August 14, 2014 – A recent blog by New York Times columnist and Nobel Laureate economist Paul Krugman is entitled “Libertarian Fantasies: No, we’re not living in an Ayn Rand novel” (1). Now, I don’t know any libertarian who would agree that we are indeed living “in an Ayn Rand novel.”
But most every libertarian I do know would agree that we are living under the thumb of an abusive, unaccountable federal government which has run up a nearly $18 trillion national debt (with an additional tens-to-hundreds of trillions in unfunded liabilities); which snoops on our phone calls, emails, and text messages in clear violation of the 4th Amendment of the Constitution; which monitors our banking activities; which bullies and punishes, with the hammer of the IRS, those of us who oppose the policies of the current administration in the White House; which has forced us into a devastatingly unsustainable healthcare system; and which is governed by a president who has granted himself the power to suspend habeas corpus and who has killed, thus far, four American citizens without charges and trial (2).
This is only for starters. The list of abuses is long. But the primary point here is the use of force by the federal government, which, conversely, and necessarily, implies a lack of freedom when it comes to we the people. Understanding libertarianism, at the core, hinges on making the distinction between force and freedom. More on this later.
Now, back to Paul Krugman. Krugman’s latest attack on libertarianism is as surrealistically unbelievable as The Jerk’s ridiculous and misguided notion that his would-be-murderer, shooting at him but missing, hitting oil-can after oil-can instead, was motivated by the would-be-murderer’s hatred of the oil-cans, not The Jerk himself. The Jerk, deductively reasons: “He hates these cans!!!”.
As such, “Libertarian Fantasies” seems to be just another in a long-line of Paul Krugman’s “He Hates These Cans!!!” moments, in which he attempts to distract, distort, and derisively dismiss the underlying truth and reality of whatever issue at hand he apparently deems to be some sort of threat to himself, his legacy, and the State in general. Is he fooling himself? Does he actually believe the stuff he writes? Who exactly is fantastical here?
We could address each of Krugman’s assertions point-by-point, as many already have, from Per Byland at bastiat.mises.org (3) to Robert Wenzel at economicpolicyjournal.com (4). But I will focus on the more general libertarian distinction between force and freedom. How Krugman actually defines libertarianism is somewhat nebulous. Looking past his typically rancorous hyperbole, let’s briefly examine what Krugman does say about libertarianism.
He asserts that “libertarianism is a crusade against problems we don’t have, or at least not to the extent the libertarians want to imagine.” As for the “problems” Krugman does mention (or, even more tellingly, does not mention), the fact that he may not believe the aforementioned abuses cited at the top of this column are not “problems” speaks volumes about Krugman himself. But to the point, the issue here is that Krugman fails to identify deeply what he thinks libertarianism actually is.
How should libertarianism be defined? There are diverse perspectives on this question (too many for the purposes here), the best of which flow from libertarians themselves. But the majority of libertarians might agree that the heartbeat of libertarianism is the Nonaggression Axiom, as best articulated by Murray Rothbard:
“The libertarian creed rests upon one central axiom: that no man or group of men may aggress against the person or property of anyone else. This may be called the “nonaggression axiom.” “Aggression” is defined as the initiation of the use or threat of physical violence against the person or property of anyone else. Aggression is therefore synonymous with invasion” (5).
At the core, then, the frame through which many libertarians view government policy, and the world in general, is freedom. How free are we? How much freedom have we lost? How free are we from the force of government? Surely, Krugman must know that these questions reflect the heart of libertarianism. Yet, he chooses to characterize libertarianism as a “crusade against problems we don’t have,” deflecting and distracting from the true thrust of libertarianism: freedom from government aggression—the Nonaggression Axiom.
If Krugman does understand libertarianism to essentially be embodied, essentially by the Nonaggression Axiom, why does he not acknowledge as much? If libertarianism is so wacky, or so living-in-Ayn-Rand-fantasy-world, or so inconsequential to begin with, as he also implies, what does Krugman have to fear? Why even address or attempt to mischaracterize libertarianism? We can only speculate. It is true that Krugman seems to have had somewhat of a rough go of it recently, what with his presumably rocky departure from Princeton (6, 7), and the attacks from his peers in academia, such as Harvard’s Niall Ferguson (8), and the charges of Krugman’s “spectacularly uncivil” behavior from economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff (9).
Perhaps Krugman’s attacks on libertarians stem from a culmination of all of the aforementioned. And, after all, he is often characterized by libertarians as a state apologist and “court intellectual.” Perhaps an examination of the meaning of “court intellectual” would provide an instructional insight into the mind of Krugman:
“…the intellectual’s livelihood in the free market is never too secure; for the intellectual must depend on the values and choices of the masses of his fellow men, and it is precisely characteristic of the masses that they are generally uninterested in intellectual matters. The State, on the other hand, is willing to offer the intellectuals a secure and permanent berth in the State apparatus; and thus secure income and the panoply of prestige. For the intellectuals will be handsomely rewarded for the important function they perform for the state rulers, of which group they now become a part” (10).
For the record, “unscrupulous” and “uninhibited” court intellectual-types are also expertly examined in Chapter 10 of F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, “Why the Worst Get on Top” (11).
To the point, again, we can only speculate as to Krugman’s motivations and intentions. Krugman also asserts that there is no emerging “libertarian movement.” This may or may not be true. Time will tell. But it is true that the last thing a man like Krugman might want, given his writings and the nature and arc of his career, which in every way stands wholly opposed to any notion of a society grounded in freedom and the Nonaggression Axiom, is for people to start framing issues of policy and government with freedom. Krugman has essentially stood opposed to freedom throughout his entire public life, whether while cheering on former Federal Reserve Chairman Allan Greenspan to create the housing bubble which triggered the Great Recession—as expertly documented by Dan Sanchez (12)—or by publicly espousing the necessity of “death panels” for Obamacare to function into the future (13).
Whatever the case, Krugman’s failure to identify freedom, embodied by the essence of the Nonaggression Axiom, as the heart of libertarianism, shows how little regard Krugman has for freedom to begin with.
In short, it’s not about Ayn Rand. It’s not about “He hates these cans!!!” It’s about our government violently exerting more and more force on we the people while rolling back more and more of our freedoms. It is indeed all about freedom. Surely Paul Krugman knows this.