The Michael Lind Kerfuffle

A Hamiltonian Salon contributor and economic historian by the name of Michael Lind has been preoccupied with libertarians lately. It started with his “question libertarians just can’t answer,” which got tons of answers, some of them really good, and some of them incredibly lousy.

Economic historian Thomas Woods expertly (as always) demonstrated how Lind’s argument is absurd when you think about it for about ten seconds (and that’s a really conservative estimate on my part). I, personally, decided to stay away from Lind’s writings due to a combination of class, work, and a family history of high blood pressure, but I have the day off from work, and Lind’s latest anti-liberty article has heightened my temptation to get involved to an irresistible level.

Lind has since responded to some of the criticisms in two separate articles. In the first, he followed up on one of the aforementioned lousy criticisms, one which views pre-1913 America through rose-colored glasses, as if it were some kind of libertarian utopia.

Now, I really don’t have a whole lot to say against Lind’s response to that, because he pretty much got it right. While the government was much smaller then, the economy was still plagued by cronyism, tariffs, banking laws which encouraged corruption (though dwarfed by the corruption we have now), and racial oppression. To ignore these facts only weakens the case we can make for liberty.

It is worth mentioning, however, that there are some nice examples we can look to from that period as examples of markets at work. As Dr. Woods discussed in this lecture, 1846-1861 was the closest thing the United States has had to a free financial market, and the economy was very stable. Also, as he discussed later in the same lecture, historians are re-evaluating the “Long Depression” of the late 1800s and seeing that it actually wasn’t a depression at all. In another lecture, Woods explained that industrialists like Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller helped bring about such great productivity increases during that period that almost all Americans experienced heightened standards of living.

In Lind’s second response to critics, he did respond to some more intelligent libertarian-leaning writers, Reason’s Ronald Bailey and The Economist’s Will Wilkinson. Both of them did well to demonstrate why Lind’s logic was poor, and Lind responded with several paragraphs which brought up various points but didn’t really deal with any of them in any substantive manner.

I really would like to see what Lind would have to say about Dr. Woods’ response, which I’m sure he’s seen, as it is probably the best response he got and was probably shared around social media more than any other response. Now, I am not comfortable with any one person being seen as the main spokesman for libertarianism, since there is always the possibility of some old dirt being dug up and used to discredit the movement, but if I had to pick one [living] person as a representative of American libertarianism, Dr. Woods would be among my top three choices (along with Jeffrey Tucker and Robert Higgs).

But anyway, Lind is back with another attack, this one bearing the provocative (sort of) title: “’Libertarian populism’ = Ayn Rand in disguise.” Now, having been a libertarian for a number of years, I have never referred to myself as a populist, and I never will. I have also never read any Ayn Rand (gasp!), though I have seen the movie adaptation of Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 and listened to Rush’s 2112. From what I’ve heard about Rand, though, I’m certain she would hate me for being an irrational mystic (in other words, a Christian who believes in self-sacrifice) were she alive today.

Lind’s article begins with a criticism of the use of the term “libertarian populism” by Real Clear Politics’ Ben Domenech, something I couldn’t care much less about, but he does raise one point which I would like to mention. He states that libertarian populism cannot be populism because it goes against that which historically has borne the label of populism. Funny thing about this is that the same can be said about modern liberalism (to be fair, I have never read anything where Lind referred to himself as liberal, so I can’t call him a hypocrite for this, but I still feel it bears mentioning).

Moving on, Lind spends the rest of the article contrasting the political implications of libertarian philosophy with those of old-school populism, not really criticizing the libertarian position, but writing in such a way that makes clear he prefers the populist view. Beginning with money, Lind states that we libertarians oppose “debtor-friendly inflation.” What is that? Well, he doesn’t actually say. I know what inflation is, but I’ve never heard of a subset of inflation which favored debtors.

Next, he brings up the original populists’ support for labor unions and follows with “What? What’s that you say? Libertarian populists aren’t for labor unions?” Surely there must be a hyperlink to an anti-union article written by a libertarian. Wait, what? There isn’t? Well, of course not. Libertarians do support labor unions, assuming they are not back by the force of the state. I recently sent an email to Rand Paul’s office explaining why he should oppose Right to Work laws (he hasn’t responded), as they violate the rights of both employers and laborers to negotiate certain private business arrangements, particularly arrangements which give unions the right to govern human resources. That said, any employer who has not contractually conceded the right to do so does have the right to kick strikers (and anyone else, for that matter) of his/her property in a libertarian world.

We’re apparently also evil for opposing protective immigration restrictions, since immigrants drive down wages and, thus, impoverish workers. I mostly dealt with the immigration issue in a previous article, but let me restate it simply by saying that while immigration might put downward pressure on nominal wages, the work done by immigrants puts even more downward pressure on consumer prices, so the net pressure on real wages is upward (Yes, some workers might be structurally unemployed for a while, but structural unemployment of this kind is actually beneficial in the grand scheme of things).

Lastly, Lind talks about the difference between the populist and libertarian oppositions to crony capitalism, explaining that, for example, populists believed that railroads should be publicly owned and operated. He doesn’t specifically state his own support for that position (though I’m sure he would support it, were railroads still a big deal), so I don’t think it would do much good to attack it here, but in case he does happen across this article and add me to his list, I would love to start a dialogue about the issue of public goods, among other things.

Actually, hope for a professional dialogue with Mr. Lind is probably in vain. The more I read through his articles, the more I realize why it took me so little time to write this. I noticed that in all his attacks on libertarianism, Mr. Lind never actually explains the faults of libertarian philosophy beyond claiming that we are overly dogmatic. In “Grow up, Libertarians!”, for example, he dismissed the ideas of breaking up the country into smaller ones, seasteading, and charter cities without actually explaining what is wrong with them.

In “Libertarian populism…”, he attacks the libertarian positions on money, unions (incorrectly, as I pointed out), immigration, taxes, and capitalism in general by simply contrasting them to the positions of old-school populists, which he apparently favors but in no way buttresses. All I had to do was explain why I do support the libertarian side on these issues.

So thank you, Michael Lind, for making the lives of libertarian bloggers so easy.

Content published on the Young Americans for Liberty blog is only representative of the opinions and research of the individual authors. It does not necessarily reflect the views, goals, or membership of YAL. 

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