Thomas Frank and Three Common Fallacies About Libertarianism:

Thomas Frank manages to pack three common fallacies about libertarianism into one short Wall Street Journal column. Two of them occur in this passage:

Here, in the very home of the taxing, regulating leviathan, the libertarian is such a commonplace and unremarkable bird that no one gives him a second glance. Here he is a factotum of the establishment, a tiny voice in a vast choir assembled by business and its tax-exempt front groups to sing the virtues of the entrepreneur.

And therein lies his dilemma. Almost by definition, our young libertarian's job is to celebrate the profit motive from the offices of a not-for-profit organization. He is subsidized, in other words, to hymn the unsubsidized way of life. Rugged individualism may be his creed, but a rugged individual he ain't.

Frank's first fallacy is the assumption that libertarianism is about the "celebration" of the "profit motive." In reality, libertarianism advocates the superiority of the private sector over government. Parts of that private sector are mainly driven by the profit motive, others are not (e.g. - families, many civil society organizations). There is nothing in libertarianism that is inconsistent with working in a "subsidized" organization so long as the subsidies don't come from the state. On the other hand, many government programs are themselves driven by the profit motive: for example, government subsidies for large agribusinesses; protectionism for powerful domestic economic interests, and so on. Libertarians have no problem denouncing these programs despite the fact that they arise from the profit-seeking of their beneficiaries.

The second fallacy is the assumption that libertarians defend the interests of "business." On some issues, that is indeed true. But it is not a general rule. There are many, many, businesses that lobby for and depend on government handouts of various sorts. Libertarians and libertarian organizations - including the "beltway libertarian" groups that Frank attacks in his piece - regularly criticize these businesses and the government programs that benefit them. Indeed, as I discussed in this post, libertarian groups have often had to distance themselves from business interests in order to be effective - precisely because the latter often have an interest in promoting big government.

Finally, Frank makes the common but wholly untenable claim that today's government policies are mostly market driven and that the market has somehow crowded out "public service" - thereby rendering libertarian advocacy unnecessary, or at least superfluous. This is simply false, given the reality that government spending at all levels is more than one third of GDP, that regulation is also at very high levels, and both have grown massively during the years of the Bush Administration.

Frank does indirectly hit on one ironic reality: if not for the existence of big government, there would be little need for libertarian organizations or "beltway libertarian" advocacy. But that is true of professional advocates of any cause. There would be far less need for them if the cause prevails. There would be little need for environmentalist organizations if pollution is largely eliminated, for anti-racist groups if racism declines to insignificance, and so on. Frank himself is most famous for advocating government policies to reduce income inequality. If income inequality ever is reduced to levels that liberals and radicals find acceptable, Frank would probably have to find another line of work.

The symbiotic relationship between libertarian advocacy and big government does create a risk that professional libertarians will pull their punches in criticizing the state so as to avoid killing the goose that lays their golden eggs. So far, however, I see little evidence of that happening. Indeed, Frank's concern seems to be that libertarians spend too much time criticizing government (which he claims is somehow inconsistent with their supposed support for the "profit motive"), not too little.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Thomas Frank and Three Common Fallacies About Libertarianism:
  2. Frank on Beltway Libertarianism:
  3. Does the Libertarian Party Matter?