A Necessary Good, or Leaving Lazy Libertarianism
”[When] men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them…there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” – Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
For years, I identified myself as a libertarian. I was even a Libertarian for a while. That is to say, I was a registered member of the Libertarian Party for about six months (Here is their platform). I’m not a Libertarian anymore, though, and I’m not really a libertarian either.
In the past, I’ve said that government should function, essentially, as a shell for society, arguing that things from medical research to local parks are a misuse of taxpayer money. I still advocate for limited, constitutional government, but there is a difference between the limits placed on the federal government by the Constitution and the limits placed on government at every level by libertarian ideology. Government, especially at a federal level, has the capacity to be destructive, but I think that there are many things that the government can provide better than anyone else and, for the sake of the civil society and healthy communities, should do so. (Parks, again, are the obvious example.)
At this point, there is a distinct possibility that you are groaning internally, because this may seem like a self-indulgent piece of philosophico-political puffery. For one thing, it is about libertarianism, a notoriously self-indulgent subject. For another, its author used a capital letter to distinguish between libertarianism and Libertarianism–in the first paragraph.
I hope that you’ll read on, however, if you’re interested in why I no longer buy into libertarianism or its ill-conceived, majuscular manifestations.
Libertarianism is an idiosyncratic and relatively new movement (between 40 and 60 years old, depending on where you start). It is based on the ideas of Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, Milton Friedman (a hero of mine), F.A. Hayek (whom I admire), Leonard Read (author of the brilliant essay “I, Pencil”), Rose Wilder Lane (Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter and possibly the author of the Little House books), and a few others. Most of the thinkers whose ideas form the backbone of libertarianism were radicals of one stripe of another, and this may explain why it is likely to remain a fringe movement, except when its palatable, realistic ideas can be integrated into the Republican Party platform.
A Note About Capitalization
A lot of people distinguish libertarianism, on the one hand, from Libertarianism, on the other. Distinguishing a word’s meaning by using lowercase and capital letters is often used to indicate fervency: “I RILLY MENE IT WHEN I SAY PEPLE LIKE U SUK N I HATE U”. This is popular with teenagers and with people who comment on the Internet (message boards, YouTube) when they want to get a point across (In all fairness, I am fairly confident, based on the use of diction and logic, that only teenagers comment on YouTube videos). Obviously, this is not the way that I’ve used the capital L.
Capitalization is also used to denote a term which requires special knowledge to understand: “My Engram detected a mass of Body Thetans that should be dispersed through Audits and massive doses of Niacin as I cross over The Bridge to Total Freedom to escape the power of Xenu.” This means, “I am a movie star,” “I want to be a movie star,” or “I believe that science fiction novels written by L. Ron Hubbard should have a Dewey Decimal number in the 200s.” All carry the implication that the speaker is an imbecile who takes dangerously high doses of certain B vitamins.
Another convention holds that capital letters weigh more, such as “His” instead of “his” for anything belonging to the Creator.
This is probably the closest way to my use of capitalization here. The form “libertarian” generally refers to those who hold a philosophy that seeks to maximize human freedom in all things (I call these individuals philosophical libertarians), and “Libertarian” is meant to denote members of the Libertarian Party and political independents who are dedicated to advancing the libertarian worldview (I call these movement libertarians).
This section provides one problem with libertarianism: Its proponents are often obtuse.
Another Note On Terminology
Over time, I have become increasingly delibertarianized, or (if you prefer) dislibertarianated.
There is significant debate in libertarian circles over which of these terms is correct, with most agreeing that if you use the wrong term, you are not a libertarian and never were to begin with and, furthermore, that your opinion is not worth a damn, and you are probably a statist. A small minority led by video store clerk, part-time fry cook, and registered genius Konrad Übermeister (birth name: Phil Davis) insists on the phrase “decreasingly libertarianesque”, but his group (the Transhuman Paleojunctivist Resistance, or TPR) is considered anathema to most libertarians because they support maximum legal levels of strychnine in LSD (with the government imposing fines on bathtub acid factories that use too much), agree with certain bestiality laws, and seriously misunderstand Heidegger’s views on phenomenology.
That paragraph sums up more problems with libertarianism: Many of its members are, to put it gently,
slightly silly, and not ridiculing them is extremely difficult. There’s a sort of open mike night feel to conversations about libertarianism, with members of various sub-groups denouncing members of other subgroups as not being true libertarians, not being libertarian enough, or being logically inconsistent and not adhering to first principles. Here’s an example from anarcho-capitalist crackpot Murray Rothbard explaining how Milton Friedman was not a true libertarian. Friedman was willing to compromise and work with actual politicians to do things like end the draft and promote school choice, and actually getting things done irritates many libertarians to no end.
Birchers, Birthers, and Bellicose Believers
It is probably a good idea to mention Zebulon R. Spoonbeander, best known for his books Lincoln: Homosexual, Tyrant, Sociopath and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Secret Mullato Love Child. He is considered by many Ron Paul fanatics to be the greatest mind of our age, because he has explained with inescapable logic how moon rocks, gold bullion, and shark teeth are the only true money in the universe (outside of Saturn). Paulestinians face a problem when extolling Zebulon Spoonbeander’s brilliance to people who vote, actually try to make government smaller, attempt to decrease the national debt, and participate in society: He is a six foot tall, imaginary, pink bunny.
