Goodbye Lenin and Goodbye Hayek: Libertarians

If you’ve never seen Goodbye Lenin, you have to run out and watch it now. Especially if you are conservative and quarantined during the coronavirus crisis.

This delicious 2003 film, directed by Wolfgang Becker, focuses on a young East German man living through the end of the Cold War. Alex’s idealistic mother really believed in the Communist revolution and internalized the values of the post-World War II Soviet system as if they were her own. She is injured and falls into a coma just before East Germany falls. When Alex’s mother awakes, the doctors tell Alex her health is frail. She doesn’t know that Germany has been reunified and Communism is over, so Alex tries to hide the historical truth from her so she can die in peace. He struggles to surround her with old items from the Communist era so she won’t suspect that her beloved ideology was trounced by history.

Goodbye Lenin fills me with powerfully nostalgic emotions because I was about the same age as Alex in 1989 when the events of the film begin, and my mother died, coincidentally, in 1990. During my mother’s last months she was very ill and delirious, barely knowing, for instance, that the United States was going to war with Iraq over Kuwait. While I can’t say my mother was anywhere near as fanatical as Alex’s mother in the film, I always had the sense that her progressive ideals mattered a great deal to her. She didn’t like Ronald Reagan. It was her decision to rear me in Catholic parishes tied to liberation theology.

So I could relate to the protagonist of Goodbye Lenin coping with a personal tragedy and sweeping changes in history simultaneously. When the Cold War ended, most in the West celebrated joyfully. I remember the Yale Daily News running a cartoon of Marx with a bullet hole in his forehead, with a caption reading, “Sorry, Karl.”

In 2020, it seems that the Cold War’s long-awaited revenge is upon us. I wager that nobody can doubt the coronavirus crisis points to a much deeper political upheaval than a tragic outbreak of disease. The United States of America, unquestioned champion of the twentieth century and unchallenged ideological flagship of the whole world, has placed hundreds of millions of her citizens in a strange quarantine. The crown jewel of American ideology, the free market, is collapsing.

It would be foolish to think that we’ll ever get back to the way things were. If the truth is to be told, this current disaster is an uncovering more than a seismic shift; America’s classical liberalism has been cracking and crumbling for a long time. Only now do people see the horrifying weakness in our infrastructure for what it is.

I’m currently reading an age-old classic by Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. I remember Kennedy from my undergraduate years at Yale; it was there I watched the Cold War end. Kennedy notes that several parts of the globe saw centers of power emerging in the early modern era: among them the Ottoman and Mughal empires, Ming China, as well as Russia and Japan. Any of these could have emerged as globally dominant forces had things played out a little differently in the age of the Renaissance.

The rise of Europe went counter to what one would have predicted, looking at the global map from a distance. Europe was a quarrelsome continent with lots of small countries fighting petty wars against each other. The continent’s geography had mountain ranges and thick forests, not to mention cold harbors in the north, that prevented coordinated organization over large stretches of land. They spoke two dozen languages, which made commerce and concertation extremely difficult. And at the dawn of modernity, intellectual life was controlled, perhaps even suffocated, by a sclerotic Catholic bureaucracy riddled with 1,500 years of corruption, rot, and decay.

No betting man worth his salt would have imagined that Western Europe would end up dominating the world from its small, smelly corner edged by the Bay of Biscay, the North Sea, and the Atlantic Ocean.

Paul Kennedy notes that after about 1500, the die was cast and Europe won precisely because of its weaknesses relative to the Ottomans, Mughals, Chinese, Japanese, and Russian empires. Because of the impossibility of one group dominating Europe (and believe me, the Habsburgs tried), white people in that part of the world adapted to pluralism as a default way of life. Generations of Europeans grew up knowing that there were many ways to look at things, many sides one could pick in any argument, and a number of different political forces that might hold sway from one year to the next. The impossibility of one organization controlling everyone gave Europeans an innate sense that their natural state was one of liberty and curiosity rather than obviousness or obedience.

