Martin Wolf’s Critique of Libertarianism

Martin Wolf, a prominent British economics journalist, has an interesting blog post criticizing libertarianism. Wolf is an excellent writer, but I think this particular piece is not one of his best. Wolf’s criticisms are that libertarianism rules out certain policy options that should be left up to “politics” and that it is “hopeless” politically. The first argument is weak, and the second greatly overstated.

Here are Wolf’s two key points:

There exists a strand in classical liberal or, in contemporary US parlance, libertarian thought which believes the answer is to define the role of the state so narrowly and the rights of individuals so broadly that many political choices (the income tax or universal health care, for example) would be ruled out a priori. In other words, it seeks to abolish much of politics through constitutional restraints.

I view this as a hopeless strategy, both intellectually and politically.

It is hopeless intellectually, because the values people hold are many and divergent and some of these values do not merely allow, but demand, government protection of weak, vulnerable or unfortunate people. Moreover, such values are not “wrong”. The reality is that people hold many, often incompatible, core values. Libertarians argue that the only relevant wrong is coercion by the state. Others disagree and are entitled to do so.

It is hopeless politically, because democracy necessitates debate among widely divergent opinions. Trying to rule out a vast range of values from the political sphere by constitutional means will fail. Under enough pressure, the constitution itself will be changed, via amendment or reinterpretation.

Wolf’s first argument ignores the fact that modern liberal democracies already rule out a wide range of “political choices.” Indeed, they rule out the vast majority of the major political ideologies in the world. For example, nearly all current liberal democratic constitutions forbid fascism, communism, full-blown socialism, and theocracy – forbidding them in the sense that they cannot be adopted through “normal” legislation, but only by constitutional amendment. Some liberal democratic constitutions (e.g. – Germany’s) forbid the enactment of certain policies even with an amendment. The various ideologies ruled out by liberal democratic constitutions surely embody “values” that many people hold dear, and on which they are “entitled to disagree” with liberals. For example, theocracy embodies the widely held view that religious truth is important and that we should not allow people to imperil their souls by persisting in religious error.

The distance between status quo constitutional constraints in most of the Western world and those that most libertarians would prefer is actually much smaller than that between the former and many of the alternatives we have already ruled out of bounds. There may be good reasons to reject libertarianism and constitutional constraints on “economic” legislation. But the supposed general undesirability of ruling out policies that embody “values” on which people are entitled to disagree isn’t one of them.

Wolf’s political argument is also unpersuasive. It is not a given that “[t]rying to rule out a vast range of values from the political sphere by constitutional means will fail.” To the contrary, that is exactly what liberal democracies have successfully done already by entrenching freedom of speech, freedom of religion, gender and racial equality before the law, and so on. It is probably true that “[u]nder enough pressure, the constitution itself will be changed, via amendment or reinterpretation.” But the point of constitutional constraints on government power is not to make certain kinds of change impossible, but to make it hard. On this front too, liberal democratic constitutions have a long history of at least partial success. No serious libertarian thinker believes that constitutional constraints are a fool-proof protection for the rights they value. They are merely a better safeguard than the ordinary political process.

Perhaps Wolf’s broader point here is that libertarianism is unlikely to sweep the political field any time soon. That is surely true. The vast majority of public and elite opinion is not libertarian, and is not going to suddenly convert in the near future. On the other hand, much of the public does greatly distrust government and is willing to support substantial reductions in its size and scope. And libertarian ideas have also made progress among political and intellectual elites over the last several decades, moving from near-total marginalization to a considerable degree of respectability. It may never be possible to have a fully libertarian society (even if libertarians agreed among themselves what such a society would look like, which we don’t). But we can reasonably hope to make substantial progress in a libertarian direction. It is also politically unlikely that we can ever fully implement the principles of liberalism or conservatism. But that fact does not discredit these ideologies. The same point applies to libertarianism.

UPDATE: Wolf also discusses several specific policy issues and argues that libertarians are wrong about them. His arguments on these points are very conclusory and mostly ignore the vast literature libertarian scholars have produced on public goods, externalities, insurance problems, and other issues that he seems to assume only government can address. In this post, I’m not going to try to address these specific policies. Instead, I wanted to respond to Wolf’s two more general criticisms of libertarianism. For my summary of what I consider the most important general libertarian arguments against large and complex government, see here.

UPDATE #2: I just noticed that Wolf’s post, which I found only recently, was written about a month ago. Since the issues he raises are hardly time-sensitive, I don’t think this is a major problem.

Powered by WordPress. Designed by Woo Themes