That didn’t take long. The morning after The New York Times Magazine publishes the Gray Lady’s most charitable in-depth treatment of libertarianism (“Has the ‘Libertarian Moment’ Finally Arrived?”) since the modern movement’s emergence in the 1970s brings Paul Krugman’s harrumphing dismissal (“Phosphorous And Freedom”).
Sprinting towards his economic-wonk comfort zone, Krugman perfunctorily brushes past the magazine article’s topic: the appeal of libertarianism to today’s youth. “Polling suggests that young Americans tend, if anything, to be more supportive of the case for a bigger government than their elders.” (Depends how you interpret the polls.)
But then, keeping up with cultural zeitgeist is not exactly Mr. “The Twinkie Manifesto”’s strong suit. Between declaring in “The Conscience of a Liberal” that “the political and economic environment of my youth stands revealed as a paradise lost” (rightly pegged by actual leftist Arun Gupta as “mush-brained”), what Brink Lindsey dubs “nostalgianomics”, lamenting “the breakdown of marriage” (“That Old-Time Whistle”), and relying on hoary “Atlas Shrugged” references as representative of libertarianism, he hasn’t gotten past the 1950s.
A generation seeing government as the rot of “Game of Thrones”, not the G-Men of TV’s “The FBI” — and whose notion of heroic business owes more to the Hunger Games’s black-market bazaar, The Hob, than to captains of industry — doesn’t compute in that Pleasantville worldview.
Krugman waves the word “phosphorous” at libertarianism like a vampire hunter’s crucifix. Its contamination of Lake Erie is assumed a self-evident epitome of problems only a benevolent government’s regulatory apparatus can fix. Did somebody say water pollution? In “The Clean Water Act Vs. Clean Water,” Charles Johnson explains that,
statist anti-pollution laws are stopping small, local environmental groups from actually taking direct, simple steps toward containing the lethal pollution that is constantly running into their communities’ rivers — and … big national environmental groups are lobbying hard to make sure that the smaller, grassroots environmental groups keep getting blocked by the Feds.
Decades of libertarian literature dealing with pollution are ignored. How far Murray Rothbard’s take on pollution is from the visceral pro-industry-as-it-is denial of Krugman’s exemplar of libertarian “projection” Paul Ryan is evident from Rothbard’s noting that “denial of the very existence of the problem is to deny science itself,” that “if governments as owners of the rivers permit pollution of water, then industrial technology will — and has — become a water-polluting technology. If production processes are allowed to pollute the rivers unchecked by their owners, then that is the sort of production technology we will have.”
Krugman’s entire rejoinder to Milton Friedman’s suggestion that tort law could effectively replace the regulatory state as a check on corporate power — his sole actual attempt to address free-market proposals — is: “Really?” Really. Which is exactly the approach championed by no less a corporate foe than Ralph Nader.
Krugman considers the notion that “welfare programs are wasting vast sums on bureaucracy rather than helping the poor” as fictional as Ayn Rand’s novels. (At least he’s giving libertarians the credit of thinking that “helping the poor” is a good thing. And why not replace what little bureaucracy exists with direct payments to the poor?) Never mind the cutting criticism of the welfare state’s supposed beneficence from the real left’s Cloward and Piven, as summarized by the New York Times itself: “Historically, they argue, public relief has served to regulate the poor, not assist them; to defuse political turmoil and discipline the labor force.”
Krugman’s example of how out of touch libertarians are is that his experiences with the D.M.V. “have generally been fairly good … and I’m sure many libertarians would, if they were honest, admit that their own D.M.V. dealings weren’t too bad.” Few would say that about the D.E.A.
Wrapping up his attempt to prove libertarianism “a foolish fantasy,” Krugman concludes that the American left-right spectrum will be undisturbed by libertarianism: “Despite America’s growing social liberalism, real power on the right still rests with the traditional alliance between plutocrats and preachers.” But the fading memory of last century’s Cold and culture wars makes it increasingly likely that the Reaganite alliance won’t define the future. Let the plutocrats and theocrats huddle with the bureaucrats. Free-market entrepreneurs and sincere religious believers will no longer be their captive constituency, joining their worker and free-to-be comrades in a live-and-let-live, post-Twinkie world.
Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org) contributing author Joel Schlosberg is a New Yorker.