From this inherent pluralism came two things that allowed Europe to gain world dominance: the free market, and intellectual diversity. The former allowed them to increase efficiency exponentially while the latter allowed the sciences, arts, and letters to flourish. Innovation gave them durable political systems as well as advancements that aided them in exploration, manufacturing, military science, and other areas.

Let’s give Paul Kennedy the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s right. One thing we can infer from his model is this: Europe’s natural state was freedom but also instability and flux. One needn’t wonder, then, why so many wars ravaged Europe century after century, or why the twin evils of fascism and communism grew as byproducts of Europe’s massive range of intellectual diversity.

After World War II, the same pluralism that gave rise to Europe could not sustain itself. A binary arose, pitting the communist Soviet Union against the capitalist United States. While not perfect, this binary simplified the cauldron of multiplying factions that had defined Europe since the end of the Middle Ages. There were two empires of equal strength. They offered intellectual diversity, but within a manageable dyad rather than a cloud of confusing possibilities. And one half of the dyad, the United States, offered the free market.

For all of its faults, between 1945 and 1990 the Cold War gave the world a stability that allowed for massive expansion of freedom and prosperity. The problem with the Cold War was that one of its poles, that of the Soviet Union, did not have a truly functional system; its system could not certainly survive in direct juxtaposition to the pluralism and free market of the West. So the Soviet Union fell.

Let’s consider what happened next. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the world went into a new phase of unipolar power. The only possible source of ideas was the United States. For about two decades, this worked out well because of the United States’ liberal tradition. Yet by the time of Obama’s presidency, a time when the liberal tradition should have triumphed gloriously, classical liberalism imploded under its own contradictions. As it turns out classical liberalism works out amazingly well if it has an alternative against which it can contrast itself. That is to say, “liberty” as the driving good can accomplish great things if it has something to offer liberty from.

As a unipolar, universal system, liberty actually starts to cannnibalize itself. Mostly this happens because liberty is an illusion in a world where nothing exists other than liberty. Because human beings are social animals and cannot function as pure individuals, one person’s idea can only work out if that person can convince others to go along with it and work together to reach their goals. Ideas have champions who end up competing with each other to recruit others to their beliefs. In an ideal world, a marketplace of ideas would naturally allow the best ideas to win. But that’s not the world we live in. People start resorting to lots of other–illiberal–means of holding sway over the ideas of others.

And so you get cancel culture. You get emotional blackmail. You get mobbing, bullying, and cronyism. You get fraud, plagiarism, and hypocrisy. All these things proliferate as the anything-goes premise of society turns into a contest to see who can play the dirtiest to silence all other opposing views.

The post-Cold War left and right both became parodies of themselves. The left turned into a histrionic, hypersensitive, shrill mob of accusers who constantly see the problems in other people but can never run things right. The right became a hypocritical clique of irritating sermonizers who carry on about church doctrines and social traditions that their own children don’t even observe anymore. The left emerged stronger because they found fuel in their own rage. The right emerged weaker because their own cowardice and nepotism stunted both their intellectual development and their capacity to be bold.

Ever since 1990, one camp of people managed to position their doctrine as the ur-ideology underpinning everyone else’s and therefore holding unquestionable authority over all matters social, political, or economic. These were the libertarians, who held up the very virtue that Paul Kennedy persuasively outlined as the foundational strength of early modern Europe. They believed in every individual’s inherent right (even duty) to act as their conscience dictated, so long as they did no harm to others. Their enduring strength came from this philosophy’s implications in the realm of economics. Under typical conditions, if consumers and producers can do business with no interference, business will grow well. The intellectuals who support libertarian beliefs therefore gain popularity whenever times are good and people like how the economy is going. During tough economic times such as the recessions of the early 1990s, the early 2000s, or the early 2010s, libertarians have usually survived by leaning on the social side of their philosophy. To people who are angry about unemployment or wage stagnation, the libertarians say, “I support legalizing marijuana, gay rights, and the separation of church and state! I’m the good kind of conservative, who just wants the market to pick up again–I’m so much better than those uptight social conservatives who are making a fuss about things that don’t matter during times like this.”

