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McDonough School of Business
What It Feels Like To Be A Libertarian
(posted January 2009)
Political analysts frequently consider what it means to be a libertarian. In fact, in 1997, Charles Murray published a short book entitled "What It Means to Be a Libertarian" that does an excellent job of presenting the core principles of libertarian political philosophy. But almost no one ever discusses what it feels like to be a libertarian. How does it actually feel to be someone who holds the principles described in Murray’s book?
I’ll tell you. It feels bad. Being a libertarian means living with an almost unendurable level of frustration. It means being subject to unending scorn and derision despite being inevitably proven correct by events. How does it feel to be a libertarian? Imagine what the internal life of Cassandra must have been and you will have a pretty good idea.
Imagine spending two decades warning that government policy is leading to a major economic collapse, and then, when the collapse comes, watching the world conclude that markets do not work.
Imagine continually explaining that markets function because they have a built in corrective mechanism; that periodic contractions are necessary to weed out unproductive ventures; that continually loosening credit to avoid such corrections just puts off the day of reckoning and inevitably leads to a larger recession; that this is precisely what the government did during the 1920's that led to the great depression; and then, when the recession hits, seeing it offered as proof of the failure of laissez-faire capitalism.
Imagine spending years decrying federal intervention in the home mortgage market; pointing out the dangers associated with legislation such as the Community Reinvestment Act that forces lenders to make more risky loans than they otherwise would; testifying before Congress on the lack of oversight and inevitable insolvency of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to legislators who angrily respond either that one is "exaggerat[ing] a threat of safety and soundness . . . which I do not see" (Barney Frank) or "[I]f it ain’t broke, why do you want to fix it? Have the GSEs [government-sponsored enterprises] ever missed their housing goals" (Maxine Waters) or "[T]he problem that we have and that we are faced with is maybe some individuals who wanted to do away with GSEs in the first place" (Gregory Meeks) or that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are "one of the great success stories of all time" (Christopher Dodd); and arguing that the moral hazard created by the implicit federal backing of such privately-owned government-sponsored enterprises is likely to set off a wave of unjustifiably risky investments, and then, when the housing market implodes under the weight of bad loans, watching the collapse get blamed on the greed and rapaciousness of "Wall Street."
I remember attending a lecture at Georgetown in the mid-1990s given by a member of the libertarian Cato Institute in which he predicted that, unless changed, government policy would trigger an economic crisis by 2006. That prediction was obviously ideologically-motivated alarmism. After all, the crisis did not occur until 2008.
Libertarians spend their lives accurately predicting the future effects of government policy. Their predictions are accurate because they are derived from Hayek’s insights into the limitations of human knowledge, from the recognition that the people who comprise the government respond to incentives just like anyone else and are not magically transformed to selfless agents of the good merely by accepting government employment, from the awareness that for government to provide a benefit to some, it must first take it from others, and from the knowledge that politicians cannot repeal the laws of economics. For the same reason, their predictions are usually negative and utterly inconsistent with the utopian wishful-thinking that lies at the heart of virtually all contemporary political advocacy. And because no one likes to hear that he cannot have his cake and eat it too or be told that his good intentions cannot be translated into reality either by waving a magic wand or by passing legislation, these predictions are greeted not merely with disbelief, but with derision.
It is human nature to want to shoot the messenger bearing unwelcome tidings. And so, for the sin of continually pointing out that the emperor has no clothes, libertarians are attacked as heartless bastards devoid of compassion for the less fortunate, despicable flacks for the rich or for business interests, unthinking dogmatists who place blind faith in the free market, or, at best, members of the lunatic fringe.
Cassandra’s curse was to always tell the truth about the future, but never be believed. If you add to that curse that she would be ridiculed, derided, and shunned for making her predictions, you have a pretty fair approximation of what it feels like to be a libertarian.
If you’d like a taste of what it feels like to be a libertarian, try telling people that the incoming Obama Administration is advocating precisely those aspects of FDR’s New Deal that prolonged the great depression for a decade; that propping up failed and failing ventures with government money in order to save jobs in the present merely shifts resources from relatively more to relatively less productive uses, impedes the corrective process, undermines the economic growth necessary for recovery, and increases unemployment in the long term; and that any "economic" stimulus package will inexorably be made to serve political rather than economic ends, and see what kind of reaction you get. And trust me, it won’t feel any better five or ten years from now when everything you have just said has been proven true and Obama, like FDR, is nonetheless revered as the savior of the country.