What the new president has done in his first few days in office has hardly been surprising, even as it’s profoundly horrific. What has surprised me is the reaction by some libertarians, including at least one libertarian educational institution in a mass email, which has been along the lines of “well he’s doing some good things too and you can’t ignore them.” They then point to his desire to get rid of the ACA and several of his Cabinet and other appointments that suggest there will be deregulation (e.g. Betsy DeVos, Andrew Pudzer, Scott Pruitt, and Tom Price). Or they point to his talk of tax cuts. So, they argue, libertarians should be acknowledging the good stuff and taking advantage of an opporutnity here for positive change instead of just seeing Trump as Cheeto Mussolini.
They couldn’t be more wrong in my view. What they fail to recognize is that the Bad Things that Trump is doing are Very Bad Things and that the Good Things they are hoping for are both much less important than the Very Bad Things and much less likely to happen. One friend has created a ledger document that lists the good on one side and the bad on the other. The problem with that ledger is that it is unweighted. A small tax cut, or freezing the minimum wage are, in my view, an order of magnitude less morally important than authorizing torture, suggesting Muslim registries, closing the border to refugees, ignoring the Constitution and the rule of law, revving up the US war machine, trying to muzzle the media, building a wall, undoing decades of peace and prosperity-enhancing global trade, threatening to send troops to Chicago, and so forth.
I am as much of a radical libertarian as anyone, but I cannot fathom how self-described libertarians can think that marginal tax cuts, lighter FDA regulation, or even getting rid of the ACA (all of which I think would be welcome) even come close to balancing out the illiberal and inhumane policies listed above. The power given the state in those items in Trump’s agenda are a fundamental threat to liberalism and to domestic and global peace.
He is a baboon flinging shit at the liberal tradition and the liberal order, while some libertarians sit around, covered with it, thinking that the drink of water he’s promising them later somehow offsets it.
Why some, and I emphasize this is just “some,” libertarians have adopted this view is what puzzles me. I have several possible explanations:
- Too many libertarians are too focused on economics and are less concerned with other parts of the liberal order, especially the formal and informal political institutions that are equally necessary for a free society. It’s not just the anarchists here, but rather a large blind spot about the politics of liberalism and the nature of its institutions and their functions that affects even those who see a role for the state. This is a missing element of the contemporary liberal intellectual tradition as co-blogger Jacob has pointed out.
- Too many libertarians hate the left more than they love liberty. One response I’ve heard to my pushing back on their take on Trump is that “well Obama/Clinton was/would have been worse!” No, actually he wasn’t and I don’t think she would have been. Yes, they might have expanded the regulatory state, but there would be no revival of torture, no wall, no registry, no trade war, no attempt to muzzle the media, etc.. Trump is a tin-pot dictator wannabe (and startingtobe), without an ounce of knowledge or respect for constitutional limits on government, who threatens the foundational institutions of the liberal order. Obama was not. Clinton is not. I confess to some schadenfreude myself as the left squirms in the aftermath of a defeat they didn’t see coming. But every time Trump opens his mouth, the fundamental threat to liberty he and his supporters embody overwhelms that. Now, more than ever, libertarians need good-hearted, open-minded people on the left as allies in an attempt to preserve the things we agree on. We should never let our frustrations with the left become more important than preserving the liberal order.
- I suspect too that for some libertarians, there is indeed a kind of “America first” attitude going on here. Notice that almost everything on the “plus” side of the ledger are policies that primarily affect Americans. School choice, ending the ACA, deregulation at the FDA or Labor, and even tax cuts are policies that pretty much exclusively affect Americans. On the other side, torture, trade, immigration, refugees, and war are things that have major effects on citizens in the rest of the world. Dammit, libertarians, they count too. The liberal vision has always been a global, cosmopolitian one, and there are no grounds for saying the interests of Americans trump (as it were) those of the rest of the globe.
And here is where the weighting issue returns: the gains to the rest of the world from being able to trade with Americans and emigrate, or get refugee status, here, are enormous. Freeing up the global movement of goods, services, and people is the single most valuable thing we could do to reduce global poverty and improve the lives of billions. The lost opportunities to do so that will come from raising trade and immigration barriers represent a welfare loss far greater than the gains that would come (if they even happen) from marginal cuts in taxes or regulation. As important as school choice, for example, is to poor Americans, the opportunity to sell goods and services in the US market or migrate here for work is far more valuable to the rest of the globe.
No libertarianism worth its name should ever accept those kinds of fundamental restrictions on the rights of humans, and their freedom to peacefully provide for themselves and their families, in exchange for the pot of gruel of the promise of some tax cuts and deregulation.
Nor should any libertarianism worth its name think for a second that there is some sort of equal moral weighting between those promised economic policies and the return of state-sponsored torture, or troops in the streets of Chicago, or cozying up to Putin, or saber-rattling with the rest of the world.
There’s no moral equivalence here. There are just a whole lot of Very Bad Things that are really happening right now. You can create all the balance sheets you want, but if you don’t understand that some things are far more important than others, you are not blind like the impartial scale of justice, but blind instead to the future of liberalism that hangs in that balance.