Some Remarks on Frohnen and Libertarian Socialism

Professor Bruce Frohnen, writing over at Nomocracy in Politics, asks, “Is Libertarian Socialism Our Future?” I confess I am not a fan of catchy, chimerical labels like “libertarian socialism,” especially since there are plenty of iterations of run-of-the-mill socialism which embrace heavy-handed government intervention in the market (including sizable redistribution and entitlement programs) while upholding social and moral libertinism. Perhaps Frohnen should have just gone with the expression “libertine socialism.” For as difficult as it is to reconcile the basic economic tenets of libertarianism with those of socialism, “libertarian socialism” would seem to imply a bottom-up or grassroots approach to economic organization, such as guild socialism or even more radical movements like mutualism and anarcho-syndicalism. Those movements have a long intellectual pedigree and have already been grouped together under the macro-heading “libertarian socialism.” If Frohnen is discussing a new phenomenon (and I don’t think he is), a fresh term is in order.

Maybe some will see my criticism as amounting to little more than a minor quibble—a bit of sideline snarking about semantics. I disagree. Terminological precision, to say nothing of conceptual clarity, seems to be in short supply amidst the innumerable ideologically charged and acrimonious scuffles over socio-economic affairs. The terms “socialism” and “libertarianism” are so routinely bandied about and misapplied that they have come perilously close to losing all meaning. This is problematic for the simple fact that when someone pens a critique of libertarianism, many of those who purportedly fall within the orbit of that critique can plausibly (in a loose sense) go, “Me? Libertarian? Never.” The same can be said for socialists. To castigate politicians like Republican Congressman Paul Ryan and Senator Rand Paul as “libertarians” in the same vein as “Austrian” ideologues like Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard borders on ludicrous—and yet these conflations go on all of the time.

Returning to Frohnen, it seems that what he is concerned with is the rise of an individualistic, entitlement-centered political movement of an uncertain size. While Frohnen implies that libertarian socialism is an attractive—though problematic—movement supported by a broad segment of American society because it “begins by offering free rides to everyone,” it seems that he believes it is little more than an ideology engineered to benefit elites who reap the major rewards while incurring few of the costs. Frohnen writes with sympathy toward “those who must foot the bill for government programs,” but certainly the elites Frohnen refers to must be footing some—perhaps a sizable portion—of that bill even if they are able to protect a large number of their assets from taxation. Unfortunately, none of this is made very clear in Frohnen’s article.

Of course it’s possible that all Frohnen is really objecting to here is the specter of “crony capitalism” which is said to haunt the world economy at the expense of millions, if not billions, of human beings. That expression, and what it is said to entail, is not without difficulties, as I discussed last July in “The Crony Capitalism Claim.” Assuming that what Frohnen calls “libertarian socialism” is not conceptually distinct in any meaningful sense from “crony capitalism,” then it would seem that Frohnen ought to be more clear on what alternative socio-economic ordo he envisions. If Frohnen is uncomfortable with the marriage between economic elites and government, then does he repair to the libertarian playbook of deregulation, low-to-zero taxes, and privatization? Or does he have something more far-reaching and morally defensible in mind?

In closing, let me be clear that I do not necessarily disagree in full with Frohnen about the broad realities he is pointing to. Yes, individualism is a real phenomenon in contemporary American society. Yes, many government programs and regulatory schema favor powerful vested interests over the common good. And yes, the current system is unsustainable in the long run. However, none of that means that all government programs intended to serve as safety nets for the least-protected classes are bad per se. Moreover, nothing Frohnen states proves that government regulation of the economy is inherently problematic, only that our current scheme of regulation in the modern administrative state is bloated and misdirected. Clearly there are moral and spiritual problems at the heart of our socio-economic woes, and it is to those catastrophic difficulties where our serious thinking needs to turn.