Not all libertarians

Not all libertarians have made their peace with the Trumpist juggernaut. For a fine example of the principled sort, have a read of Will Wilkinson last week in the New York Times.

Wilkinson no longer calls himself a libertarian, but he’s clearly part of the broad libertarian movement. He’s one of the key people at the Niskanen Centre, which was founded to provide a home for libertarians who left the Cato Institute when it fell under the control of the Koch brothers.

And he’s uncompromising about Trump:

Institutionalized cruelty and systematic fear are precisely what the Trump presidency, and the rigged political system that made it possible, have brought us. The administration’s “zero tolerance” border crackdown has separated thousands of parents from their children, inflicting unspeakable grief and permanent trauma to deter “improper entry,” a misdemeanor of no more gravity than “disorderly conduct.” Many of Mr. Trump’s victims are asylum seekers who have trekked thousands of miles to protect their children from sexual violence and gang conscription, only to have their extraordinary fortitude and love rewarded with sadistic abuse justified by a fake immigration crisis spoken into being through dehumanizing lies.

To some extent, this is just an aside: the point of Wilkinson’s column is an argument about how America got to this point and what can be done about it. He fingers the way that the political system privileges rural over urban voters, and suggests that if the large metropolitan areas were to form political units of their own then the system would do a better job of balancing interests (as, for example, it once balanced the interests of north and south).

It’s well worth a read, and a valuable counter to the volume of reportage that (implicitly or explicitly) asserts that rural and small-town dwellers are the “real” America (or for that matter, Australia). And many of his specific criticisms of the way the system currently works against liberal urban interests are spot on.

But I think structural arguments only go so far. The media’s prejudice against the cities is primarily cultural, and structural reform would shift it only gradually if at all. Given the huge difficulties surrounding constitutional change, reformers would probably be better advised to spend their resources directly attacking the cultural issues.

And even the more directly political problems are not as amenable to Wilkinson’s solutions as one might think. The electoral college, for example, does indeed have a small-state (and therefore rural) bias, but it’s not very large: if it was redistributed according to population, it would have delivered only an extra three votes to Hillary Clinton.

The House of Representatives is based almost entirely on population, but it still has a Republican bias because Republicans have been more successful at gerrymandering boundaries to their advantage. (Wilkinson suggests that cities should form multi-member districts and elect members proportionately, but no party will support that while its opponents are still getting the benefit of rigged single-member elections.)

In any case, it seems to me that the whole idea of designing a constitutional structure to balance different sectional interests is misguided. As Wilkinson shows, it deserves a large part of the blame for the current mess. While the idea of revamping it to reflect more modern interests is tempting, I think it’s a temptation that should be resisted.

Better to just fight for democracy across the board, then let the chips fall where they may.


One thought on “Not all libertarians

  1. Wilkinson’s piece takes a really weird turn when he suggests creating multi-member city districts that would send more Republicans to Congress. His solution is to further strengthen the party that has been so destructive. He anticipates this objection by saying we can’t look at reform through the lens of which party it would benefit. But that doesn’t make the suggestion any less naive. Just look at the Senate; it’s party affiliation that largely defines a politician’s behaviour, not the state they represent.


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