“Libertarians and anarchists often get challenged with an annoying question,” Warren Redlich, the CEO of Independent Political Report and a former Libertarian Party candidate, recently wrote: “If libertarianism is so great, why hasn’t any country tried it?”
There is no doubt that the question has been asked often, and that it is meant to be annoying. Consider the source: Michael Lind. Lind, for those who have never heard of him, is a writer for the New America Foundation who has achieved some online notoriety as a professional anti-libertarian. (A google search on “Lind libertarianism” turns up more than 100,000 hits.)
Lind first came to my attention when he proclaimed “the collapse of libertarianism as a political force” back in November 2007 – just in time for the birth of the Ron Paul Revolution. In fact, though, he was heralding “the utter and final defeat of … the libertarian counter-revolution.” before that, and he has continued to do so since: most recently in 2015, when he pontificated that “”the libertarian moment [Rand Paul] symbolized is over.” (To be fair, he also pontificated in his 2015 article that “There was never a libertarian moment in the United States” – which gets one wondering just what keeps collapsing.)
But constantly heralding the end of something that never existed in the first place must get boring after a while; so in 2013 Lind came up with a new angle: the above question, smugly packaged as “The Question Libertarians Just Can’t Answer.” That had such a great reception that Lind followed it up within days with two more articles with equally-revealing titles, “Why Libertarians are Basically Cult Members” and “Grow Up, Libertarians!”
Given this genesis, there is no wonder that anti-libertarians ask the question often, and that they do so mainly to annoy libertarians. But there is really nothing annoying about the question itself. The absence of libertarian countries is a phenomenon in need of an explanation, and trying to provide one could shed some light on little-explored areas of political theory. So it is worth attempting an answer.
Lind’s implicit answer
It is also worth looking at Lind’s answers; for indeed he gives not one but two. His first answer is not explicitly stated, but implicity smuggled into the way he phrases and rephrases his question. In his article he asks that question five times. The first instance is purely neutral: “Why are there no libertarian countries?” – but not so his reiterations:
If libertarians are correct in claiming that they understand how best to organize a modern society, how is it that not a single country in the world in the early twenty-first century is organized along libertarian lines?… If libertarianism was a good idea, wouldn’t at least one country have tried it?… Why isn’t libertarianism discredited by the absence of any libertarian regimes in the real world?… If libertarianism is not only appealing but plausible, why hasn’t any country anywhere in the world ever tried it?
Such formulations seem designed to suggest their own answers: There are no libertarian countries because libertarianism is not ‘plausible’ – it is ‘discredited’ – it is not ‘a good idea’ – and libertarians just do not understand how to ‘organize a modern society’.
However, Lind cannot just keep repeating and rephrasing the same question. Some people may be too obtuse to grasp those implications, no matter how often he makes them. Still others may be intelligent enough to see logical problems with the implications themselves:
Obviously, this is a silly, fallacious pattern of argument. Every good idea was at one point untried…. A hypothesis that has not been tested is neither confirmed nor disconfirmed. One may reasonably complain that a hypothesis is unfalsifiable. But it is simply bizarre to maintain that a hypothesis might be discredited because it has yet to be tested, because it is so far neither falsified nor confirmed. Such a principle would entail the absurdity that all hypotheses were discredited at the dawn of time.
Lind’s explicit answer
So Lind also needs to provide a substantive answer to his own question. Which indeed he does: On his account, there is a “significant trade-off between less government and more national insecurity, more crime, more illiteracy and more infant and maternal mortality, among other things.” Those “other things” including human survival itself: “Economic liberty comes at a price in human survival, it would seem.” There must be no libertarian countries, then, because no country wants to pay that “price in human survival”.
But if there are no libertarian countries, what is Lind’s evidence that one would come with that price-tag? Fortunately for his research project, “the free-market right” has been “ranking countries according to ‘economic freedom’” for years. Using one such ranking – the 2013 one from the Heritage Foundation – Lind attempts to prove his “trade-off” theory.
His technique is to compare two points on the list. On the one hand, he looks at “the mature, well-established industrial democracies,” with the U.S. as representative. “But none of these countries, including the U.S., is anywhere near a libertarian paradise.” Considering how often Lind points out the lack of libertarian paradises, that does not exactly come as a surprise.
And then there is Mauritius. According to the Heritage Foundation, the U.S. has less economic freedom than Mauritius, another small island country, this one off the southeast coast of Africa. At number 8, Mauritius is two rungs above the U.S., at number 10 in the global index of economic liberty … at least Mauritius is economically free!
Comparing the U.S. and Mauritius, Lind illustrates his purported trade-offs: “the U.S. has a literacy rate of 99 percent, compared to only 88.5 percent in economically-freer Mauritius. Infant mortality? In economically-more-free Mauritius there are about 11 deaths per 1,000 live births — compared to 5.9 in the economically-less-free U.S. Maternal mortality in Mauritius is at 60 deaths per 100,000 live births, compared to 21 in the U.S.”
