Here, from Michael Lind, is a crazy argument that people on the Left are now taking seriously:
Why are there no libertarian countries? 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? […]
When you ask libertarians if they can point to a libertarian country, you are likely to get a baffled look, followed, in a few moments, by something like this reply: While there is no purely libertarian country, there are countries which have pursued policies of which libertarians would approve: Chile, with its experiment in privatized Social Security, for example, and Sweden, a big-government nation which, however, gives a role to vouchers in schooling.
But this isn’t an adequate response. Libertarian theorists have the luxury of mixing and matching policies to create an imaginary utopia. A real country must function simultaneously in different realms—defense and the economy, law enforcement and some kind of system of support for the poor. Being able to point to one truly libertarian country would provide at least some evidence that libertarianism can work in the real world. […]
If socialism is discredited by the failure of communist regimes in the real world, why isn’t libertarianism discredited by the absence of any libertarian regimes in the real world? [Salon, June 4]
While our outlook is conservative not libertarian, we do not imagine that a much more libertarian society is either impossible or that it wouldn’t be vastly preferable to the current regime. And since Lind’s argument has now gained a favorable mention from Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, we’ll wade into this debate to point out four major problems with Lind’s missive:
1. That an idea has never been tried (again, that’s Lind’s description) is not a demonstration that it wouldn’t work.
2. If we implemented only ideas that have been proven by experience to work, then we would never try any new ideas. As Ron Bailey points out, if humanity had adopted Lind’s attitude in the 17th century, we would never have given popular sovereignty, religious toleration, voting by women, and free trade a try. [Reason, June 7]
3. The test of an idea is whether it yields some marginal improvement in the state of human affairs, not whether it lives up to a critic’s checklist of policy preferences. Nor is the test of an idea whether it meets some fake standard, such as existing in a “true” or “pure” form. Would Lind count a 95 percent libertarian society as an exemplar of a mixed-economy welfare state? If so, we’d be happy to give that a try. Progress happens incrementally. We judge an idea by its effect at the margin. If Sweden’s school vouchers have been shown to increase learning across the country (they have), then that is a signal that additional market-based education reforms are worth pursuing. If countries with relatively more economic freedom have higher growth rates (they do), better environmental quality (they do), and better health (they do) than countries with less economic freedom, then that is strong evidence that a little more economic freedom would be better still.
Reframing the question as whether a libertarian utopia is achievable is a way of distracting us from the gains that individual free market reforms could achieve right now.
4. Finally, Lind is wrong to say that libertarians can’t explain why a purely libertarian society has never been created. Lind should acquaint himself with the works of James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock. From those writers he would learn that anti-market protections and subsidy programs are not only appealing to special interests but have political durability for reasons that have nothing to do with the merits of those policies. Redistribution and anti-competition policies are more likely to motivate narrow constituencies in favor than to motivate broad constituencies against the policies. The benefits of those policies are concentrated on particular industries or groups, while the costs are dispersed among all taxpayers and consumers. It may not pay a taxpayer to bother speaking out against an industry subsidy, but it very often pays particular industries to lobby for those subsidies. Thus, the policies that win out are often the anti-market policies that benefit special interests at the expense of society generally.
Of course, there is one other possible answer: Government-run schools do a very good job of preparing people to believe crazy things that statist thinkers write.