Using this shrewd sleight of hand, libertarians leveraged their way into total control of the political right. Sometimes defending social conservatives against liberal censorship as a “free speech” or “religious liberty,” they managed to convince the conservative masses that they were on their side. They are not on the conservative side at all, because they don’t actually believe that Christian virtues or social traditions are important enough to require of others, or even to position as the undisputed ends of society. Libertarians are constantly running in circles at square one, where they talk about how conservative social values should have a chance to be heard. They never get to square two where they commit to those values and endorse them as the certain goals for society to pursue.

Libertarians are in every way creatures of the left. The only reason that the left dislikes libertarians has to do with the left’s commitment to actual social values like non-discrimination, “equality,” inclusion, justice and the like. The left does not merely seek to talk about these values. The left also wants to enact them, which means that they want to gain control over the levers of power to force other people to submit to their specific agenda.

Some libertarians fight against the left because they really do believe, at heart, that nobody should be coerced to do anything they do not want to do, and the left’s authoritarian tactics repel them. Many other libertarians fight against the left in a drole de guerre because their wealthy donors don’t want the left to be in a position to raise their taxes or regulate how they make their money.

That’s the thing: libertarians are highly alluring to people who have a lot of money and want to make more. Their individualist ethos means that people of means do not have a binding responsibility to worry about people who do not have means. And rich people are of course famous for wanting to do as they please, something which the libertarians’ laissez-faire encourages.

The libertarians’ control over the left has also increased though this has happened much more stealthily. Take a look, for instance, at civil rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union or the Southern Poverty Law Center. They have emphasized increasingly their defense of LGBT policies rather than defending minorities or poor people against the encroachment onto their liberties. Women’s groups, moreover, fight for abortion rights seemingly more than for any other entitlement. Also these civil rights groups seem enamored of Muslims and of immigrants. It’s worth noting that Muslims come from an area of the world that has tremendous wealth due to oil and a stable, longstanding civilization that does not indicate that they’re powerless victims coming to America. Also the civil rights groups’ fixation with enabling all manner of unfettered movement of non-citizens into the United States means they have abandoned the left’s traditional alliance to working-class citizens who suffer from depressed wages and strains on the lower-income neighborhoods where they live.

The drift in the left shows that they too have migrated, slowly but surely, toward the libertarian mindset. “Neoliberal” is a slur on the left, pointing to this very drift. Gone are the concerns for the poor or minorities facing brutal discrimination. Instead the left focuses on people who want things that they don’t necessarily need. Many Muslim immigrants come from well-heeled families that could just as easily settle somewhere in the vast Islamic world composed of many countries. Even many Latin American immigrants crossing illegally into the United States are doing so to make more money for their families back home, though they could survive in places like Guatemala or El Salvador, which are hard places to live but not unlivable places. And abortion and gay rights are really the telltale causes of a political camp that has the luxury of worrying about sexual fulfilment rather than about the basic needs of survival.

When libertarianism becomes the unspoken foundation of your political cause, you become so focused on liberty as an abstract good that you don’t even see urgent suffering or injustice in front of you. Hence left-wing libertarians will champion the rights of drag queens to read books to little children while not caring at all about the millions who were encouraged to come out as gay and then ended up catching HIV through same-sex activity. Meanwhile, right-wing libertarians will fight to make sure that Christian colleges have the right to fire liberals while deliberately doing nothing to help conservative professors who get fired by private liberal colleges (they don’t want to interfere in the economic rights of a private employer.)

Between 1990 and 2020 it would be fair to say that libertarianism, understood in its basic and classical liberal sense, formed the unchallenged groundwork for the United States and therefore the whole world. This was the thought system that treasured free trade, globalization, open borders, the sexual revolution, and powerful corporate forces with the power of life and death over workers. The parts of the right wing that have managed to stay strong have been its libertarian parts: free markets and corporate power (not so much Christian virtues, sexual modesty, or national traditions). The parts of the left wing that have stayed strong have been likewise libertarian: women’s right to get abortions, the sexual revolution, the right of liberal corporations and entities to fire dissidents without constraint, open borders, irreligious relativism.

