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The surprising persistence of Ron Paul during the Republican presidential primary process has brought the libertarian theory that he champions into the spotlight. At one level, what Paul says about the tradition is surely correct. It does not take a bold imagination to think that the level of government intrusion in the lives and businesses of its citizens has moved to an unacceptable and unsustainable level. He is right to stress the corruption that large government brings to social life.
In today’s environment, individuals divert their energy producing wealth for themselves, which would otherwise create greater opportunities for others, to securing the transfer of wealth from others, which in the end diminishes all the possibilities for growth created by human ingenuity and invention.
In this piece–my weekly column for Hoover’s Defining Ideas–I do not want to defend the Paul candidacy. Candidates all take many positions, and I have little sympathy for what I regard as the dangerous isolationism of Paul’s foreign policy, for his relative silence on the vital issue of free trade, and for his quixotic effort to abolish the Federal Reserve (which stands in need of extensive reform) in favor of a return to a gold standard.
It is, however, important to note that the attractiveness of Paul’s central message has brought forth a number of attacks on the basic libertarian approach toward governance that urgently cry out for some answer. In this regard, my University of Chicago friend and colleague Todd Henderson sent me a brief post by Jeffrey Sachs entitled “Libertarian Illusions,” whose dismissive message is all too apparent from its title.
Sachs, a Columbia University professor, isolates the chief defect of the libertarian position to its single-minded pursuit of one virtue—liberty—to the exclusion of all others, like compassion and justice. But his grotesque mischaracterization of libertarianism and capitalism requires a response. These two great systems of thought should be acquitted of all the charges that Sachs makes against them. Sachs’s weak and misconceived attack says more about his own intellectual poverty than that of the systems that he hopes to undermine with a few deft strokes.
Since he does not offer a systematic account of what it is to be a libertarian, in my column I tryto fill that gap in order to explain why his views are so deeply flawed.