“There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”
– John Rogers, “Ephemera 2009,” Kung Fu Monkey
Libertarians are handing America over to socialists. That’s not what they want, but that’s what’s happening. How can this be? After all, if you want limited government, you’re a libertarian. So where’s the problem?
The problem, as John Rogers alludes to in his unforgettable quote, is with the “real world.” In the real world, America is a two party system, and if a strong libertarian candidate shows up, they take votes away from other candidates who also – despite all their other impurities – oppose socialist candidates.
When the anti-socialist vote is split, the socialist wins.
In the real world, we have nations so that people with a common culture and heritage can govern themselves. This necessitates the existence of governments, laws, regulations, taxes, public spending, and a host of other nasty things. To oppose overreaching laws, bad regulations, high taxes, excess spending, wasteful spending, or inappropriate spending, is the duty of any fiscal conservative. But the role of government is to protect a national culture, not to just get out of the way so corporate multinationals can commoditize the world.
This ought to be embarrassingly self-evident, but libertarians don’t seem to understand the implications of these real world constraints on their ideals.
Libertarian Influence is Harming America
The Libertarian Party hasn’t yet swung an American presidential election, but their influence is felt everywhere. And while their overall message – limited government – is far better than its opposite, but in its extreme that message can also cause grievous harm. One glaring example concerns the interdependent politics of immigration and welfare.
Libertarians, along with plenty of Republicans, are fond of quoting Milton Friedman, who once said “You can’t have free immigration and a welfare state.” Yet libertarians, if they are true to their principles, favor open borders. All the while, they insist that of course they’re also opposed to state welfare.
How many Republicans in the House of Representatives, influenced by libertarian donors, have to-date resisted legislation that would enforce America’s borders, whether through sanctioning employers who hire undocumented workers, or by funding more effective border security?
Other glaring examples include opposition to the war on drugs, where libertarians tend to think it’s just fine to let an entire generation of Americans marinate themselves in a pharmacological stupor, and foreign policy, where wishful thinking libertarians reject the reality of rising nations filling the vacuum wherever Americans withdraw.
When it comes to trade, powerful libertarian donors have actually worked to destroy Republican incumbents who recognize that selling America to the Chinese because that’s “free trade” is a recipe for national destruction, and if tariffs are the only way to get their attention, so be it.
And shall any of these issues be discussed openly on the most powerful means of communication ever known, the internet? Well, maybe. But not too openly. Progressives run the companies that monopolize the online platforms for search and social media, they exercise blatant censorship of views that threaten the progressive narrative, and libertarians applaud.
The Unwitting Libertarian Support for Unpleasant, Unaffordable Housing
Moving beyond the obvious, it is in the area of housing and infrastructure where libertarians also exert a destructive influence. The influence of libertarians in these areas is harder to immediately see, but it is causing, if anything, even greater long term damage to America.
It seems counter-intuitive to suggest that libertarians are against a free market where land developers can easily navigate their way through a streamlined, discounted permitting process so more homes can go onto the market which will lower prices. And indeed, libertarians are calling for those sorts of reforms. But these libertarians are ignoring the most critical variable – expanding the footprint of cities.
Instead of recognizing that housing cannot possibly become affordable unless new construction spreads outside the boundaries of existing urban centers, libertarians are, by default, joining with progressives who want to stack and pack all new residences into already established neighborhoods. The implications of this policy are cruel and far reaching.
Not only is it much harder, if not impossible, to increase the supply of homes enough to lower prices if the only new homes allowed have to be built inside existing cities, but when that happens the quality of life in these cities is tragically diminished. In Oregon, new legislation now permits multi-family dwellings to be constructed in any residential neighborhood, regardless of current zoning laws, in any city of more than 25,000 residents. Similar legislation is pending in California.