Now we have a coronavirus. It turns out that the free market, endless choices, a sexual revolution, and unhindered movement across borders are a disaster because of a glitch nobody foresaw. Thanks to libertarian right-wing policies, Americans live with massive uncertainty about their health care systems, since opposition to universal health care was the essential crusade of America’s right wing since the 1990s. Thanks to libertarian left-wing policies, families are not stable enough to handle quarantines and caring for their own sick, people are used to having casual (even sexual) contact with thousands of people without a thought, and an army of lawyers is ready to aid anybody who wants to cross a border anywhere no matter what viruses they carry or how ill-conceived their migration might be.

Goodbye, Hayek; it is your turn to join Lenin in one of the Hungarian statue graveyards. Whatever power the dogmatic opposition to centralized planning and shared belief systems had, that power has fallen before a microbe. I can see many conservatives with libertarian leanings flailing about for a way to reposition themselves in places like the Daily Wire, Federalist, National Review, and the usual corners of Twitter.

But all of us, left and right, are in the position of Alex by the bedside of his mother awakening from a coma. In Goodbye Lenin, Alex’s mother had such wholesome perceptions of East Germany because she experienced some good things in it firsthand. In the closing monologue Alex even says that a part of him will mourn the ideas of shared sacrifice and community that he saw in East Germany. By 1990, though, the system wouldn’t work and everyone knew it. Whoever was going to try to revive it would be engaging in delusional nostalgia. That’s why the film is called Goodbye Lenin instead of Hello Neomarxist Intellectuals.

I have many dear friends who clung to the label of libertarian for the better part of their lives. It defined who they were. Unfortunately, though, that label also defined who the right was, and we are much worse off because of it. Some libertarians scramble now to show that the free market will actually solve the coronavirus because companies will come up with treatments, vaccines, and mass-produced ventilators. But that’s like perestroika or glasnost in the mid-1980s trying to save the crumbling and smelly Soviet Union. We’re still dealing with millions of people living with HIV. We know the coronavirus will mutate and more plagues will follow. The world that the libertarians built is a world that a plague can shatter.

The free market has basically shut down for billions of people, because the invisible hand does not have the foresight to mass-produce cautionary supply chains and manufacturing systems just in case of an emergency like our present one. The trillions of dollars in bailout will amount to nationalizing major tracts of the economy, forcing citizens into a long-term debt that they will pay off in hundreds of years, if ever. And many people for whom unemployment and no health insurance were theoretical scenarios now know what they feel like, firsthand.

In the response to the coronavirus, the ultimate solution was for all of us to stay at home. “Home” turns out not to be a flexible thing that you can reinvent at will or engineer with social ingenuity. Kids need a mom and dad. We need people to reproduce by engaging in heterosexual, monogamous sex since that is the activity that requires the least intervention, least complication, and least risk for society. It’s not about our bodies and our choices after all. It’s about living every part of our lives in a way that helps others.

The answer is probably not socialism since that too failed. We don’t know what the next phase will look like, and that’s frankly scary. But Goodbye Hayek will be as painful a film as Goodbye Lenin. Like Alex’s mother in the latter film, the people who believed in classical liberal ideology will undoubtedly resist the admission that their beliefs belonged to a bygone era. I want to be kind. So I will be like Alex in that movie, not confronting my conservative colleagues or trying to argue with them as they still recite the now discredited libertarian beatitudes. There was a time when libertarianism built a world, and we had some good times in their world. I should honor that.

Going forward, though, I have to proceed with eyes wide open. We will need a new conservative movement that puts traditions, Christian values, and social virtues front and center, not to the side or behind the main attraction. Most conservative publications, thinktanks, conferences, and colleges are not equipped to deal with the massive shift this will entail. We will have to start new ones. We will have to do a lot of thinking. And we’ll have to be strong and ready for whatever comes next.