Capitalism or Freedom? Why Libertarians Choose Capitalism When the Chips Are Down

There’s lots to quarrel with in Michael Lind’s essay on why libertarians hate democracy. Lind seems to accept the libertarian pretense that libertarians’ fanatical devotion to unfettered market activity is identical to liberals’ concern with open inquiry and individual autonomy, so he mixes true liberals such as Mill and Macaulay with libertarians such as Mises, Hayek, and Friedman. And why Lind rings in the Tory Lord Acton is a complete puzzle.

It’s true, as Schumpeter pointed out a long time ago, that the liberal concern for personal autonomy isn’t the same as, and can come into conflict with, the democratic principle of majority rule. But that’s not, in general, a tragic tension: there can be no real democracy without personal autonomy and free discourse, and democratic majorities in most of the developed world consent to guarantees of individual liberty that are proof against at least short-term majoritarian pressure. Egalitarianism can also come into tension both with majority rule and with personal freedom. But those tensions, too, are largely manageable under advanced-country conditions; the “dictatorship of the proletariat” has few remaining fans, and even fewer among actual proletarians. Consequently, no substantial American politician is a fan of Castro or nostalgic for Mao.

But libertarian market-worship is in much deeper tension with democratic principle; Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia contains a “proof” that majority rule is, in principle, no different from slavery; if you believe that all taxation is, at its root, theft, then it barely matters, morally, who gets to decide what the taxes are or how they get spent.

Lind’s piece is at its strongest when it lays out the deeply embarrassing facts about the extent to which the “capitalism and freedom” crowd – including St. Milton himself – have chosen capitalism over freedom when push came to shove. And they’re prepared to jettison more than free elections (though in the U.S. they’re prepared to start by just unleashing unlimited money power into politics: even the torture chamber and the death squad can be called to the service of the libertarian (in effect plutocratic) cause without losing the support of those who claim to be the true carriers of the tradition of Locke. And that viewpoint is deeply interpenetrated with the contemporary Republican party.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.