It may not be a “libertarian” concept to have zoning laws, but they exist for a good reason. People invest their life savings into a home purchase, relying on zoning laws to ensure the neighborhood where they expect to spend the rest of their lives is going to stay reasonably intact. Clearly this can’t always be the case, sometimes neighborhoods get in the path of dense urbanization, but it is a principle worth defending.
This nuance – how cities are permitted to increase their population – is far more profound than it may appear at first glance. As America’s population grows from an estimated 334 million in 2020 to an estimated 417 million by 2060, the progressive vision is to cram nearly all of those 83 million new Americans into existing cities. They want to do this despite the fact that the lower 48 states in America are only 3.7 percent urbanized, and despite the fact that such a policy will make a detached single family home with a yard unattainable to all but the most affluent Americans.
The libertarian position on urban containment is similar to their position on immigration. Just as they effectively support immigration but ineffectively oppose the welfare state, they effectively support making it easier to get permits to build homes but ineffectively oppose urban containment. The problem, again, is that accomplishing one out of two is not sufficient.
The de facto result is libertarians are offering substantial support to the progressive goal of turning American cities and suburbs into socially engineered, unaffordable, extremely high-density warrens.
Libertarians Prevent Vital Enabling Infrastructure
In a perfect libertarian world, every time you set foot off your personal property onto so-called public space, a meter starts running. The principle at work here is that you only pay at the rate you consume, rewarding the private interests who constructed – presumably at lower cost – social amenities such as roads.
Unfortunately, this sort of thinking plays into the hands of progressives who want to monitor and ration everything, at the same time as it benefits the high-tech companies and manufacturing corporations who sell “connected” appliances that are overly complex, high maintenance, expensive, and rarely perform as well as legacy products. But start the meter. Let the market work.
If forcing consumers to pay the government and their private partners for every vehicle mile traveled were the only innovation where progressives and libertarians affect infrastructure, that would be bad enough. But libertarians often oppose new roads from even getting built, regardless of the funding model. Instead of just letting the government blast new interstate highways and connector roads into rural areas where spacious new cities could be built, some libertarians have begun to reflexively oppose these projects because they don’t want taxpayers to “subsidize the automobile.”
And yes, in the drive to no longer “subsidize the automobile,” there is a whiff of “climate change” hysteria beginning to emanate from more than a few establishment libertarian think tanks.
What libertarians ought to be doing with respect to roads and other enabling infrastructure is fighting to reduce the regulations and environmental legislation that, at the least, has more than doubled the price and more than quadrupled the time it takes to build public infrastructure. Instead they fight against any new infrastructure that might consume public funds, playing into the hands of the progressive environmentalists who don’t want to build any new infrastructure, anywhere.
Libertarians have become pawns of the progressive left in America, and in an ironic twist, both of them have been coopted by globalist corporate interests. When everything is privatized, rationed and metered, corporate rent seekers gain new revenue streams.
When progressives put punitive regulations onto virtually all forms of land and resource development, existing holders of those resources enjoy artificial asset appreciation at the same time as emerging competitors lack the financial depth to survive.
In cities densified by urban containment, land values and rent soar to stratospheric levels, driving out independent businesses and turning every commercial district into a generic multinational corporate slurb.
And of course, when progressives cheer as hordes of unskilled immigrants pour across the U.S. border, libertarian donors applaud the free movement of people and goods – while paying impotent lip service to welfare reform.
The Libertarian Party has never been a serious contender in American politics. But their influence should not be underestimated, nor their role in tilting the political balance in favor of the progressive agenda across a host of important national issues.
The value of libertarianism is to remind us that the private sector performs most functions in a society more efficiently than the government, while preserving more individual freedom. But that’s as far as it goes. The real world is complicated, and culture is not a commodity.
This article originally appeared on the website American Greatness.
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Edward Ring is a contributing editor and senior fellow with the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2013 and served as its first president. He is also a senior fellow with the Center for American Greatness, and a regular contributor to the California Globe. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, Forbes, and other media outlets.
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