18 July 2011

A conservative critique of 'futuretastic' libertarianism

There's enough of a libertarian streak in the intellectual tendency known as "paleoconservatism" -- or vice versa-- that a need emerges occasionally for differentiation. This need is answered in part by The American Conservative magazine, which includes in its newest issue a critique from James P. Pinkerton of Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch's Declaration of Independents -- which just happens to be advertised on the magazine's back page. Pinketon is identified as a Fox News contributor and fellow of the New America Foundation, a "radical centrist" think tank. I'm not sure how paleo his conservatism is, but it is unorthodox. At least it takes an unorthodox shape when pitted against Gillespie and Welch's aggressively optimistic libertarianism. What happens when a presumed paleocon criticizes libertarians? In this case Pinkerton produces a justification, if not a defense, of the state.

Pinkerton goes to the root, answering the authors' appeal to Jefferson and the "pursuit of happiness," which they deem threatened by present-day party politics, with an invocation of Washington and Hamilton.

Perhaps “happiness” was never the whole point of the Declaration or the war that followed; George Washington, to name one Founder, had a sternly civic-minded vision of happiness, and it had nothing to do with “infinite individual choice.” Having survived countless battles on behalf of his country, Washington was determined that America would survive as a nation—and it was only the hard, serious work of statecraft that would guarantee its survival.

It was President Washington, too, who commissioned Alexander Hamilton to write the Report on Manufactures—a 1791 defense-industrial agenda focusing on the need for the 18th-century equivalent of, yes, big government to make sure that military production was insourced, not outsourced. It’s worth emphasizing that the Report was written by the first Treasury secretary, at the behest of the first president, and accepted by the first Congress. If libertarians argue (and many do [as do many Republicans -- SW]) that Hamilton was some sort of mutant militarist or corporatist, they find themselves at odds with the thinking of those who were actually present at the Founding.

It was only recently that self-styled conservatives ceased to be statists. Until the early 20th century, statism was an essential part of the job description. Only when politicians broke an implicit alliance with the business class did most American "conservatives" side with business against the state. They idealized the market as the source of all good things, but Pinkerton disagrees, at least in one field of activity: science.

[I]s it really the case that the free market should trump professional canons of medical ethics? Should doctors put aside the Hippocratic Oath in favor of profit maximization? Are those the doctors that you want to visit?
Gillespie and Welch also neglect the reality that science, including medical science, has imperatives of its own. It was not the free market that gave us penicillin, or the polio vaccine, or the eradication of smallpox. Instead, it was a pluralistic combination of public and private actors, spearheaded by doctors who, in fact, do have special healing knowledge to dispense.
And so contemporary libertarianism runs up against yet another weakness: its too glib dismissal of the long-term and expensive science that few entrepreneurs pursue. The miracle of the marketplace hasn’t come up with a cure for Alzheimer’s, and it’s unlikely that it ever will because those kinds of megaprojects have always been undertaken by nonprofits of one kind or another.

Pinkerton accuses 21st century libertarians of abandoning a "pro-science tradition" exemplified by Robert A. Heinlein in their obsession with the Market as the essential vehicle of progress. He finds this ironic given their fetishization of an Internet that "started out as a government program." Worse, it represents a rejection of technocratic pragmatism in favor of wishful ideology. For this reason above all, Pinkerton doubts whether libertarians will win over many people from "the pragmatic middle of America -- the folks who simply want better lives." From what he can see, Gillespie and Welch lack "compelling and comprehensive vision that can grab hearts and minds." They offer, in their own words, a "futuretastic world of nearly infinite individual choice, specialization, and autonomy." Most Americans, Pinkerton expects, would rather see results, or at least be promised some. The libertarians want the rest of us to share their thrill of entrepreneurial risk and adventure. One almost gets the feeling that for them the journey, not the destination matters. If that's so, it's understandable if a conservative dismisses them, because that makes them liberals.

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