Thursday, December 30, 2010

No Libertarians at the Constitutional Convention

Christopher Beam wrote a long piece for New York Magazine about libertarianism, explaining why it will never be a mainstream political option. This piece isn't bad, but it includes one glaring error:
there’s no idea more fundamental to our country’s history. Every political group claims the Founders as its own, but libertarians have more purchase than most. The American Revolution was a libertarian movement, rejecting overweening government power. The Constitution was a libertarian document that limited the role of the state to society’s most basic needs, like a legislature to pass laws, a court system to interpret them, and a military to protect them.
After I read this, I thought, I should write something explaining why that isn't true. I never got around to it, but, fortunately, John Vecchione did the job for me.
The Founders believed in carefully delineated federal powers either broad (Hamilton) or limited (Jefferson, sometimes) but all believed in a more powerful state than libertarians purport to believe in. If ever there was a libertarian document it was the Articles of Confederation. There was no national power. The federal government could not tax. Its laws were not supreme over state laws. It was in fact, the hot mess that critics of libertarians believe their dream state would be… and it was recognized as such by the majority of the country and was why the Constitution was ratified. The Articles of Confederation is the true libertarian founding document and this explains the failure of libertarianism. . . . Libertarianism appears to be like arsenic, a stimulant in small doses but deadly poison when taken in large doses.
One can only be a libertarian by completely ignoring history. The libertarians I know pretend to be very rational and to weigh up the evidence about society and the law in a scientific way, but as it happens there is a lot of evidence concerning what happens to human societies without powerful governments: misery. There have been, in the course of human events, many states with very weak powers. They were all either conquered by their neighbors, split up, or overthrown, because no complex society can function for long without a government strong enough to keep order among its citizens. Medieval Iceland is a good example, a society with next to no government where things eventually got so bad that the Icelanders invited the King of Norway to take away their independence. As Vecchione says, we tried an experiment in weak government at the beginning of our own history -- weak national government, anyway, since the states had all sorts of powers libertarians want to refudiate. The Articles of Confederation were a failure, which is why we got the Constitution. How so many smart people can espouse libertarianism in the face of history remains, for me, something of a mystery.

1 comment:

David said...

It seems to me that a certain type of smart person is attracted to radical theorizing as a sort of demonstration of the potential social power of their own intelligence. Hence the reason revolutionary Marxism has always proved more attractive to academics than to factory workers (as opposed to the sort of pragmatic, deal-making revisionist socialism that gave us the European welfare state, etc.).