Guest Column by Daniel B. Klein: Libertarians and Civic Virtue

I sometimes say that I am a libertarian only on Tuesdays and Thursdays (and April 15) because libertarian purism can be politically frivolous. I was delighted that Daniel B. Klein, professor of economics and JIN Chair at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and editor of the invaluable Econ Journal Watch, sent the following article for our consideration, and I fully agree with it:

An interview between two libertarians provides an opportunity to think about how libertarians need to raise their game. David Boaz of the Cato Institute is interviewed by Nick Gillespie of Reason magazine. Among other things, they discuss the 2024 presidential election. The conversation exemplifies a failure in civic virtue among some libertarians.

I say ‘some’ libertarians, because others are more like Milton Friedman. In a 2005 interview, Friedman said: “I always say I am Republican with a capital ‘R’ and libertarian with a small ‘l’.”

More than 50 years earlier, in 1953, Milton Friedman wrote: “I see no objection to his [the economist’s] saying, ‘In my opinion…A is the best policy to achieve our agreed objectives. However, if you do not like A for political or other reasons, B is the next best policy,’ and so forth.”

That is, Friedman urges the classical liberal to be comfortable saying, “I favor classical liberalism but in a choice between two less-good options, I think that B is the one that is less less-good.”

If the choice between two less-good options is a salient and important choice for people at large, civic virtue calls on one who pronounces on public issues to speak to that choice—plainly, calmly, and fairly, like Milton Friedman. I agree with Friedman that the Republicans are the lesser evil, and I don’t think Donald Trump is an exception.

Gillespie prompts Boaz:

How did Donald Trump scramble the libertarian movement? There are people who claim that “Trump is the most libertarian president ever.” What do you think people mean when they say something like that?

The libertarian movement is scrambled, but the scrambling has partly been of the making of leaders such as Gillespie and Boaz. If they approached civic involvement more like Friedman did, the libertarian movement would be less scrambled.

It’s fine to criticize the lesser evil as evil. But one should be able to make plain, like Friedman in 1953, the lesser in “lesser evil.” Gillespie and Boaz beat around the bush but shrink from saying. In his response to Gillespie’s prompt, Boaz says about Trump: “I had a lot of fights with old friends who said, ‘He’s the most libertarian president’.” Rather than candidly address the issue of lesser evil, he lambasts the claim that Trump was the most libertarian president.

Boaz goes on to say: “I saw other people going all in for Trump.” When Friedman says he supports option B over option C, is he going “all in” for option B? No, of course not. He’s simply saying that, in a choice between B and C, B is less less-good than A than C is. And since that choice—between B and C—is highly relevant, civic virtue calls us to speak to it.

For whatever reason, Boaz and Gillespie are reluctant to address that question directly and plainly. My impression is that neither Reason nor Cato directs attention to B versus C. Perhaps I am mistaken. But I haven’t noticed them hosting debates or organizing exchanges among libertarians and classical liberals: Which is the lesser evil?

Gillespie goes on to ask:

Now we are looking at another Trump vs. Biden. Neither of these people, neither of these parties, are in any way committed to libertarian principles. What are libertarians to do? How do we maneuver a political landscape such as this?

Boaz’s response begins:

That’s a good question these days. Some people tried in 2016 to run a presidential ticket composed of two governors, Gary Johnson and Bill Weld, both well-respected, against the two worst candidates in history, and they got three and a half percent of the vote. That didn’t seem to work out very well.

And he continues a lament about the ineffectiveness of the Libertarian Party (LP). The lament is followed by some election-reform fantasizing. No words are given directly to the contention that, since the LP draws off more voters from the Republicans than from the Democrats, the LP affects election outcomes only when it gets Democrats elected.

The proper response to Gillespie’s question (“How do we maneuver a political landscape such as this?”) is to advocate for classical liberal ideas, policies, and attitudes, to criticize politicians of all parties—as Cato and Reason do—and to speak plainly and directly to a question that their audience has on its mind: How might the country and the world avoid the greater evil?

Do what Milton would do. State plainly how you’d rank A, B, and C. If A is best, don’t contemn B and C as too mean to rank, putting a pox on both houses, and perhaps with the assumption that, anyhow, there’s not a dime’s worth of difference. Such attitudes come through when both Gillespie and Boaz use the illiberals-both-left-and-right refrain.

A related refrain, not used in the interview, is the unfit-for-office refrain. OK, but, besides B, who else is unfit for office? What to do when the choice is between two people unfit for office?

If B > C, don’t box yourself in by calling yourself a “Never B-er.” The reality might be a choice between B and C. To proclaim “Never B” is to slouch civic engagement. We need to think seriously about B versus C. What’s more, “never” suggests that nothing is possibly worse than B.

For a lesson in lesser evil, watch the 2004 film Alien versus Predator. The heroine is faced with two evils, and, by coalitioning with the lesser evil, avoids the greater evil. It’s a happy ending, once reality has been taken into account.

Declaring “Never B” and portraying the people who say B > C as “all in for B” or as saying “B is the most libertarian option” does not engage where civic engagement is needed. Don’t fight a strawman who says B is best (“the most libertarian”). Engage the real man who says A > B > C.

Milton Friedman was a person of exceptional magnanimity—big-souled-ness (magna animus). It could be that big organizations, especially in the Beltway, cannot elevate people of exceptional magnanimity. In that case, we need to look elsewhere for guidance.

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