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Swaim’s Lame Take on Libertarianism

One of my favorite regular book reviewers in the Wall Street Journal is Barton Swaim. In his recent review of Matt Zwolinski’s and John Tomasi’s The Individualists, though, Swaim misses the mark. I hasten to add that I haven’t read Zwolinski’s and Tomasi’s book. But I don’t need to in order to know that Swaim gets things wrong because Swaim’s review is not just of the book but also of libertarianism. And libertarianism is something I know well.

David Boaz of the Cato Institute recently laid out a number of criticisms of Swaim’s review. I recommend reading David’s critique but I won’t repeat it except where I want to expand on it.

In his first paragraph, Swaim writes that libertarianism “is a wildly diverse and inveterately fractious political tradition whose adherents have taken opposite sides on nearly every important political question.” Nearly every? Really? Certainly there are large differences, especially in the area of foreign policy. But libertarians are virtually united in opposing slavery, a pretty important political question, conscription, which is the modern version of slavery, high taxes, a large welfare state, high government spending, extensive regulation of the market, price controls, and government spending on higher education. These are pretty important issues. Can you find someone who claims to be libertarian who opposes the libertarian consensus on these issues? Maybe, although I haven’t met the person. But Swaim gives the impression that there are large swaths of self-proclaimed libertarians who argue with each other about “nearly every important political question.” That’s just not so.

Swaim also writes:

A polity, if it’s to function and endure, must offer its members a reason to remain attached, in their loyalties and affections, to the collective. That requires some engagement with ultimate questions—questions about the good life, morality, religious meaning, human purpose and so on. Modern libertarians are allergic to all such topics. Almost the only figures who mention such things in “The Individualists”—Adam Smith, William Lloyd Garrison—lived and died in the 18th or 19th century.

It’s simply false that libertarians have not contended with these issues. We are not allergic to these topics; we often discuss them. But one of the virtues of libertarianism is that we are tolerant of people who come to different views on these topics. Many libertarians are Christians, Jews, or Muslims. A minority of libertarians are atheist or agnostic. But no libertarian I know of–and I know many hundreds–advocates a state religion. That’s one of those many “important political questions” that we don’t argue about. Boaz has a nice treatment of this issue.

Even with all his criticisms, Swaim never makes the case or even tries to, that libertarianism is dead. He might wish that to be true, although I don’t know him and so I can’t say.

Why do I mention this? Because of the last line of his review:

The book also works as an obituary.

Swaim seems to have intended that as a mic drop. Mic drops work only if you’ve laid the ground work that leads to the conclusion. He hasn’t come close.

Rayna Prime

Rayna Prime

Rayna Prime Editor