Never mind that back in 1980 (when it ranked only 68 on the Heritage list) Mauritius had an infant mortality rate 3 times higher. For Lind, the U.S.-Mauritius comparison is clear proof that more economic freedom means more infant mortality (not to mention more maternal mortality and less literacy).
There are five problems for his proof method, though: the five countries at the top of his list – Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, and Switzerland – the only countries the Heritage Foundation ranks as economically ‘free’. (Both the U.S. and Mauritius are ranked ‘almost free’). Using Google searches, I was able to find comparable statistics for all five; and what I found was indeed shocking:
The last four have literacy rates ranging from 97% to 99%: below the U.S., but well ahead of Mauritius. Their infant mortality rates (per thousand) range from 4.5 deaths (for Switzerland) to 2 (for Singapore), and their maternal mortality rates (per thousand) from 11 (for New Zealand) to 5 (for Switzerland) – well ahead of both the less-free U.S. and less-free Mauritius. No evidence of any “significant trade-off” there.
And then there is Hong Kong, at the top of the Heritage list. If Lind’s theory is correct, then literacy should be way down in Hong Kong, and both infant and maternal morality way up. Literacy is in fact down (though still above Mauritius), at 93%; but so are infant mortality (at 1.5 per 1,000 births) and maternal mortality (1.6 per 1,000). No sign of any “significant trade-off” there, either.
Lind deals with these apparent counter-examples by claiming that they should not count, because the Heritage Foundation rankings – the very ones he relies on – “are biased“. Hong Kong and Singapore do not count because they have small geographic areas – the first is “a city” and the second “a city-state” – yet Mauritius does, though it is only 2000 km² in size. Australia and New Zealand do not count because they are “low-population countries” – yet Mauritius does, although its population is slightly above 1 million. Furthermore, “four out of the top five were small British overseas colonies” (so was Mauritius) that “depended for protection first on the British empire and now on the United States” (as does Mauritius, home of the Diego Garcia airbase).
And what of Switzerland, to which none of the above objections apply? According to Lind, it should not count either, because – wait for it – “Switzerland might not have maintained its independence for long if Nazi Germany had won World War II.” Really.
Despite Lind’s attempt to rule out all the evidence against his “trade-off” theory, it is reasonable to conclude that he has not proved it, and that the examples he picked to prove it were in fact cherry-picked. But if his “trade-off” theory is unproved, it makes no sense to think that any nation (much less every nation) subscribes to it, and that that explains why none of them are libertarian. So we should look elsewhere for an answer.
Toward a real answer
So why are there no libertarian countries? A libertarian might say it is because:
(1) Contrary to Lind’s initial assumption (which he attempts to smuggle in by putting it in the mouth of libertarians), no one actually “organizes a modern society.” Great societies are what Hayek calls ‘spontaneous’ or ‘polycentric’ orders – not unplanned, but not conforming to any one plan, either; instead subject to a myriad of conflicting plans, by a myriad of different interest groups. Some of those groups’ goals can be libertarian, some the opposite (let us label those ‘totalitarian’). Consequently, one would expect any existing political system to contain a mixture of both libertarian and totalitarian elements.
(2) The most influential interest groups would be the most powerful, or, in other words, those that benefit most from the existing system; which means that each would have a built-in conservative bias – ‘conservative’ not in the sense of wanting less government, but in the sense of wanting to preserve the status quo – and that the political system would reflect this bias. Changes in either a libertarian or totalitarian direction would, then, happen slowly and incrementally, at the margins.
(3) Political change is implemented by governments, and can be effected only through government power. Libertarianism has an understandable bias against those who use government power for their own ends, and vice versa. A government might adopt certain libertarian policies for its own interests – such as cutting tax rates to increase tax revenue, or repealing a universally-detested law for the sake of civil order – but it is unreasonable to imagine any government reducing its power just for the sake of doing so. “To pursue a consistent libertarian agenda, the profession whose stock in trade is plunder would have to vote away much of their power, prestige, perks, and even, in many cases, their jobs.”
Besides the already-noted conservative bias, then, one would expect political systems to have a built-in totalitarian bias.
(4) The notable counter-examples to (2) – radical changes in a society – are those imposed by military force; and, in light of (3), it strains belief to imagine a libertarian society being imposed that way. While waging a war may accomplish some libertarian ends – ending slavery in the U.S. is an example – the very act of fighting one serves only to accentuate the already-noted totalitarian bias.
In light of the above, one would expect to find no pure libertarian political systems. Then again, in light of the first two points, one would expect to find few, if any, pure ideological systems of any kind – and that expectation would be correct.
The “Scandinavian role models” of social democracy that Lind invokes, for example, are hardly exemplars of pure socialism: while government’s share of GDP is higher there than in the Heritage Foundation’s economically free countries, it comes nowhere near 100%. One of those role models, Denmark, actually ranks higher than the U.S. (and just behind Mauritius) on the very Heritage Foundation list that Lind relies on; something that he either did not notice or did not see fit to mention.
Besides, one cannot help adding, Scandinavia “might not have maintained its independence for long if Nazi Germany had won World War II.”
