Were libertarianism a political philosophy, one undergirded by moral convictions and developed through consistent application of principles to political questions, last night in Wisconsin should have been a moment of conflict. After all, union rights are a matter of liberty; union rights stem from the right of free assembly, the right of free association, the right of free speech, the control of one’s own labor power. So too with raiding of public pensions: pensions are previously negotiated, previously acquired compensation. They are property, and if libertarianism stands for anything, it’s for the defense of property. So surely the raiding of pension funds, in violation of contract and after they’ve been awarded in fair exchange for work, should be a matter of controversy and debate within libertarianism.
But all of this is hypothetical, and no prominent libertarians even evinced internal conflict about Wisconsin, and there is no debate among libertarians about unions or public pensions, because libertarianism is not a political ideology. Ideologies are believed, their first principles applied through different lenses, their consequences fiercely debated. American conservatism is an ideology. It’s a disastrous, immoral, schizophrenic, and bigoted ideology. But it’s an ideology; it has principles and a moral architecture and within it there are debates. Those debates are usually about which code words to use for “blame poor black people” and whether to put gay people on ice floes or set them on fire, but they happen, and they reflect a living political philosophy. What is debated within libertarianism? Nothing that challenges the rich or corporations. Ever. The best you get is something like Bleeding Heart Libertarians, where people struggle to find contractual grounds to object to a boss saying “have sex with me or you’re fired.” In other words, internal libertarian debate amounts to working hard to justify absolutely elementary human morality, not to question the moneyed or the powerful.
I don’t doubt that there are young people who believe in libertarianism, who believe that they are engaged in a principled enterprise and that there are debates to be had within it that matter. I know that there are Cato staffers out there who think that they can meaningfully work against police brutality and misconduct from within that body. What I will never understand is how they can reconcile that with the fact that what Cato does best is to elect Republicans, and Republicans support “law and order” legal policies as fervently as they support anything. I don’t doubt that there are people at Reason who think that they can support immigrant rights from within that institution. What I will never understand is how they can reconcile that with the fact that Reason’s literally endless assault on Democrats empowers Republicans, who compete to see who can be the cruelest towards immigrants. At what point do these people actually confront the consequences of libertarian politics?
Find a conflict between the rich and the powerful on one side and the poor and powerless on the other, and you will find libertarians defending the former against the latter. There is no surer thing in American politics. What do those “reasonable libertarians” I’m always reading about think of that fact? Does it bother them even a little bit, that libertarians always, inevitably side with the rich against the poor? Do they imagine it’s a coincidence? I have no idea. It’s certainly no coincidence that the two issues that people constantly use to claim that libertarians aren’t just conservatives, marijuana legalization and gay rights, are issues that don’t challenge corporate power.
Show me a libertarianism where there might plausibly be support for unions, or for respecting pensions, or for public employees; show me a libertarianism where there is at least a real internal debate about orientation towards money and power; show me a libertarianism that does not inevitably benefit the rich against the poor, the powerful against the powerless, the boss against the worker. Then maybe libertarianism will be worth taking seriously. Until then, libertarianism will be a wink, a dodge, a clever ruse, an exercise in shamelessness.