Why are libertarians so conservative? Libertarian intellectuals usually deny this insisting that they are beyond left and right, but libertarianism as a mass movement sits squarely on the right of the political spectrum as demonstrated by Ron Paul. One noteworthy example has been in debates about legislation proposed in Virginia to require women to undergo an ultrasound before an abortion. Proponents of the legislation claim that this is not an assault:
“This is a forced bodily intrusion, and it could be going against a doctor’s better judgment,” said Tarina Keene, executive director of Naral Pro-Choice Virginia. “If a woman says she doesn’t want to have an ultrasound, she shouldn’t have to have one.” Delegate Bob Marshall, a Republican who plans to vote for the bill, contends that the argument does not ring true because the abortion itself is far more invasive. “The intrusion is already taking place,” he said.
Would-be ‘libertarians’ have been untroubled. Tyler Cowen, most of the time a perceptive economist willing to question libertarian orthodoxies on macroeconomic policy, tweeted that the Virginia legislation was simply ‘consumer protection’. Libertarian writer Megan McCardle declared
I think that abortion should be legal, but I also think that it should be a last resort, and I’m all for the government using any non-coercive methods it can to encourage women to carry their pregnancy to term, including things that will make them feel bad about aborting. I think, for example, that sonograms should be mandatory before termination, I’m in favor of waiting periods and parental notification laws, and I’m agnostic on spousal notification…[and in response to complaints about the invasive nature of a vaginal ultrasound] Ever had an abortion? Considerably more invasive than a trans-vaginal ultrasound.
As Corey Robin observes the argument is that women have already had something in their vagina to get pregnant so why complain?
Robert Nozick argued that redistributive taxation was the equivalent of forced labour, of direct physical and coercive control over the body. Thus he opposed redistributive taxation as a consistent libertarian intellectual. What however if you sought to maintain this equation whilst descending from the ivory tower to electoral politics? You would have to recognise that some level of redistributive taxation was unavoidable, but if taxation is the equivalent of forced labour than forced labour might be unavoidable. Michele Bachmann encapsulated a libertarian politics when she said that she was against slavery and that Obamacare was a form of slavery. Thus libertarianism becomes its opposite.
There is a broader principle here about utopian politics of which academic libertarianism is one form along with some forms of Marxism. If you promise a utopia but cannot actually deliver one there is the temptation to redefine concepts such as ‘freedom’ so that the present becomes the utopia. The two best critical works on Marxism Dictatorship over Needs and Marxism and the Leap to the Kingdom of Freedom make this point. As a rule people who claim a ‘foundationalist’ completely consistent politics are in practice the opposite. A politics of absolute principle can become with surprising ease a politics of cynical pragmatism. Libertarian hipsters can roll their eyes at the far-right allies of the libertarian cause but take the money.