforementioned elites.

Lind’s question is analogous to ones that might have been asked a few centuries ago: If religious toleration, or equality for women, or the abolition of slavery are so great, why haven’t any countries tried them? All such questions amount to asking: If liberation from oppression is so great for the oppressed, why haven’t their oppressors embraced it?

Now E. J. Dionne proposes a different answer (“Libertarianism’s Achilles’ Heel”) to Lind’s question: “We had something close to a small government libertarian utopia in the late 19th century and we decided it didn’t work.”

Leaving aside the Orwellian use of “we” – as a serious claim about history, this is absurd. Even if we ignore, as we shouldn’t, the anti-libertarian legal disabilities imposed on women, nonwhites, and homosexuals (i.e, the majority of the population), it remains true that the late 19th century American economy was characterized by vigorous and systematic government intervention on behalf of big business (wrapped sometimes in laissez-faire rhetoric and sometimes in progressive rhetoric). A government that routinely brings in police or the army to break up strikes is hardly a laissez-faire regime.