09 July 2010

Contra Gerson

EconLog | Arnold Kling | Morning Libertarian Rant

But what should the public be afraid of? The Post's conservative columnist, Michael Gerson, has the answer.
the ideology of libertarianism is itself a scandal. It involves not only a retreat from Obamaism but a retreat from the most basic social commitments to the weak, the elderly and the disadvantaged, along with a withdrawal from American global commitments."
Sub in "statists" or "dirigists" for "socialists" in the following and you have my reply to Gerson.
Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain."

— Frederic Bastiat, "The Law"
Besides that, I want to note specifically how Gerson threw "elderly" into the mix there. "Elderly" is not a category of people I have a commitment to. If people happen to be elderly and weak, or elderly and disadvantaged, then we help them because they are weak or disadvantaged. Elderly by itself is neither necessary nor sufficient for us to owe anyone anything.

This is sloppy thinking at best. More likely it's duplicitous posturing. "Hey you Post readers (who are largely elderly) don't trust those libertarians, they hate you."

Gerson continues:
Libertarianism has a rigorous ideological coldness at its core. Voters are alienated when that core is exposed.
Better a rigorous ethos than the wishy-washy opportunism and grab bag of positions that masquerades as coherent ideology of the contemporary conservative or liberal.

If there is a coldness at the core of libertarianism it is the coldness of responsibility. People should be able to do as they want but accept the consequences, for there is no freedom nor power without responsibility. Libertarianism preaches that the state is the state. It is not your mommy nor your daddy, your guidance counselor nor your life coach, your pastor nor your psychiatrist, your savior nor your conscience. Many find that to be a cold message. But it is an honest one.


  1. That always drives me nuts too. Especially since a lot of my friends are extremely charitable people, yet can't conceive of private charities taking up slack left from discontinuing government provision of food stamps, welfare checks, and social security.

    Also, I'm pretty sure I read Jonah Goldberg use a line similar to "the state is the state. It is not your mommy nor your daddy, your guidance counselor nor your life coach, your pastor nor your psychiatrist, your savior nor your conscience." Is that some quote that everybody is paraphrasing? Just something you both happened to pull from some discussion I'm missing elsewhere on the internet? I'm curious...

  2. [I thought I posted this a couple of days ago but it didn't take.]

    Goldberg! Thanks. I couldn't figure out where I first heard the line I was drawing off of.

    His quote is "The fundamental insight of libertarianism is that the government is the government. It cannot be your mommy, your daddy, your big brother, your nanny, your friend, your buddy, your god, your salvation, your church or your conscience. It is the government." It was originally published in his Liberal Fascism blog back in 2008.