The Libertarian Target
By Bryan Caplan
Libertarianism has a wealth of prominent, persistent opponents, starting with Paul Krugman and Salon. Who precisely are they criticizing? Probably not the 9-14% of Americans who are economically conservative but socially liberal. No, the critics target self-conscious libertarians – people who are, at minimum, in the same philosophical ballpark as Milton Friedman.
The self-conscious libertarian population is, to belabor the obvious, extremely small and politically unsuccessful. Serious libertarianism is so rare that very few surveys of political identity even bother to include a libertarian response option. There isn’t a single 20th-century president or any ruling governor in the same philosophical ballpark as Milton Friedman. Certainly no more than five current members of Congress qualify. Probably none.
The puzzle: Why do high-profile thinkers keep energetically targeting such a marginalized viewpoint? As a self-conscious libertarian, I’m definitely not complaining. I welcome all the publicity, no matter how negative. But the publicity remains peculiar. What motivates the critics to attack libertarianism time after time? Top possibilities the critics might embrace:
1. Despite their rarity and absence on the front lines of politics, self-conscious libertarians still strongly shape mainstream conservative politicians’ economic policies.
2. Self-conscious libertarians, though rare, have still managed to sharply shift public opinion in a libertarian direction.
3. Self-conscious libertarians, though politically impotent, are a symbol of what’s wrong with American politics.
And then there are the stories the critics won’t embrace, but perhaps they’re true nonetheless…
4. Libertarians, unlike mainstream conservatives, openly defend many unpopular views. Intellectuals who want to loudly champion popular views have to engage libertarians because there’s hardly anyone else to argue with.
5. Libertarian arguments, though mistaken, are consistently clever enough to get under the critics’ skin. The purpose of the criticism is not shielding the world from bad ideas but giving the critics some intellectual catharsis.
6. Libertarian arguments are good enough to weigh on the critics’ intellectual consciences. They attack libertarians to convince themselves that we’re wrong. And they keep attacking us because they keep failing to fully convince themselves.
P.S. My four-day Ohio tour at Bowling Green, Ohio State, Kenyon, and Oberlin starts tomorrow. If you attend any of my talks, please say hi.