1/18/2020

The Inadequacy of State Capacity Libertarianism

"Classical liberalism differs from most modern libertarianism in three important ways. First, it is far more willing to recognize that individual freedom can create social harms that government should help ameliorate—generally indirectly by encouraging certain kinds of associations. Second, it is more confident that something can be said, albeit at a high level of generality, about the good life and good character. It recognizes that civic virtue needs social encouragement. In the long run, a nation can only enjoy liberties with few external restraints from the government if its citizens have strong internal restraints of civic character. Finally, classical liberalism recognizes, unlike many libertarians, that the state has a duty to provide for those who cannot provide for themselves, even while trying to structure aid in a way that prevents a culture of dependency.
Liberalism in the 19th century exemplified these differences. Tocqueville recognized that civic mediating institutions and the habits they inculcated were essential to a free society. Victorian liberals supported aid to the poor but, as the late great historian Gertrude Himmelfarb has described, sharply distinguished between the deserving and the not-so-deserving poor. That distinction not only has good incentives for the poor but helps express the larger social values of honesty, thrift, and self-control needed for a liberal society.
Thus, classical liberalism offers a relevant critique of the modern libertarian movement, its wilder and younger brother. Libertarianism need not be so indifferent to the habits and morals of citizens, even as it ought to be less grudging in taking care of those who cannot care for themselves. Libertarianism cannot succeed as a governing philosophy if it is only a creed of low taxes and personal freedoms, important as these are to good society. It must, for instance, protect the associational rights that help sustain traditional virtues."