Jonah Goldberg

"Why are there no libertarian countries?"

In a much-discussed essay for Salon magazine, Michael Lind asks: "If libertarians are correct in claiming that they understand how best to organize a modern society, how is it that not a single country in the world in the early twenty-first century is organized along libertarian lines?"

Such is the philosophical poverty of liberalism today that this stands as a profound question.

Definitions vary, but broadly speaking, libertarianism is the idea that people should be as free as possible from state coercion so long as they don't harm anyone. The job of the state is limited to fighting crime, providing for the common defense, and protecting the rights and contracts of citizens. The individual is sovereign, he is the captain of himself.

It's true, no ideal libertarian state has ever existed outside a table for one. And no such state will ever exist. But here's an important caveat: No ideal state of any other kind will be created either. America's great, but it ain't perfect. Sweden's social democracy is all right, but if it were perfect, I suspect fewer cars would be on fire over there.

Ideals are called ideals for a reason: They're ideals. They're goals, aspirations, abstract straight rules we use as measuring sticks against the crooked timber of humanity.

In the old Soviet Union, Mao's China, Pol Pot's Cambodia and today's North Korea, they tried to move toward the ideal communist system. Combined, they killed about 100 million of their own people. That's a hefty moral distinction right there: When freedom-lovers move society toward their ideal, mistakes may be made, but people tend to flourish. When the hard left is given free reign, millions are murdered and enslaved. Which ideal would you like to move toward?

Lind sees it differently. "If socialism is discredited by the failure of communist regimes in the real world, why isn't libertarianism discredited by the absence of any libertarian regimes in the real world? Communism was tried and failed. Libertarianism has never even been tried ..."

What an odd standard. You know what else is a complete failure? Time travel. After all, it's never succeeded anywhere!

What's so striking about the Lind standard is how thoroughly conservative it is.

Pick a date in the past, and you can imagine someone asking similar questions. "Why should women have equal rights?" some court intellectual surely asked. "Show me anywhere in the world where that has been tried." Before that, "Give the peasants the right to vote? Unheard of!"

In other words, there's a first time for everything.


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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