Bad vs. Good Libertarians

Bad vs. Good Libertarians

I don’t claim to be a libertarian, although I worked for a libertarian think-tank for more than a dozen years, support free speech and free markets, and have signed large checks to libertarian and conservative think tanks. But occasionally, I get an email in my inbox telling me that I am a “bad” libertarian, as opposed to a “good” libertarian, such as Steve Chapman of the Chicago Tribune. These emails are usually from people who have become woke, and have shifted away from promoting free speech and free markets, to promoting progressive causes like reparations, “social justice,” or abolishing prisons and the police. The irony is these people seem much less “libertarian” than I am. They were libertarian once, and thus cling to the label, but today, they would better be described as woke or progressive. Some members of the libertarian intelligentsia now say they oppose “capitalism” and “cisheteropatriarchy” or describe themselves as “socialist.”

The people they view as model “libertarians” don’t seem very “libertarian” either. The supposedly “libertarianish” Steve Chapman recently wrote a column praising the big government spending on fiscal stimulus by both Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Chapman especially praises the “$1.9 trillion package pushed through by Biden shortly after he took office.” But the economy was already growing rapidly by the time Biden proposed that massive spending package, so no fiscal “stimulus” was needed, much less $1.9 trillion in new spending. That spending helped spawn a huge increase in inflation. Biden’s stimulus spending worsened inflation, according to Federal Reserve Bank economists. Biden’s big spending spawned inflation, according to economists like Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary, Larry Summers, and Obama advisor Steven Rattner. As Rattner noted in the New York Times, Biden spent “an unprecedented amount” of taxpayer money, which resulted in “too much money chasing too few goods.”

Steve Chapman’s advocacy of big government spending, such as Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus, is not libertarian by traditional standards. For example, the libertarian magazine Reason, which reproduced hundreds of Chapman’s columns, pointed out that Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus contained provisions that actually harmed employment and cut economic growth. “Biden’s $1.9 trillion ‘rescue plan’ isn’t saving the economy. It’s holding it back” by preventing job growth, wrote Peter Suderman in Reason Magazine:

Instead of kick-starting the economy as promised, Biden’s Rescue Plan is holding it back. The most obvious way … is through boosted federal unemployment benefits… a typical beneficiary now gets the equivalent of more than $15 an hour to stay home, which is more than many would earn at work. For many, then, the straightforward economic incentive is to avoid work and collect checks instead. It’s not that there aren’t jobs available…Indeed, according to a report this week from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 8.1 million job openings at the end of March, the highest number ever recorded. America is awash in demand for labor. What it lacks are willing workers. …. [That] helps explain why this month’s jobs report was the biggest miss in decades… the expectation was that the jobs report would show more than a million new jobs. Instead, the figure was a mere 266,000….Biden’s recovery plan paid people not to work. So it is hardly surprising that they are now not working… some of those jobs may simply not come back, leaving employers, consumers, and workers worse off… Jason Furman, who chaired President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, cautioned this week that the unemployment bonus was likely slowing job growth… And there may be further consequences yet: Inflation is ticking up, with consumer prices growing at a faster rate than they have in a decade.

Chapman also supports taxpayer-funded race-based reparations. Reparations are a bad idea that could cost taxpayers trillions of dollars. No country has successfully pursued a policy of race-based reparations. The African nation of Zimbabwe pursued a policy of reparations. It wrecked its economy by doing so, resulting in hyperinflation and leaving even its black population worse off. America’s racial wealth gap is not, for the most part, due to slavery or discrimination against black people. Reparations don’t even “fix” the racial “wealth gap” anyway. When Uganda seized the businesses of Indian immigrants without compensation and gave them to blacks as reparations for colonialism, the businesses did not last for long afterwards, and Uganda’s economy collapsed. When Uganda let Indians come back to Uganda and set up businesses again 14 years later, Indians once again ended up dominating Uganda’s economy, even though they had to start from scratch. Racial wealth gaps exist because some cultures are more economically productive or innovative than others.

