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Come On in America, the Libertarian(ish) Water Is Fine
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Come On in America, the Libertarian(ish) Water Is Fine

Want to right historical wrongs? Give more liberty a try.

Every now and then I see something so good and so important that I think the entire public service of this newsletter could be summed up by saying “watch this” or “read that.” So, here goes. Watch this, especially the first seven minutes:

If you’re a progressive reader, and you live in a blue state, you might be cringing right now. The first half of the video—produced by the New York Times—is a devastating indictment of housing policy, especially the way in which all too many progressive cities have locked poor and middle income families out of affordable housing and essentially closed off entire cities to affordable development. 

Now here’s another New York Times product, this time an episode of the podcast The Daily that talks about the devastation done to the African American Tremé neighborhood in New Orleans after the construction of the Claiborne Expressway, a road precipitated by the massive highway construction that followed the passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956.

When people press me to identify my ideology, the answer depends on the sophistication of the audience. When I’m casually talking to someone I just met, and they ask me about where I stand politically, I’m not going to say, “I’m a libertarian-leaning pro-life classical liberal.” The best-case response is someone thinking, “Nerd!” Worst-case, you’ll come across as some sort of pretentious ass. So I just say “conservative” and see where things go. 

But I really am a libertarian-leaning pro-life classical liberal, and the stories above help illustrate why. As I explained at length in a recent Sunday newsletter, I’m drawn to classical liberalism by its respect for the dignity of the individual. I am pushed more toward libertarianism by the relentless failures of central planning and the disproportionate impact of those failures on vulnerable communities. 

In the video above, the extraordinary government control over private property has meant that even those property owners who desire to create multi-family housing (and thereby create more supply in the face of rising demand) have no ability to do so. When progressive values (inclusion and equity) collide with the value of the single-most valuable asset most families own, then self-interest prevails. 

In the podcast above, it describes how government power in the face of central transportation planning functionally paved over a community of vulnerable and relatively powerless citizens. Black Americans had little political power when an immense amount of infrastructure planning occurred, and their communities were all too often bisected, divided, and sometimes literally walled-in

In other newsletters, I’ve described how the combination of central planning and diminished respect for individual autonomy have led to the creation in many cases of powerful government systems that suppress opportunity and lead to both cultural division and economic and educational stagnation. 

A prime example is public education, an institution that is theoretically democratically accountable yet in reality is often deeply inflexible, deeply alienating to ideological, religious, and racial minorities in any given district, and all too often produces an inferior-to-mediocre educational product.

It’s simply remarkable how central planning in one area can dramatically undercut important social values in other arenas. Let’s take climate and environmental policy, for example. Virtually every environmentalist I know is also deeply interested in racial justice and righting historical wrongs created by racism and segregation. 

Yet what happens when environmental policies inadvertently help sustain, deepen, and prolong some of America’s most profound inequities? I linked to this Breakthrough Institute essay called “Green Jim Crow” months ago. It’s by a California environmental lawyer, and it makes for searing reading:

As California’s industries shuttered, I lawyered the cleanup and redevelopment of these lands — turning factories into upscale mixed residential-retail projects, landfills into parks, tilt-up warehouses into expensive apartments for tech workers, and decayed single-occupancy hotels into gleaming high-rise towers.

I watched my big law firm peers, like the rest of California’s economic and political elites, retreat ever deeper into tiny White enclaves like Marin County, where they charge their electric vehicles with rooftop solar panels, send their kids off to elite schools with overpriced burlap lunch sacks, and clutch their stainless steel, reusable water bottles — all marketed as “green” products but mostly made in China by workers earning poverty wages, in state factories spewing pollution and powered by coal-dependent electric grids, and then shipped across the ocean in tankers powered by bunker fuel.

(Since this article was published Gavin Newsom has signed two bills designed to make housing more affordable in California. As the New York Times reported, one bill sharply limits single-family zoning, and the other eases environmental restrictions on multifamily housing.)

Libertarianism is often confused with libertinism, with the association no doubt helped by its unfortunate historical overlap with piles of young people who sometimes seemed to be in the movement mainly for legal weed. But at its best it’s a movement grounded deeply in two critically important values—humility and dignity. 

A fair reading of the history of central planning should be a clarion call for humility. The United States of America is a remarkably complex society. The American economy is likely the most complex economy in the history of the world. We’ve too often failed at effective central planning when American culture and economics were simpler and its people less diverse. Doubling down on statism now, when both complexity and diversity are on the rise, is singularly unwise. 

And libertarianism’s appeal to dignity should be obvious. Treating human beings and their private civic associations and institutions as inherently valuable not only provides a check on tyranny, in many ways it is small-c conservative in the best sense. It preserves the communitarian spirit of private association that Alexis de Tocqueville found so notable about the early American republic. As he wrote in Democracy in America

Americans of all ages, conditions and all dispositions constantly unite together. … To hold fetes, found seminaries, build inns, construct churches, distribute books, dispatch missionaries to the antipodes. They establish hospitals, prisons, schools by the same method. Finally, if they wish to highlight a truth or develop an opinion by the encouragement of a great example, they form an association.

One of my principal problems with centralized planning and the default toward government power to solve cultural problems is that it often leads to a sense of delegated virtue. It leaves to others (principally the government) the civic duties that we should be exercising ourselves.

Just as one abuse of libertarianism is its unfortunate association with libertinism, another is its excessive reputation for individualism. A healthy libertarianism is often deeply communitarian in the private sphere, where it invests both time and money into the “little platoons” that provide opportunity, fellowship, and meaning for countless American citizens. 

One of the problems of discussions about libertarianism is that they often veer into dorm-room debate purity tests. In other words, you quickly start arguing about legal systems that cannot and will not exist in the real world (my favorite was a multi-hour law school argument with a minarchist libertarian who demanded to know why he shouldn’t have a right to own surface-to-air missiles to restrict access to the airspace over his house.) 

Discussions about the ideal limits of the state can be enjoyable and interesting, but they’re also mainly recreational. Instead, when I discuss libertarianism, I think of it as directional and practical. In what direction are you pushing public policy? Toward more or less free speech? Toward more or less school choice? Toward more or less centralized economic planning? Toward greater or lesser property rights? Toward more or less emphasis on private action in response to cultural challenges?

So here’s my invitation to my progressive and nationalist friends—when you see the consequences of government gone wrong, consider giving more liberty a try. It’s unfashionable in a statist moment, but at its best it has the possibility of unlocking the great energies and virtues of a people all too often stifled by best-intentioned plans of highly imperfect women and men.

One more thing …

This weekend we launched our latest Dispatch podcast, Good Faith—a faith-centered podcast I’m co-hosting with Curtis Chang—and I’m incredibly grateful for your response. We’ve been “trending” on Apple podcasts, and your feedback has been incredible. 

If you haven’t listened to our first episode, which goes deep on corruption at Liberty University and addresses God’s design for institutions, please listen (and subscribe!) here.

Oh, and if you’re so moved, please give us a great rating. Ratings help people find our podcast, and it’s always tough to put new podcast content into a crowded space. Thank you!

One last thing …

Okay, this is funny. Sad, but funny. Enjoy:

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.