May 02, 2002


LIBERTARIANISM IS DEAD, LONG LIVE LIBERTARIANISM: Francis Fukuyama is playing semantic games in his gleeful obituary for libertarianism in today's Wall Street Journal. He distinguishes between "classical liberalism" and "libertarianism," defining the latter as "a far more radical dogma." In common usage, the terms mean the same thing-- the neologism "libertarian" dominates because, political savvy being what it is, the average person probably thinks Ted Kennedy is a "classical liberal." The foreign policy critique Fukuyama is making has already been made by many who march under the "libertarian" banner. Cato analyst Brink Lindsey has attacked today's anti-war libertarians, and former Reason editor Virginia Postrel has criticized their Rothbardian intellectual roots.

(The semantics get especially confusing when you cross the Atlantic. In Europe, "libertarian" sounds like "anarchist"; they say "neoliberal"-- not to be confused with American New Republic-style neoliberals.)

"It was only the government," says Fukuyama, "and not the market or individuals, that could be depended on to send firemen into buildings, or to fight terrorists, or to screen passengers at airports." One at a time: Firefighters are municipal officers, hardly big-government figures. Many libertarians are quite friendly to the military; apart from Anarco-Capitalists, who favor private defense companies over governments, most understand defense to be the valid function of the government. And if Mr. Fukuyama thinks that Federal screeners will make airports safe and efficient, I wonder if he's ever dealt with a government in any compacity. (The problem with pre-9/11 security was diffused liability-- the airlines were collectively instead of individually responsible for security. Government screeners will not change this, though some simple legal restructuring, which would not have required hundreds of new federal employees, would have.)

The bulk of Fukuyama's piece is actually dedicated to biomedical questions, which it would be hard to argue are in any way settled. (Incidentally, I just signed Postrel's Franklin Society Petition-- I'm at the bottom of this page-- against criminalizing embryonic research cloning. Look into it.) Fukuyama's arguments against biotech in general is, in a word, bizarre.

He plays so fast and lose with his rhetoric, setting up straw men and resorting to the always unconvincing slippery-slope argument, that it's hard to know exactly how he does it, but he seems to roll research with embyros, research with cloned embryos, reproductive cloning, genetic engineering, and Hitlerian eugenics into one big ball. Apparantly, we shouldn't attempt to cure cancer, because someone might some time in the future change his child's eye color.

This is Luddite claptrap. The only valid (though to me unpersuasive) argument against stem cell research, embryonic cloning, etc. is based in a belief-- often, but not necessarily, religious-- that ascribes a certain moral status to embryos. To say we shouldn't allow something because it may lead to something else which could be used immorally is nonsensical; the same argument could be applied to fire.

Fukuyama's wishful thinking notwithstanding, the mainline, "sensible shoes" (as opposed to "combat boots"-- Stephen Green's term) libertarian movement is extremely strong these days, fueled by the blogging phenomenon, and the vast majority of libertarian bloggers see no contradiction between their support for the war on terror and their suspicion of government.

Posted by John Tabin at May 2, 2002 05:45 AM