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June 12, 2013 5:39 PM No Libertarian Paradise

By Ed Kilgore

Last week at Salon Michael Lind penned an essay posing a question so obvious that I for one didn’t even bother to cite it:

Why are there no libertarian countries? If libertarians are correct in claiming that they understand how best to organize a modern society, how is it that not a single country in the world in the early twenty-first century is organized along libertarian lines?

Lind subsequently noticed a response to his question from Robert Tracinski, which was quoted in a high-profile piece by Ben Domenech. And Tracinski made the signal mistake of challenging Lind’s knowledge of history, provoking this response at Salon yesterday:

Another response to my essay has been to claim that a libertarian country really did exist once in the real world, in the form of the United States between Reconstruction and the New Deal. Robert Tracinski writes that I am “astonishingly ignorant of history” for failing to note that the “libertarian utopia, or the closest we’ve come to it, is America itself, up to about 100 years ago. It was a country with no income tax and no central bank. (It was on the gold standard, for crying out loud. You can’t get more libertarian than that.) It had few economic regulations and was still in the Lochner era, when such regulations were routinely struck down by the Supreme Court. There was no federal welfare state, no Social Security, no Medicare.”
It is Tracinski who is astonishingly ignorant of history.

Lind proceeds to a decimation of Tracinski’s claim:

The U.S. government between Lincoln and FDR engaged in a version of modern East Asian-style mercantilism, protecting American industrial corporations from import competition, while showering subsidies including land grants on railroad companies and using federal troops to crush protesting workers. This government-business mercantilism was anti-worker but it was hardly libertarian.
High tariffs to protect American companies in Tracinski’s alleged Golden Age of American libertarianism were joined by racist immigration restrictions that further boosted the incomes of white workers already boosted by de jure or de facto racial segregation. The 1790 Naturalization Act barred immigrants from becoming citizens unless they were “free white persons” and had to be amended by the 1870 Naturalization Act to bestow citizenship on former slaves of “African nativity” and “African descent.” Although the Supreme Court in 1898 ruled that the children of Asians born in the U.S. were citizens by birth, Tracinski’s libertarian utopia was characterized by increasingly restrictive immigration laws which curtailed first Asian immigration and then, after World War I, most European immigration.
Calvin Coolidge, the subject of a hero-worshiping new biography by the libertarian conservative Amity Shlaes, defended both high tariffs and restrictive immigration.

The only thing I’d add to Lind’s case is that it was in many ways reinforced by libertarian goddess Ayn Rand, who once surveyed U.S. history and decided the only period of time that approached her own ideals was the administration of Grover Cleveland. And as I recall, she didn’t mention Cleveland’s commitment to the South’s Jim Crow system.

But what strikes me most is that the Lind/Tracinski argument exposes the extremist nature of libertarianism no matter which side you choose: libertarians either demand a retrogression of social and economic policy all the way back to the Coolidge administration, or a leap to the kind of imaginary society that leads Lind to call them members of a “cult.” Either way, it’s hardly “conservatism” in any meaningful sense.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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