Ethics & Public Policy Center

Libertarianism Is Losing Its Grip on Conservative Thought. Good.

Published in The Washington Post on January 2, 2020


Conservatism and libertarianism have long been locked in a symbiotic embrace. A new essay by libertarian-leaning economist Tyler Cowen suggests that embrace will soon end.

Cowen’s provocative argument is that libertarianism is “hollowed out.” He notes that whether they call it “libertarianism” or “classical liberalism,” people who believe the government generally ought to do little to nothing have little useful to say about modern problems. As a result, “smart people” are developing “synthetic and eclectic views” and abandoning a “just say no” approach to government power. He notes this is especially the case among educated women.

He doesn’t come out and say it baldly, but the essential political problem with this type of libertarianism is that people do think public entities should address public problems. Old-style, “big L” libertarianism rejects this view, contending that any form of government action is inherently unjust and creates more problems than it solves. Few libertarians or classical liberals acknowledge the full import of this position, preferring to take a deus ex machina approach to public policy whereby their preferred solutions (school vouchers, for example) are just and can work while their non-preferred ones (like subsidized health insurance) aren’t and won’t. But the underlying metaphysical assumption — government always bad, private action always good — pervades the thinking of most libertarians and libertarian-influenced people. And this means they are congenitally unable to present plausible answers to challenges that people want addressed.

Click here to read the rest of this piece at the Washington Post’s website.

Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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