What one would expect to see – and what one does see, all over the world – are mixed systems: countries with a mixture of libertarian and totalitarian policies, some more libertarian, some more totalitarian, most probably more totalitarian than libertarian, but never purely one or the other.
The totalitarian counter-example
There is, though, one notable counter-example to my last statement: totalitarian communism. There certainly have been totalitarian communist regimes in the real world. Most of those, too, as Lind concedes, have been “imperfect models,” but some have come very close indeed to totalitarian perfection: Stalinist Russia, China under the Red Guard, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and North Korea.
While Lind claims that “the pro-communist left has been discredited by the failure of the Marxist-Leninist countries,” (presumably referring to the non-existence of most of those regimes today), the reality is that at least one of them, North Korea, is still going strong in the 21st century.
Like it or hate it, North Korea does look like an example of pure totalitarianism: a political system in which libertarian elements are completely absent. In which case, any theory attempting to explain the absence of libertarian regimes in today’s world should also be able to account for the presence of totalitarian regimes. That proves no insuperable problem for my theory – North Korea is an example of (4), a regime imposed and maintained solely by military force – but it does seem to do so for Lind’s.
For one thing, North Korea gives precious little evidence to support his “trade-off” theory. North Korea, as expected, ranks last on the Heritage Foundation list, meaning that by Lind’s theory literacy should be high there, and infant and maternal mortality low. The country does boast an incredibly high 100% literacy rate – not one illiterate in the entire country. But its infant and maternal mortality rates (22 and 82 deaths per 1,000 births, respectively) are higher even than those of Lind’s cherry-picked paradigm of economic freedom, Mauritius.
For another, the example of a purely totalitarian regime in the 21st century also poses a problem for Lind’s implicit answer to his question (the one smuggled into its various iterations). For if the criterion of an ideology’s correctness, goodness, plausibility, etc., is whether or not it is adopted in the real world, one would have to count totalitarian communism a ringing success on all counts.
So let us rephrase Lind’s questions, and ask them right back at him in turn:
If totalitarian communists are wrong in claiming that they understand how best to organize a modern society, how is it that a country in the world in the early twenty-first century is organized along totalitarian communist lines?… If totalitarian communism was not a good idea, wouldn’t there be no countries that ever tried it (much less continue to try it)?… Why isn’t totalitarian communism vindicated by the presence of totalitarian communist regimes in the real world?… If totalitarian communism is not only implausible but unappealing, why are countries trying it?
I have no doubt that Lind will be able to answer those questions, though not without changing his criterion of what makes a political ideology correct, good, plausible, and appealing. So I look forward to seeing his answers.
Photo – Michael Lind in 2015. Photo by D.W. Taylor. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
 Warren Redlich, “Was America Ever Libertarian?”, Independent Political Report, April 25, 2017. http://independentpoliticalreport.com/2017/04/was-america-ever-libertarian/#comment-1589317
 Michael Lind (2007), “The Centre-Ground’s Shift to the Left,” Financial Times, November 27, 2007. https://www.ft.com/content/4afdfafe-9cf7-11dc-af03-0000779fd2ac
 Lind (2006), “The Unmourned End of Libertarian Politics,” Financial Times, August 16, 2006. https://www.ft.com/content/2333b794-2d4e-11db-851d-0000779e2340
 Lind (2015), “The False Rise and Fall of Rand Paul,” Politico, October 20, 2015. http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/10/rand-paul-2016-libertarianism-213265
 Lind (2013a), “The Question libertarians Just Can’t Answer.” Salon, June 4, 2013. http://www.salon.com/2013/06/04/the_question_libertarians_just_cant_answer/
 Lind (2013b), “Why Libertarians are Basically Cult Members,” AlterNet, June 11, 2013. http://www.alternet.org/economy/libertarians-are-cult-members?akid=10559.113011.rcc3cH&rd=1&src=newsletter853683&t=9
 Lind (2013c), “Grow Up, Libertarians!”, Salon, June 13, 2013. http://www.salon.com/2013/06/13/grow_up_libertarians/
 Quotations in italics are from Lind (2013a).
 Will Wilkinson, “Michael Lind’s bad argument against anything,” The Economist, June 6, 2013. http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2013/06/libertarianism-and-experiment
 “Index of Economic Freedom,” Wikipedia, April 11, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Index_of_Economic_Freedom
 Ronald Bailey, “Michael Lind’s Obtuse Attack on Liberty and Libertarianism,” Reason, June 7, 2013. http://reason.com/archives/2013/06/07/michael-linds-obtuse-attack-on-liberty-a
 Marlo Lewis, Jr., “Answering Michael Lind’s Question: Why Is No Country Libertarian?”, Competitive Enterprise Institute, June 13, 2013. https://cei.org/blog/answering-michael-linds-question-why-no-country-libertarian
Walt Thiessen, “The Question Libertarians CAN Answer”
Darren Wolfe, ”Michael Lind is Right: Libertarianism Doesn’t Work“Tweet
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