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“…Political freedom and escape from tyranny demand that individuals not be unreasonably constrained by government in the crossing of political boundaries. Economic freedom demands the unrestricted movement of human as well as financial capital across national borders…” — Paragraph 3.4 of the 2016 Libertarian Party platform
I have nothing against Libertarians. In fact, some of my best friends are Libertarians. If one of my children wanted to marry a Libertarian, like Tevye the Milkman I would question G-d, grit my teeth, put on a brave face, and give them my blessing and my permission.
On the one hand, there is about 80 percent overlap between Libertarian and Conservative political values, and in practice we tend to arrive at many similar policy positions: the rule of law, strong private property rights, freedom of contract and of association, free trade, respect for constitutional authority, low taxes, light and economically literate regulations, federalism, a government of limited and enumerated powers, frugal fiscal policies, monetary discipline, and so on.
On the other hand, Libertarians don’t have much use for the Conservative’s attachment to tradition. In fact, some Libertarian positions seem utterly unmoored, not just from tradition, but from reality. Take for example, the Libertarian view of migration, expressed, inter alia, in the above-cited 2016 party platform. Without any limiting principle, this position would mean the end of both nations and states. Even on the level of utopian fantasy, I don’t get the appeal.
On the other hand, Libertarians advance a powerful universal moral claim that is consistent with both traditional liberal values and advanced economic thinking. Here, for example, is Alex Tabarrok, professor of economics at George Mason University, making this moral claim:
There are fundamental human rights. There are rights which accrue to everyone, no matter who they are, no matter where they are on the globe. Those rights include the right to free expression. They include the right to freedom of religion. And I believe they should also include the right to move about the Earth.
And here is Michael Clemens, another Libertarian economist at the Center for Global Development, making the economic case:
So, you know how in real estate they say that value is all about location, location, location. It’s the same for the value of your labor. And that has a remarkable implication. It means that barriers that keep you in places where you’re less economically productive keep you from making the contribution you could make. And for every person who’s kept in a poor country, that’s a tiny little drag on the world economy that adds up. So, what that means is that even a modest relaxation of the barriers to migration that we have right now — I’m talking about one in 20 people who now live in poor countries being able to work in a rich country — would add trillions of dollars a year to the world economy. It would add more value to the world economy than dropping all remaining barriers to trade, every tariff, every quota — and dropping all remaining barriers to international investment combined.
It’s actually very simple. You take a person from a poor country, a country like Haiti for example, and you bring them to the United States or another developed country, and their wages go up. Three times, four times, fives times. I’m told, sometimes as much as ten times. So, it’s an incredible increase in living standards simply by moving someone from where their labor has low value, moving them to where their labor has high value. It’s far more effective than any other anti-poverty program we’ve ever tried.
There is a kind of voodoo economics quality at work here: simply exposing a person from a poor country to the spacious skies and purple mountains’ majesty of the United States creates a ten-fold increase in that person’s welfare, and a net increase in the welfare of the world. Amazing. Are there any negative externalities associated with this transaction, multiplied millions (or billions) of times over? Neither economist tells us. If there are, presumably they are negligible, and it’s in poor taste to ask. (Pay no attention to Hamburg and Malmö.)
On the other hand, both Tevye and his creator Sholem Aleichem were immigrants who settled in New York City. Aleichem did well there, and I have to believe that Tevye did too.
On the other hand… I also believe strongly in individual rights, and I think that elevating group rights to preeminence, which is what we are doing here in the United States, is incompatible with our political traditions and notions of liberty. We will come to grief for it. But I don’t see how it can be a universal individual right to live anywhere on the globe one pleases. I may be a simple barefoot Virginia country lawyer, but I am used to thinking of a “right” as a claim for which a duly constituted political or judicial body has the power to grant relief or redress. No such body can grant relief for the claim advanced by Professors Tabarrok and Clemens, which has little basis in custom or practice. It is a purely abstract assertion that founders on such deeply rooted legal principles as state sovereignty.
Libertarianism shares with Marxism and other bastard stepchildren of the Enlightenment this abstract ideological quality, disconnected from the realities of lived human experience. For Marxism, the fatal conceit is its obsession with equality; for Libertarians, it is hyper-individualism. Like most primates, human beings are social, hierarchical, and tribal. Hierarchical means that humans are constantly jockeying with one another for social status, and a society of perfect equality is therefore a dangerous delusion. Tribal means that we are deeply, irrationally attached to exclusive collective identities, as anyone who has ever attended an American high school or a major team sporting event can tell you. There is no escape from the tribalism, it’s so deeply ingrained in us. Try to suppress it, and it comes out in other forms. Dissolve the 20th century American national identity, and you get the vicious and stupid identity politics of the 21st.
It seems to me that the error at the root of social contract theory is the understanding that the basic pre-political social unit is the individual. This understanding is ahistorical and wrongheaded as a matter of anthropology and psychology. The basic pre-political social unit is the family and tribe (which is really just extended family). Being an Old World immigrant myself, as well as a member of Tevye’s very ancient tribe, I am deeply sympathetic to Edmund Burke’s insight that human societies have an organic character, that their members are connected to each other and to past and future generations through bonds of partnership and obligation, and aren’t merely fungible, interchangeable economic units. Like any partnership, this is a kind of contract, but very different from what Libertarians and liberals believe. It encompasses nationalism, for one thing, whereas those other views tend to lead to borderless one-world utopianism. Of course, from a certain point of view modern nationalism is a deliberately manufactured construct. But what makes nation states such powerful political actors, and nationalism such a potent force in international politics, is that they are both the political manifestations of, and tap into, a very deep human feature. I also don’t think you can build a free society on the basis of a deracinated abstraction lacking a demos, as the EU enthusiasts are learning the hard way.
On the other hand, wasn’t it nationalism that brought us the worst crimes and conflagrations of the 20th century?
No. Western elites learned all the wrong lessons from the 20th century. After the Second World War they came to see in the nation-state not the fullest political expression of peoplehood, the seat of law and legitimacy, a celebration of human variety, and the font of culture, art, and human flourishing, but rather the heart of genocide. They completely misconstrued Adam Smith’s dictum that there is a great deal of ruin in a nation. The horrors of the 20th century were caused not by nationalism in general, but by German nationalism in particular.
The true lesson of the 20th century is that public policy works best when it works with the grain of human nature, not against it. Perhaps overcoming our irrational tendencies is a worthy individual goal. But the road to anti-human hell is paved with attempts to eliminate them altogether. The main challenge for the modern social order is managing and moderating the more malign and destructive forms of our nature. No one said it was going to be easy.
On the other hand…
No. There is no other hand.Published in