On big-government libertarians

by Jay Stevens

Tyler Owen of Cato Unbound wrote an interesting article recently claiming that libertarian ideals are responsible for bigger government:

Those developments [brought about by libertarian ideals] have brought us much greater wealth and much greater liberty, at least in the positive sense of greater life opportunities. They’ve also brought much bigger government. The more wealth we have, the more government we can afford. Furthermore, the better government operates, the more government people will demand. That is the fundamental paradox of libertarianism. Many initial victories bring later defeats.

Owen’s argument is that libertarians should accept this “paradox” as part of the tradeoff for the movement’s victories.

The old formulas were “big government is bad” and “liberty is good,” but these are not exactly equal in their implications. The second motto — “liberty is good” — is the more important. And the older story of “big government crushes liberty” is being superseded by “advances in liberty bring bigger government.”


The bottom line is this: human beings have deeply rooted impulses to take newly acquired wealth and spend some of it on more government and especially on transfer payments. Let’s deal with that.

Sort of amusing, isn’t it? On one hand, Owen is absolutely right in saying that people like efficient, good government, and that libertarians and other anti-government nuts should deal with it. On the other, it’s all stated with the usual smug know-it-all tone adopted by so many fellow libertarians. (Like when Owen gave laid all of the credit for our reasonably stable society at the feet of the libertarian movement.)

Take this statement:

So much of libertarianism has become a series of complaints about voter ignorance, or against the motives of special interest groups. The complaints are largely true, but many of the battles are losing ones.

Hilarious. It’s the usual standby for libertarians: people are too stupid to know what they want, let us tell you what it is you want. (Personally I find the idea a small cluster of antisocial eggheads dictating to us how everything should be run to be somewhat…repulsive. But I’m funny that way.)

It reminds me of all the economist puzzling over the “irrationality” of investors approaching the market, that consumers would actually let morality or ethics or emotion seep into their investment choices. Hello! These are people you’re dealing with!

People like using government for collective civic projects, like a bus system, or buying open space, or insuring poor children. There’s nothing wrong in this. In fact, I’d argue that there’s nothing but good in these issues. I realize that’s moot, but that’s also why we vote on these things.

Owen goes on to say that libertarians need to start worrying about other things, like possible environmental disaster, intellectual property and biology, and nuclear proliferation – all of which, he admits, will require the helping hand of big, bad government.

(By the way, I liked his reasoning on why we should worry about climate change:

…if the chance of mainstream science being right is only 20% (and assuredly it is much higher than that), we still have, in expected value terms, a massive tort. We don’t let people play involuntary Russian roulette on others with a probability of 17% (one bullet, six chambers), so we do need to worry about man-made global warming.

A bit cold, perhaps, but some people do base all of their decisions on the possible monetary impact something will have…)

I think people who are libertarian-minded (but not perhaps not self-identified libertarians) who clamor for liberty often recognize that good government — responsive to the people – can be a partner in ensuring personal liberty. Owen, too, tacitly admits this, even while loudly decrying “New Deal” policies for the curmudgeonly among his readers. Of course, the first step is to ensure that government is responsive and transparent…


  1. I look at the market as fire – it can be our friend when contained in a hearth and enemy if it breaks loose. Our forebears saw markets overheat and burn out of control – libertarians, of course, blame government for all evil, so don’t see it this way). Our forebears saw corporations control every aspect of our lives. The State of Montana was in virtual serfdom to the Rockefeller Trusts. Government was needed to keep the beast at bay.

    Since one of the tenets of conservatism is to respect the wisdom of the past, conservatives ought to support regulation of markets. This is what our ancestors learned the hard way.

    Anyway, unregulated markets always overheat. Regulation is a friend of business, which is why the thrust of big business and their lobbyists is not to end regulation, but to take control of it. Verizon doesn’t want to do away with the FTC – they merely want to own it.

  2. FCC

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