The Trouble with Imagination

Christopher Beam’s glib dismissal of libertarianism has earned replies from all the predictable quarters. The folks at Reason respectfully disagree but still appreciate its mostly sympathetic overview of the libertarian factions and personalities, while conservatives at FrumForum push back against Beam’s false characterization of the Founders as libertarians.

Michael Dougherty, though, makes the most important points about Beam’s essay, especially about the frivolous little thought experiment Beam poses to discredit minarchism. Beam:

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.

Michael points out Beam’s status quo bias, and debunks the implicit claim (a conservative one, in some sense) that whatever institutions we have now are both inevitable and essential. If Beam lived in China, his one-paragraph history of human organization might have mentioned the need for population control (pdf) and, of course, a system of residency permits. Because otherwise: Mogadishu! Only crazy uncles and trenchcoat-wearing dice-rollers think you should be able to just have babies and live anywhere!

This unthinking affinity for the status quo is the article’s most salient failure, and is symptomatic of our political culture’s pathologies. Incrementalism is one thing, but it should not require a willful blindness to the fact that our political institutions are historically contingent and haphazard. As Noah Millman says in a different context:

Radical critiques can often be extremely useful, exposing hidden assumptions behind the existing intellectual orthodoxy, posing fundamental questions that, it turns out, that order cannot adequately answer, thereby forcing that order to change or to shore up those shaky foundations.

If nothing else, Beam’s article accidentally highlights those hidden assumptions, and shows how hard some will work to marginalize as “utopian” anyone who points them out.