Tough-minded libertarianism and Murray’s Trendline Test

Jonah Goldberg writing in National Review:

Last, I admire tough-minded libertarianism. Too often, libertarianism — or, as it’s called in lower Manhattan, “social liberalism” — is really a pathetic ideological mask, used by people who want to hide their fear of offending anyone. It can also be an expression of civilizational low self-esteem — “Who are we to judge?” and all that nonsense. It can also be a cop-out to avoid critical thinking or an insidious means of undermining cultural institutions. In short it’s not always bad, but it often can be.

Tough-minded libertarians understand that freedom isn’t merely — or even necessarily — a secular-governmental product, but rather a cultural institution that needs to be defended, even if that means offending people.

John Derbyshire’s “August Diary” at NRO:

Trendline Test Having been somewhat dismissive of libertarianism there, let me try to make up a bit. There are some follies in libertarianism, but some excellent good sense too.

I’m a math geek, so my favorite chapter in Charles Murray’s book What It Means to Be a Libertarian is the one titled “The Trendline Test.” Murray shows us a marvelous way to illustrate the futility of most government action.

What you do is, draw a graph of some social-progress indicator over time. Murray uses “Deaths Per 100 Million Vehicle Miles Traveled” as an example, but the Trendline Test can be applied to any such indicator: poverty, health, education, and so on.

Now see whether, by examining that graph, you can spot where the government took strong action to affect the indicator. In Murray’s example, the strong action was the imposition of the 55 mph speed limit in 1974. Did the fatalities graph thereupon take a sharp downward turn? Nope.

Murray allows that there have been cases where government action made a positive difference. Mostly, though, as he says: “Among trendlines involving social indicators — crime, the family, community, education, welfare — deterioration has been the rule and improvement is the exception. Among trendlines involving safety and health by far the most common result is . . . nothing. Whatever was happening before the government got involved continued to happen after the government got involved.”

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