Libertarians have often described themselves as “socially liberally, fiscally conservative.” But Chapman’s positions do not seem “fiscally conservative” at all — reparations alone could bankrupt America, by pushing America’s national debt to well over 200% of GDP, much larger compared to its economy than Greece’s mushrooming debt, which bankrupted it and forced it to be bailed out by international bodies. Yet, one of my friends in the libertarian intelligentsia said earlier this year on Twitter that Chapman was his “favorite columnist.”

One of the reasons I am said to be a “bad” libertarian by woke “libertarians” who send me emails, is because I am anti-crime: I support prosecuting 16-year-old and 17-year-old murderers as adults, and I oppose releasing violent criminals and thieves before they have served most of their sentence. For example, I opposed legislation in Virginia to make current inmates eligible for parole after a small fraction of their sentence, and opposed legislation to make all inmates, even serial killers, eligible for release after 15 years under so-called “second look” legislation.  It is true that today, some libertarian think-tank “criminal justice reformers” support such pro-crime legislation.

But most libertarians have opposed such pro-crime legislation, especially in the past. In 1994, for example, the Libertarian Party criticized the fact that criminals were serving “only 37 percent” of their sentences, and called for trying “violent juvenile offenders” “as adults.” It also opposed “early release of violent criminals.” See Libertarian Party News, pg. 4, Sept. 1994, Operation Safe Streets Presents: Talking Points on Crime. It also hoped to free up more prison space to hold violent criminals such as robbers longer, by ending the war on drugs. The article in which it took these positions is reproduced above.

So I have not “changed,” or “betrayed” my principles by opposing the release of violent criminals or thieves, as the emails to me suggest. Instead, it is the libertarian intelligentsia who have changed, with some of them becoming woke non-libertarian progressives, and some others becoming soft-on-crime libertarians. I continue to oppose releasing violent criminals and thieves after a small fraction of their sentence, because this increases the homicide rate and the crime rate.

Nor am I unrealistic or a dinosaur in not supporting government stimulus spending when the economy is already growing, the way Steve Chapman advocates. Prudent spending cuts are perfectly compatible with continued economic growth.

As the American Enterprise Institute’s James Pethokoukis noted, “From 1944 to 1948, Uncle Sam cut spending by a whopping 75% as World War II came to end. Spending as a share of GDP plunged to 9% in 1948 from 44% in 1944.” “Despite cuts which dwarfed those” that “Republicans are calling for” today, “the U.S. economy thrived. There was no mass unemployment despite rapid demobilization of the armed forces.” Similarly, the economy grew in the 1990s, when federal spending was much lower than it is today: “After the Cold War ended, overall federal spending fell to 18% of GDP in 2000 from 22% in 1991. But again the economy boomed. Real U.S. GDP grew by 40% with an average annual growth rate of 3.8%.”

Government spending generally does not prevent or cure recessions. Herbert Hoover increased government spending in the Great Depression, both in real terms and as a percentage of the economy, but the economy failed to revive. As Megan McArdle of The Atlantic also noted, government spending more than doubled as a percentage of the economy from 1929 to 1933. Although the economy temporarily revived under Roosevelt, it then went back into a nasty recession in 1937-38, the so-called Roosevelt Recession (a recession aggravated by  5-to-4 Supreme Court ruling strengthening unions and thus sparking a wave of costly strikes).

A sustained recovery from the Depression finally occurred only after a coalition of conservative Democrats and Republicans effectively took control of Congress in 1938 and blocked (or in one case, repealed) various anti-business measures that had been stalling a natural recovery by discouraging investment.

Hans Bader

Hans Bader

Hans Bader practices law in Washington, D.C. After studying economics and history at the University of Virginia and law at Harvard, he practiced civil-rights, international-trade, and constitutional law. He also once worked in the Education Department. Hans writes for and has appeared on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal.” Contact him at


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