Writing recently for the online news and entertainment website Salon, the American left-wing public commentator Michael Lind asked a question that has left political commentators abuzz.
And that question is: ?why are there no libertarian countries??
Specifically, Lind asks ?if libertarianism was a good idea, wouldn’t at least one country have tried it? Wouldn’t there be at least one country, out of nearly two hundred, with minimal government, free trade, open borders, decriminalised drugs, no welfare state and no public education system??
Lind suggests that the libertarian critique of economically and politically self?imploding communist regimes should not be represented as a telling blow against socialism, arguably most vigorously practiced in the Western world by continental European countries, more generally.
He asked ?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??
The Lind question is perceived by some as a devastating critique of libertarian ideas, although it would be seen by most, if not all, libertarians as a largely superficial question that reveals a lack of understanding of the nature of libertarian scholarship and public commentary, not to mention the contemporary challenges which confront the exercise of freedom.
The first point to be made in response is that Lind appears to lack a sense of irony when depicting the notion of ?libertarian countries.?
The term country is often used, including by Lind, as a short hand expression for the nation?state, famously defined by sociologist Max Weber as an abstract entity which claims a monopoly on the use of violence within a given geographical area.
Consistent with this definition, a government is the operational apparatus which exists to enforce the state?s violence?monopoly.
Through the pages of recorded history these concepts have been given life by people who have sought to perpetuate state power, and in the process maintaining their livelihoods by appropriating the incomes and output produced by others.
From the earliest time of roving nomads raiding settled agricultural communities, to absolute monarchs dispatching armies to conquer faraway lands, through to democratic politicians competing for voter support to control parliaments and public treasuries, the inherently coercive nature of the state has remained largely intact.
There have been no ?libertarian countries,? as Lind describes it, simply because the nation?state construct is, by definition, synonymous with the monopoly on violence, representing the antithesis of freedom and voluntary association, as exercised by the political class.
Nonetheless, it is apparent that the quality of formal institutions maintained by political actors can have an important influence upon the degree of freedom exercised with a country, with significant implications for economic prosperity and social cohesion alike.
Nations whose politicians do not impose excessive taxation or prescriptive regulations, who use taxes to fund efficient public sector services, who subscribe to policy consistency, and who accord a modicum of respect to commercial activities are nations that maintain economic freedom in a relative sense, which will tend to result in more robust private sector growth.
The tensions between coercive political action and the degrees of freedom needed for voluntaristic economic activity can be further abridged through political restraints posed by constitutionalism and adherence to the rule of law, and a willingness of countries to compete against each other on fiscal and regulatory grounds to eliminate their worst, anti?growth policy excesses.
Although relative economic freedom indexes are dismissed by Lind, they do remain instructive when they disclose that some nations, such as Australia and the rest of the Anglosphere, tend to more hospitable to the exercise of economic liberties than others, say in Africa or the Middle East.
Their usefulness is compounded by their growing use in empirical applications, which confirm a positive association between higher economic freedom ratings and stronger economic performance and, indeed, an improved quality of life.
Researchers are also extending economic freedom indexes to incorporate other elements of liberties, such as freedom of speech and religion, and freedom of association and assembly.
A recent study has shown that, in rank order, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, Australia and Canada rank in the top five of nations along the dimensions of economic and personal freedoms.
A ?libertarian country? cannot exist by definition, but this in no way invalidates the libertarian ideal which aims to extend the scope of economic and personal liberties, hence minimising the incidence of coercion and force, in every conceivable realm of human existence.
As described by nineteenth century British historian and politician Lord Acton, a liberal (or in the modern parlance, libertarian) is one ?whose polar star is liberty ? who deems those things right in politics which, taken all round, promote, increase, perpetuate freedom, and those things wrong which impede it.?
With issues such as fiscal recklessness, monetary policy misadventures, over?regulation, the surveillance state, drone warfare, immigration, drug decriminalisation and gay marriage all coming to the fore of public debates, we might hopefully find that Western countries become more libertarian than less.