Michael Lind: Libertarians' Weak Grasp of History

tags: Michael Lind, Gilded Age, Salon, libertarianism



Michael Lind is the author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States and co-founder of the New America Foundation.

My previous Salon essay, in which I asked why there are not any libertarian countries, if libertarianism is a sound political philosophy, has infuriated members of the tiny but noisy libertarian sect, as criticisms of cults by outsiders usually do. The weak logic and bad scholarship that suffuse libertarian responses to my article tend to reinforce me in my view that, if they were not paid so well to churn out anti-government propaganda by plutocrats like the Koch brothers and various self-interested corporations, libertarians would play no greater role in public debate than do the followers of Lyndon LaRouche or L. Ron Hubbard....

Another response to my essay has been to claim that a libertarian country really did exist once in the real world, in the form of the United States between Reconstruction and the New Deal. Robert Tracinski writes that I am “astonishingly ignorant of history” for failing to note that the “libertarian utopia, or the closest we’ve come to it, is America itself, up to about 100 years ago. It was a country with no income tax and no central bank. (It was on the gold standard, for crying out loud. You can’t get more libertarian than that.) It had few economic regulations and was still in the Lochner era, when such regulations were routinely struck down by the Supreme Court. There was no federal welfare state, no Social Security, no Medicare.”

It is Tracinski who is astonishingly ignorant of history. To begin with, the majority of the countries that adopted the “libertarian” gold standard were authoritarian monarchies or military dictatorships. With the exception of Imperial Britain, an authoritarian government outside of the home islands, where most Britons were denied the vote for most of this period, most of the independent countries of the pre-World War I gold standard epoch, including the U.S., Germany, France, Russia and many Latin American republics, rejected free trade in favor of varying degrees of economic protectionism....



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