Many people drawn to movement libertarianism have views that seem
a teensy bit odd or totally out of touch with reality. This makes them natural bedfellows with the John Birch Society and the birther movement. It is important to note that not all libertarians fit into this category, but there is enough overlap between the ideology of some (the Ron Paul/Lew Rockwell faction), the Birchers, and the birthers that they can be lumped together as way-out loons.
One may object, at this point, that I am using ad hominem attacks to discredit people with whom I disagree. This is not accurate, however. When a belief is loony, and when one objects to its looniness, then pointing out that its proponents are loons is not ad hominem. It is a perfectly reasonable objection.
The prevalence of crazies seems to be an inescapable problem of movement libertarianism. What about the deeper issue, though? What of the wider question of philosophical libertarianism itself?
My Criticism, Crystallized: Lazy Libertarianism Refudiated
Libertarianism is an easy way out of difficult problems. It is a safe refuge for those who have a vision of humanity in which individuals can be objective and act out of rational self-interest without harming others. It is profoundly lazy and serves as an excuse for not coming up with reasonable, workable policy positions. Why do the hard work of legislation, including compromise and imperfect solutions, when one can provide a pat answer eliminating the government’s role and avoid responsibility for its failures?
A great example is drug legalization. The War On Drugs has been extremely destructive, especially when coupled with the War On Poverty (Both have harmed economically disadvantaged individuals), and we need to come up with ways to reduce its harmful effects. The libertarian answer is easy: Legalize drugs. It is unknown, however, if this would make anything better, and considering the prevalence of alcohol abuse, there is good cause to worry that drug abuse (with its often-greater risks) would increase significantly with easier access. If this happens, it is a certainty that child abuse, domestic violence, and other violent crimes would increase. It’s hard to see the libertarian solution as working in the real world.
In real life, your self-interest often comes at the expense of mine, and we need a governing authority to be an arbiter. To put it a bit more bluntly, your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins. There is no credible historical evidence to suggest that people are benevolent enough to watch out for other people’s interests as closely as they watch out for their own.
Humans are not ideal beings, much less particularly rational ones. To be sure, reason is important, and I attempt to use it when analyzing complex situations and making decisions, but like all human faculties, it is imperfect and imperfectible, subject to the natural constraints that are part of our species.
Libertarianism as proposed a form of government is extremely close to anarchy (Some forms are outright anarchic), and anarchy precedes tyranny, period. History predicts the future pretty well, and human nature has never changed.
Philosophical libertarianism makes broad assertions about how people get along, how government should work, and the like. These are often abstract, based on deductions from first principles, rather than observations and the results of various social experiments. It is proudly and profoundly Jeffersonian and recalls the words of Thomas Paine:
Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one.
This sounds nice, but it isn’t true. Government isn’t a necessary evil. It’s a necessary good, and humanity cannot organize without it, much less thrive.
The civil society is based on the success of three sectors: industry, charity, and polity (government). All three are necessary components of a functioning society, as long as they stay within the proper parameters.
History has not been kind to Jefferson or Paine. Rather, Hamilton and Burke have prevailed, and those who hold the former as heroes over the latter ignore how Jefferson governed once he became President. Individuals who fashion themselves as revolutionaries, saying that the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants, are glad to ignore the Louisiana Purchase, the expedition of Lewis and Clark, and the rest of Jefferson’s presidential legacy.
But I digress.
The chief political problem that we have in America today is that the federal government significantly exceeds its constitutional mandate and parameters. The solution includes the restoration of federalism, a federal government that delegates to states and municipalities those functions that are best fulfilled locally. Note that this is not a libertarian wonderland where government only paves roads, has a handful of soldiers to prevent invasions, and enforces contract law. (My favorite example of what one might look like is Rapture, an underwater city in the dystopian video game BioShock”. It is not pretty.)
If government were evil, then the Magna Carta, Mayflower Compact, and United States Constitution would be dread topics in history classes, to be studied alongside the Reign of Terror and the Spanish Inquisition. They aren’t, however. They are studied alongside the other great human achievements that promote rights, well-being, and the advancement of liberty.
Liberty and revolution belong to libertarians and patriots alike. Make no mistake, however. American patriotism is rooted in the Revolution of 1776 (America) and its predecessor, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (England). Libertarianism is rooted in the Revolution of 1789 (France). We all know how that worked out.
These are debates worth having, and they are worth winning. Ideas matter.
A party platform focused on individual liberty within the context of a moral, civil society is one that will deliver victory, but a platform that is truly libertarian will bring failure. Whether or not they can articulate it, most people know that without a government that secures individual liberty, promotes prosperity, and maintains safety and civility, the American civil society would collapse, and for far too many of us, life would be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
Cross-posted at The Joy of Reason.