An Argument for a Ruling Class

Christopher Beam’s essay in New York on Libertarianism is drawing some interest. And I’d like to associate myself with W. James Antle III’s remarks at The American Spectator. But there is more to be said.

I give Beam tremendous credit for interviewing people from the different strands of libertarianism. By doing so, he even slightly undermines his point that libertarians can easily defined as socially liberal, and fiscally conservative. But, Beam argues with a straw man when he asserts that libertarianism is utopian. Maybe some libertarians are. But it doesn’t have to be.  And Beam also attempts to dismantle libertarianism in one blast. He does this by asserting the existence of a paradox–government is about power, libertarians hate power– and arguing against its practicality in the space of one paragraph.

Libertarian minarchy is an elegant idea in the abstract. But the moment you get specific, the foundation starts to crumble. Say we started from scratch and created a society in which government covered only the bare essentials of an army, police, and a courts system. I’m a farmer, and I want to sell my crops. In Libertopia, I can sell them in exchange for money. Where does the money come from? Easy, a private bank. Who prints the money? Well, for that we’d need a central bank—otherwise you’d have a thousand banks with a thousand different types of currency. (Some libertarians advocate this.) Okay, fine, we’ll create a central bank. But there’s another problem: Some people don’t have jobs. So we create charities to feed and clothe them. What if there isn’t enough charity money to help them? Well, we don’t want them to start stealing, so we’d better create a welfare system to cover their basic necessities. We’d need education, of course, so a few entrepreneurs would start private schools. Some would be excellent. Others would be mediocre. The poorest students would receive vouchers that allowed them to attend school. Where would those vouchers come from? Charity. Again, what if that doesn’t suffice? Perhaps the government would have to set up a school or two after all.

This paragraph could be unspun for days. Despite the use of the word “we” everywhere, Beam isn’t making a case for government. After all, if private charity is insufficient for basic human welfare, then this “we” simply isn’t good-willed enough. Certainly they wouldn’t be good-willed enough to democratically create a welfare system which, absent the voluntarism of charity will be economically much less efficient amyway. Beam hasn’t made a case for government, he’s made a case for “we” –an enlightened ruling class–that would coerce outcomes that would not come about otherwise.

The same applies to the central bank. Does Beam really think that trade  between individuals and nations was basically impossible between Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson? Of course there were difficulties. There were bank failures. But the proliferation of private currencies would actually limit the scope of bank failures. And we have serious difficulties now: the possibility of currency debasement, a banking system built upon moral hazard. Implicit guarantees promote the radical expansion of credit and consumption and disincentivize saving and traditional investment. But Beam’s preference for the status-quo in money is also, he may not even realize, a preference for a ruling elite that protects (rather, “includes”) bankers with the aim of keeping credit, production, and consumption humming along.

In the abstract, I might even be amenable to Beam’s implicit assertion that “the people” as a mass won’t spontaneously generate an orderly and decent society and therefore must rely on well-established institutions, customs, and enlightened leadership. After all, I’m a conservative. But his argument with libertarianism isn’t even that sophisticated. Beam’s piece asks us to give him credit for even taking an interest in these supposed utopian radicals before it concludes with a bored (and boring) yawn in response to anyone would dream of a world without a condescending “we” looking down on out for us.

Put me on the side of the radicals.

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