In 1980, the Libertarian Party's presidential candidate, Ed Clark, declared on ABC's Nightline that his party's political philosophy was, in essence, "low-tax liberalism." This line caused Murray Rothbard, among others, a great deal of vexation and led to the "moderate" and "radical" split within the LP and, ultimately, Rothbard's departure from the Cato Institute for the open air of Auburn, Alabama. (This tale is told well by Justin Raimondo.)
Reading David Boaz's recent declarations in Reason, "low-tax liberalism," or at least the low-tax part, is starting to sound like an attractive doctrine in comparison. It's probably unfair to say that in the minds of contemporary Cato luminaries like David Boaz and Brink Lindsey, "libertarianism" boils down to gay marriage, abortion, anti-racism, and Kerry Howley's right not to be looked down upon for her lifestyle choices... but these seem to be central, indispensable pillars of their philosophy. (Though to be accurate, Boaz and Lindsey want low taxes, too, and they sometimes like war.)
Boaz's main argument is that 18th and 19th-centry America was less "libertarian" than people like Jacob Hornberger (and by extension, the Mises circle) think because blacks were discriminated against; in turn, the state's encroachment on personal and economic liberty and its war-making in recent times isn't so bad due to the notable decline of "intolerance." It's not an exaggeration to say that Boaz doesn't consider any society free if he senses that somewhere, some black person is being discriminated against.
Over at The American Conservative, Dan McCarthy makes a good start at dismantling Boaz's essay, but, in my opinion, Dan doesn't go nearly far enough:
Presumably part of the answer to these questions is that Boaz believes rights of minorities can be sufficiently protected, and crime prevented, detected, and punished, without an indefinitely large government - the things he likes about our vast tutelary state can be preserved and made more efficient, and the things he dislikes can be discarded without damaging the framework. I'd say his vision is close to what Ed Clark proudly called "low-tax liberalism."
If that's what Boaz and liberaltarians like Will Wilkinson want, what about people like Jacob Hornberger? They are not indifferent to or unaware of the evils of slavery and bigotry, rather they want to purge the older American model of government, with its emphasis on states' rights and decentralization, of its defects - racial injustice, etc. - just as Boaz wants to purge the present tutelary state of its defects. Hornberger is no more forgetful of the evils of past forms of government than Boaz is unaware of modern government's infringements of liberty. If Hornberger doesn't reiterate those old evils at every opportunity, it's because in the year 2010 everyone recognizes those evils for what they are.
[...] The freedom of the tutelary state is the freedom of a free-range dairy cow: in exchange for care and protection, you pay your taxes and may frolic in the fields as much as you please. It's a timid sort of freedom, but it is freedom of a kind.
An alternative based on the older American tradition, by contrast, need not logically lead to a slave-state; indeed, most of the Founders recognized that slavery was inconsistent with the principles of their system.
Many Founders, including Jefferson, felt that the presence of a vast racial underclass would have dire implications, though one might quibble with Dan over the degree to which they opposed slavery as such, or considered all persons worthy of citizenship. But these are historical and empirical questions, and can be put aside for the real theoretical issue at play -- the difference between "libertarianism" (so-called) and decentralization.
To udnerstand what I mean, conceive, if you will, of a hypothetical situation (though, luckily, one that's starting to seem more and more plausible each day):
The U.S. federal government collapses under financial strain, and its armed forces lack the will and resources to preserve the Union.
From this starting point, one can imagine a whole host of new -- or rather old -- social formations arising in the stead of the defunct federal order.
All but a handful of liberal dead-enders would stop paying their taxes and obeying regulations; and after the initial shocks subsided, most everyone would partake in all sorts of "free trade" of goods and services. Stretches of the country might very well evolve into anarcho-capitalist, individualists orders, with only marriage (or consensual devotion contracts) and familial bonds as non-economic governing authorities. Perhaps.
It's equally, probably more, likely that communities would congeal around rather illiberal, authoritarian precepts, traditions, and kinships. Parts of Brooklyn, for instance, might divide between Latino and Black nationalist blocs in which all other races would be excluded and tribal hierarchies rigidly enforced. The great economist Gary North might get his wish and be able to establish a Protestant independent city state that would make Calvin's Geneva seem like Cancun in comparison. Adulters and homosexuals would be publicly stoned. Some less severe, though no less exclusionary, communities might develop in places like Montana, where it would be tacitly understood that if one couldn't ride a horse and hunt, one just didn't belong. Non-whites and open homosexuals would be looked at funny. Throughout the North American continent, great swaths of land would be fenced off with barbed-wire, and feature socially intolerant signs declaring "No [Blacks/Latinos/Whites/Catholics/Jews/Asians etc.] Allowed!" Bands of thieves, vagrants, and thugs would roam the countryside and godforsaken inner cities, giving rise to a new Samurai class that, though guided by a code of honor, would apprehend and execute criminals without a pretense of a trial. Communities would gratefully compensate these hard and ruthless private contractors for their services.
In this fantastic, though seemingly likely, scenario, there might even arise an all-male city -- we'll call it "Boaz" -- that would become so liberated that the creative use of narcotics and sharing of paramours wouldn't just be permitted but required. Then again, this state-less pleasure dome might soon prove susceptible to said roving criminal bands and thus need to call upon the Samurais -- or even Gary North's sense of chivalry.
I'll end the intriguing thought experiment here, for the sake of brevity. My point is that this easily imaginable anarchic world -- in which whole new vistas of personal preferences would arise -- would seem evil, authoritarian, and downright "un-libertarian" to someone like Boaz. And, moreover, it would be "un-libertarian" in a way that our current welfare nation-state -- which has war-making, taxing, and spying powers undreamt of by Joseph Stalin -- is not.
There is simply no reason to believe that decentralization, or anarchy, leads to greater social "libertarianism." And the historical evidence points in the opposite direction.
The 18th- and 19th centuries -- not exactly ancient history but considered benighted, knuckle-dragging years by Boaz -- actually featured more free, unregulated trade than the 20th and 21st. It also had a high degree of monetary unification -- not under a One World (fiat) currency like the Euro but the silver and gold commodity standards. There's little indication than any of this economic integration led to a greater quantity of "libertarianism" in Western society. Europe became less brutal and more technically advanced, to be sure, but it also underwent advances in the subjugation and colonization of undeveloped peoples; national consciousness and Darwinian, eugenic scientific thinking made strides; and hereditary monarchy was re-installed.
Boaz might want to believe that his beloved postwar "libertarian" order could have arisen in the absence of a strong therapeutic welfare state, but it's quite difficult to make this case. (In turn, Dan McCarthy might want to believe that a society with a minimal Constitutional state would eventually come around to the idea of purging "racial discrimination," but he runs into the same historical problems.)
I've encountered many "libertarians" who express wonderment at the fact that so many liberals and leftists support such good things (in their estimation) as gay marriage, polymorphous sexuality, and the breaking down of social hierarchies, but then turn around and support such bad things as high taxation, regulation, and increasing bureaucratic power. But it's the "libertarians" who are confused and the Establishment liberals like E.J. Dionne, Keith Olbermann, and Matthew Yglesias who are ideologically consistent.
The Boazian paradise in which abortions are readily available and religious and racial discrimination, frowned upon -- also known as "now" -- would only be possible with a state powerful enough to stamp out any sign of "intolerance" wherever it might raise its ugly head. Since Boaz believes he upholds a universalistic system, attached to no single people or civilization, one can conclude that the ultimate culmination of "libertarianism" would require a planetary government.
If only it were just about taxes...