When theory meets principle and walks by without notice.

I’ve written before that I don’t much care for Mike Gravel’s politics. I’m not changing my mind now that he seeks the Libertarian Party nomination for president. I don’t have faith in the Libertarian Party and who seeks its nomination, but Gravel isn’t a libertarian. (Not to be confused with a Libertarian. Small-l libertarian standards are principled; big-l Libertarian standards don’t appear quite so principled.) Kip makes this point very well today at A Stitch in Haste, as well as in the comments section to today’s earlier post on libertarianism. So I’ll leave that specific news free from further comment.

Instead, I want to point to point out a common, mistaken critique of libertarians that demonstrates the critic has not sought out an understanding of libertarianism before rejecting it. From The New Skeptic (via The Liberty Papers):

Libertarians have a serious image problem, and people like Gravel and Ron Paul have not helped. Besides that, the Randians (oh no a word I just made up!) are in that “big tent” and stink the whole thing up. People who are serious but realistic about small government and civil liberties want nothing to do with the kooks. It’s one thing to say, for instance, that the Commerce Clause is a strict limit on congressional power; it’s another to formulate a reasonable interpretation of that provision while dealing with and changing the system currently in place. Getting rid of the FDA overnight = kooky; not just kooky, but intellectually immature. Criticism is not the final step in political theory, and if libertarians cannot construct a viable ideological system from the rubble of rejected ideas, then they offer nothing worth overhauling our government for.

I’m by no means the reasonable first source for information on the foundational political theory of libertarianism. I’m too new for that, although I consider my grasp sufficiently robust for most discussions. Still, I’m sure there are countless examples around The Internets similar to what I wrote this morning:

But libertarians are generally smart enough to realize that we aren’t qualified to design a government program. (No one is, libertarian or not.) The prediction guides the desire not to plan. There are government plans, of course, unless one moves beyond a minarchist approach into anarcho-capitalism. And they will most likely not work as planned. We are smart but we are not the next Nostradamus. We remember that our first objective is the maximization of individual liberty. Thus, we seek to limit government to the barest necessity, to wreck as little as possible.

Small-l libertarians criticize government programs not because the aims are somehow lacking in nobility or necessity. The aims are often objectively worthwhile on some scale of measurement. Considering the FDA, no one wants dangerous drugs floating around in the marketplace. Snake-oil masquerading as a cure for cancer is a poor outcome. But the means of government are very often inferior at their best and destructive at their worst. Small-l libertarians understand this.

That does not mean libertarians don’t, won’t or can’t design private solutions, or at the very least advocate for private solutions to objectively identifiable problems. The New Skeptic criticizes libertarians for not having a practical roadmap for dismantling a government program overnight, yet does not provide an example of a libertarian impractically suggesting such an approach. I don’t doubt they exist, but it’s reasonable to expect an example.

To the specific criticism, of course dismantling government bureaucracy overnight is not realistic. But the government has created the situation where this cannot be done. It has destroyed the private market’s incentive to solve the problem independently because it has the power of law and the force of guns to require its solution. The lack of alternatives to government might not be attributable to unwillingness or indifference. Government monopoly is a significant disincentive to to private innovation.

Free of government intrusion, solutions evolve rather than spontaneously appear. Humans fail and humans learn. From that repetitive process comes a refined solution. But the argument here dismisses libertarianism because its advocates allegedly claim they are capable of performing the equivalent of taking a particle of carbon and giving a human without the many evolutionary steps in between. That’s a test designed to make libertarianism fail.

The shorter version is that humans can be flawed, hence the libertarian distrust of placing too much power in a concentrated group of humans. But the flaws of an advocate do not indict the principles he advocates.