In a recent article for American Compass, Patrick Deneen criticized George Will and Brad Thompson for their defense of the classical liberal tradition’s role during the Founding. Part of Deneen’s article defends the idea that the Founding isn’t as libertarian as some are led to believe. While that’s an interesting question, Deneen makes a more radical claim about the country’s current state.
In his piece, Deneen laments America’s move toward libertarianism:
We have had a libertarian public policy imposed by the mainstream of each political party: libertarian economics by elites on the right, and libertarian social ethos by elites on the left.
Deneen cites two recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions (U.S. Forest Service & Bostock) in defense of his view. But even if we accept these rulings as libertarian victories, it doesn’t follow that the country is being held hostage by people who hold libertarianism in high regard. And while progress has been made on some fronts in the cause of liberty, we are far removed from a libertarian society. An objective review of the evidence makes this clear.
First, in just the last three months, governments at every level launched an assault on private property rights in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Politicians of both political parties imposed blanket shutdowns in nearly every state, bringing economic life to a halt for millions. To address the economic catastrophe brought on by these decisions, the federal government authorized almost $10 trillion in spending. That’s more than twice the size of the current federal budget.
Yes, there were certain policy decisions during the early stages of the pandemic that libertarians could support, but on net, we moved further towards authoritarianism.
It may be unfair to use the pandemic as an example given its uniqueness, so let’s look at economic policy pre-pandemic. Start with tariffs. Donald Trump’s obsession with trade deficits has led to one of the biggest tax increases in decades, according to the Tax Foundation. In fact, the foundation asserts Trump’s tariffs could wipe out at least of third of the economic gains from the 2017 tax cuts package. This is hardly a libertarian policy victory.
On spending, even before the pandemic, Donald Trump and friends (Congress) had the federal government on a path to make trillion-dollar deficits the norm. This despite years of solid economic growth, which politicians of both parties could have used as an opportunity to cut spending. Instead, they spent wildly—a decision more consequential now considering the $4 trillion deficit, yes deficit, the federal government must contend with.
But maybe the era of deregulation is what Deneen is referring to. Governments have cut red tape furiously, creating the dog-eat-dog marketplace that libertarians have dreamed of for decades. Nope. As I wrote in these pages back in February, new federal rules hit almost 3,000 in 2019. America is far removed from a Randian paradise.
What about Deneen’s contention that the left is foisting its libertarian social ethos on the country? We could start with abortion. As I’ve argued previously, I don’t think libertarians can make a compelling defense of the pro-choice view without violating a staple of libertarian thought—the non-aggression principle. I realize many disagree, but fundamentally, I find it wrong to view abortion as just another choice that one should be free to make.
What separates many libertarians from the left though, is the latter’s effort to use government to impose or advance its own social agenda through government coercion. For example, the Democratic Party’s nominee for president wants to increase taxpayer funding for abortion access. One would find it difficult discover a libertarian who agrees with this position.
One issue that has divided libertarians—and is of concern for Deneen—is the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Bostock. Put aside the debate over the conservative intramural feud over textualism or originalism, and focus on a more fundamental principle. Should business owners have the right to hire and fire as they please? From the libertarian perspective, yes—as that would fall under the basic right to free association.
Does this mean that employers should fire someone because they identify as LGBTQ or Catholic or Atheist? In the vast majority of cases where religious freedom isn’t at issue, I would say no. And if someone does fire another person solely because they hate their lifestyle choices, the market (customers and employees) should be free to punish that person by withholding their money or labor.
It’s not libertarian to insert the federal government into a debate over discrimination. Although some libertarians cheered the decision, the libertarian theory of property rights requires allowing businesses to make those decisions and suffer the consequences if appropriate.
What people like Deneen, J.D. Vance, Josh Hawley and others failure to appreciate is the libertarian’s problem with coercion—and how it devalues the individual by stripping him of agency. That could take the form of tariffs imposed on goods or regulations that direct people how to run their business.
A proper understanding of libertarian philosophy on these and other issues should lead one to acknowledge that we live in an era of economic collectivism and social permissiveness in which the costs of bad decisions are borne by all of us. That’s a problem unique to the Leviathan, not libertarianism.