How Libertarians Deal with “the Problems of the 1890s”, Part 1: The Challenge

A little while ago, Austin Cline, Atheist blogger for, took time out of his ordinary routine to extol big government and criticize advocates of limited government.  The short commentary is  entitled Limited Government? No thanks....  Please read it now to understand the challenge he’s issued to those who advocate limited government.

The commentary heavily quotes a book review by a blogger who identifies himself as “publius”, entitled The Virtues of Limited Government: a View From The 1890s.  The book reviewed is The Reckless Decade by H.W. Brands, which describes, among other things, life for working class Americans in the 1890s.  For further background on the challenge, read publius’s book review.  I have not yet read The Reckless Decade.  If, upon reading it, I have a change of heart about the issues raised, rest assured that I will post a follow-up.  As the issues have been raised by Cline and Publius, however, they have ready responses in the libertarian school of thought, and I’d like to share them with you.

The operative language of the challenge appears at the end of the post:

Life was better even for the poorest of Americans during the 1990s than during the 1890s. Why? Government intervention and regulation were important factors. Big government. This is a fact and it really isn’t deniable. Those who want “smaller” government should lay out in detail exactly what aspects of government they wish to do away with — if it includes any of the above, they should explain how they intend for the problems of the 1890s to be avoided. If they have no such plan, or at least no realistic plan, then their agenda should be denounced as unjust, unfair, and unworthy of any serious consideration.

“Any of the above”, in this passage, refers to the earlier quoted portion of A View from the 1890s:

[P]eople forget both the conditions that existed before, and the struggle it took to make things better. I mean, think of all the things that you probably never even think about on a daily basis – clean water, sanitary food, parks in cities, the minimum wage, the weekend, the forty-hour work week, housing codes, fire codes, anti-discrimination laws, anti-child labor laws, national parks, state parks, Social Security, sanitation facilities, voting rights for women, public education, the interstate system.

Before I respond to the challenge, I’d like to indulge in few observations regarding its form.

The challenge is essentially an ultimatum.  The advocate of limited government is to lay out her central plan for the economic life.  Those who object on the ground that our economy doesn’t need a central plan are to be excommunicated as heretics from the marketplace of ideas.

Imagine if either the Roman Catholic Church, or the Church of England, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints issued such a bombastic ultimatum:  That the well-being of the Western world is the result of the wisdom and guidance of one or the other religious institution, that the fact “really isn’t deniable”, and that those who have no “realistic plan” for effectuating the goals of such religious institution are to be “denounced as unjust, unfair, and unworthy of serious consideration.”  Austin Cline, the astute Atheist that he is, would probably have little trouble exposing such demagoguery with the grace of an intellectual.  Yet when Cline endeavors to evangelize on behalf of the Glorious State, no demagoguery is too vulgar.  Because his view is shared by the majority, Cline does not bother to support it with anything but the slightest circumstantial evidence.  Gone is the edict that some burden of proof always lies with the person who is making a claim, not the person who is hearing the claim and who may not initially believe it.” It suffices for Cline to simply assert that the State has always been our saviour, reference the correlation between the growth of the State and the rise in living standards, and then dare those who do not believe him to justify their disbelief.

Because correlation does not imply causation, Cline’s assertion fails.  By Cline’s own rules of engagement, I could simply double dare him back for four times the bucks.  But because libertarian ideas are often unfairly maligned because they are misunderstood, I would better serve those interested in open discussion if I answered the challenge myself.

Publius was more devious than Cline.  Publius’s curious tactic is to deny the very existence of the position against which he argues:

I’ve argued before that Americans overwhelmingly favor “big” government – or more precisely, they have a set of priorities that they are unwilling to cut federal spending on (entitlements, for instance). You can label that however you want – “big” or “small” or anything in between. Thus, what we are actually fighting over are a few points in the marginal tax rate, along with the allocation of a small percentage of the overall federal budget. Don’t get me wrong, these small percentages have enormous consequences – but they won’t usher in an age of “big” or “small” government.

Why critique the advocacy of limited government in the first place if all “we” are fighting over” are “a few points in the marginal tax rate” and “the allocation of a small percentage of the overall federal budget”?  It seems like wasted effort.  Why Austin Cline, of all people, would then cite this glaring internal contradiction with approval is beyond me.  Theists have used the same tactic for centuries to marginalize Atheists.  Consider the following video clip from Jonathan Miller’s Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief, beginning at 3:00:

Vodpod videos no longer available.
(Video may take a while to load. Click here to see it at YouTube.)

The tactic is no more valid when Publius uses it to marginalize libertarians.

I’ll continue with the merits of Cline’s challenge in a series of posts explaining what government functions a libertarian-minded citizen like myself would do away with, and how I intend for “the problems of the 1890s” to be avoided.  I’ll begin with what I consider to be the easiest parts of the challenge, and eventually finish with the more difficult parts.  Up first:  those indespensible municipal, state, and national parks.

Continue to Part 2:  Public Parks >>


One Response to How Libertarians Deal with “the Problems of the 1890s”, Part 1: The Challenge

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