Less than two years after the near collapse of the American economy caused by good old-fashioned capitalist speculation in the housing market, libertarian ideology, as reflected most prominently in the apparent political clout of the Tea Party, is riding high again. This resurgence of libertarianism might strike some as surprising since most commentators -- including Alan Greenspan, the former Fed Chairman and, until recently, a firm believer in the infallibility of the markets -- agree that the near economic collapse was aided by the lack of appropriate governmental oversight.
But the resurgence of libertarianism is in fact not so surprising because, in America, it is easy to be a libertarian. Ironically, what makes it so is the very government that libertarians like to rail against. For example, it is easy now that the economy has stabilized (though not recovered) to forget just how precarious the economic health of the country was in late 2008. We were as a nation looking at an economic meltdown of unimaginable proportions as the financial markets collapsed and the credit markets froze. It was government intervention, through the now largely despised Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), that brought us back from the abyss.
It would not have been so easy, had there been another Great Depression, to be a libertarian in America because if the government had not acted to save the economy, it would have been clear for all to see the consequences of unrestrained and unregulated markets. But because the government did intervene and was, as a result, left holding the bag (of, among other things, bad loans offered by irresponsible lenders), it has made it possible for libertarians -- once the economy stabilized -- to rant and rave against a meddling, interventionist government
There are other examples of how the government makes it easy to be a libertarian in America. One of libertarians' favorite targets at the moment is the requirement, under the new health care legislation, that everyone purchase health insurance or pay a fine. To libertarians, this mandate is an example of dangerous governmental interference with individual freedom since Americans should be able to choose whether to buy goods and services, including health insurance. That the government will help those who cannot afford the insurance pay for it does not mollify libertarians because wealthier Americans will have to be taxed in order to pay for the subsidies. Libertarians, then, vigorously defend a market-run healthcare system against the supposed government take-over of healthcare that the new legislation represents.
But the reality is that we have not had a true market-run healthcare system in this country since Medicare and Medicaid were enacted more than forty years ago. Indeed, think about what a truly private healthcare system would look like: Everyone, including the poor, the disabled, and the elderly, would have to fend for themselves in paying for healthcare. Furthermore, under a true libertarian regime, the current federal law that requires hospitals to provide medical care to those who visit emergency rooms would not be allowed to, since that, too, is a governmental mandate.
It is easy to be a libertarian, and remain ideologically pure, when the government makes sure that the most vulnerable among us receive some health insurance and that emergency rooms serve as the healthcare providers of last resort. It would not be so easy to be a libertarian in a true libertarian society where the suffering (and premature deaths) of those who cannot afford healthcare would be even more obvious than it is today.
So this is the great irony of libertarianism in America today: It is the very existence of government programs that makes it easy to be a libertarian. It is those programs that make it possible for libertarians to rail against "governmental interference" without having to worry about the negative -- and sometimes catastrophic -- consequences of governmental inaction. The fact that government is likely to be around for a while means that, for better or for worse, so is the ease with which it is possible to defend libertarian ideology in America.