What Is Libertarian Realism?

by Bonchamps

I want to sketch out here what I will be expanding on in my writing over the summer: a fleshed-out libertarian realism.

Realism is a political philosophy that considers power relations first and foremost. Idealists ask “what is right”? Realists ask “what is within my power?” It is wonderful when these things intersect, but more often than not we are faced with the question “which of the things that are within my power to do is the least wrong?”

We often hear that it is libertarianism that is idealistic – and this usually meant as “unrealistic.” Libertarianism certainly can be, but I am drawn to libertarian analysis because it often throws a bucket of cold water on the idealistic fantasies of both the left and the right. Economics is called “the dismal science” for the same reason that Machiavellian realism is thought of as “wicked”; it brings us face to face with unpleasant truths.

Everything the left would like to do with respect to poverty and inequality, or the right with respect to foreign policy, eventually runs into the walls put up by economic and social reality. Both sides are willing to try and break reality through government intervention and bend it to their will, causing a great deal of chaos and destruction in the process. 15 trillion dollars have been spent on welfare and social programs since Johnson’s “War on Poverty” was announced 50 years ago; several trillion have been spent on wars for “democracy” or “fighting the bad guys” (and replacing them with worse guys more often than not). The results speak for themselves: urban blight continues to worsen and racial tensions are at an all time high. The transfer of trillions from the middle and upper classes to the underclass (of all colors) has not eliminated poverty or inequality. Violent crime may be down, but things like the Baltimore riots can still happen. The spending of trillions trying to solve the problems of the Middle East has given us total chaos in the region and the rise of one of the most savage and brutal regimes the world has seen since the Nazis.

But still the money is spent, because to not spend it, I suppose, would be some sort of signal that we don’t care about these problems. It would also mean unemployment for millions of people whose job it is to fight abstract concepts such as “poverty” and “terror.” I would be fine with continuing to pay every such person what they are earning now for the rest of their lives if we could dismantle their agencies. It would be worth it to get the meddlers out of our hair, and the rest of the world’s hair, once and for all. Take this money and get out of my business. There’s a realistic solution for you.

There are many idealist libertarians as well. Young libertarians in particular have a tendency to talk like young socialists. They try to persuade the skeptical by insisting that more liberty will make everything better. Frankly I’m not convinced that much of anything can be made better. However I do think there is something to be said for sufferings and screw-ups that are entirely of our own making, and those that have been directly imposed upon us by incompetent bureaucrats. As Thomas Jefferson put it, I would rather deal with the problems caused by too much liberty, than those caused by too little of it.

Notice that too much liberty also causes problems – they’re just the kind of problems we find more tolerable. But we can’t make a campaign slogan out of that, and with some irony, a movement must be optimistic and energetic about what it can possibly accomplish if it is going to be successful in the real world. That is why I counsel using the bucket of ice-water sparingly on our own, saving it for those occasions when the enthusiasm of the young and idealistic becomes an ideological fire-hazard.

Ultimately we have to capture hearts and imaginations. This means there is always a role for idealism. It is realism that we need more of. Idealism is dessert; everyone wants it and some would consume it exclusively if their parents didn’t make them eat their veggies. Realism is what adults serve up. Have your cake and pie – but eat your dinner first. Have your ideas about how things “ought” to be, but ground yourself in a solid understanding of what is first.

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