[Paleopsych] American Conservative: Marxism of the Right
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Fri Apr 1 20:30:27 UTC 2005
Marxism of the Right
March 14, 2005 Issue
by Robert Locke
Free spirits, the ambitious, ex-socialists, drug users, and sexual
eccentrics often find an attractive political philosophy in
libertarianism, the idea that individual freedom should be the sole
rule of ethics and government. Libertarianism offers its believers a
clear conscience to do things society presently restrains, like make
more money, have more sex, or take more drugs. It promises a
consistent formula for ethics, a rigorous framework for policy
analysis, a foundation in American history, and the application of
capitalist efficiencies to the whole of society. But while it contains
substantial grains of truth, as a whole it is a seductive mistake.
There are many varieties of libertarianism, from natural-law
libertarianism (the least crazy) to anarcho-capitalism (the most), and
some varieties avoid some of the criticisms below. But many are still
subject to most of them, and some of the more successful varieties--I
recently heard a respected pundit insist that classical liberalism is
libertarianism--enter a gray area where it is not really clear that
they are libertarians at all. But because 95 percent of the
libertarianism one encounters at cocktail parties, on editorial pages,
and on Capitol Hill is a kind of commonplace "street" libertarianism,
I decline to allow libertarians the sophistical trick of using a
vulgar libertarianism to agitate for what they want by defending a
refined version of their doctrine when challenged philosophically.
We've seen Marxists pull that before.
This is no surprise, as libertarianism is basically the Marxism of the
Right. If Marxism is the delusion that one can run society purely on
altruism and collectivism, then libertarianism is the mirror-image
delusion that one can run it purely on selfishness and individualism.
Society in fact requires both individualism and collectivism, both
selfishness and altruism, to function. Like Marxism, libertarianism
offers the fraudulent intellectual security of a complete a priori
account of the political good without the effort of empirical
investigation. Like Marxism, it aspires, overtly or covertly, to
reduce social life to economics. And like Marxism, it has its
historical myths and a genius for making its followers feel like an
elect unbound by the moral rules of their society.
The most fundamental problem with libertarianism is very simple:
freedom, though a good thing, is simply not the only good thing in
life. Simple physical security, which even a prisoner can possess, is
not freedom, but one cannot live without it. Prosperity is connected
to freedom, in that it makes us free to consume, but it is not the
same thing, in that one can be rich but as unfree as a Victorian
tycoon's wife. A family is in fact one of the least free things
imaginable, as the emotional satisfactions of it derive from relations
that we are either born into without choice or, once they are chosen,
entail obligations that we cannot walk away from with ease or justice.
But security, prosperity, and family are in fact the bulk of happiness
for most real people and the principal issues that concern
Libertarians try to get around this fact that freedom is not the only
good thing by trying to reduce all other goods to it through the
concept of choice, claiming that everything that is good is so because
we choose to partake of it. Therefore freedom, by giving us choice,
supposedly embraces all other goods. But this violates common sense by
denying that anything is good by nature, independently of whether we
choose it. Nourishing foods are good for us by nature, not because we
choose to eat them. Taken to its logical conclusion, the reduction of
the good to the freely chosen means there are no inherently good or
bad choices at all, but that a man who chose to spend his life playing
tiddlywinks has lived as worthy a life as a Washington or a Churchill.
Furthermore, the reduction of all goods to individual choices
presupposes that all goods are individual. But some, like national
security, clean air, or a healthy culture, are inherently collective.
It may be possible to privatize some, but only some, and the efforts
can be comically inefficient. Do you really want to trace every
pollutant in the air back to the factory that emitted it and sue?
Libertarians rightly concede that one's freedom must end at the point
at which it starts to impinge upon another person's, but they
radically underestimate how easily this happens. So even if the
libertarian principle of "an it harm none, do as thou wilt," is true,
it does not license the behavior libertarians claim. Consider
pornography: libertarians say it should be permitted because if
someone doesn't like it, he can choose not to view it. But what he
can't do is choose not to live in a culture that has been vulgarized
Libertarians in real life rarely live up to their own theory but tend
to indulge in the pleasant parts while declining to live up to the
difficult portions. They flout the drug laws but continue to collect
government benefits they consider illegitimate. This is not just an
accidental failing of libertarianism's believers but an intrinsic
temptation of the doctrine that sets it up to fail whenever tried,
just like Marxism.
Libertarians need to be asked some hard questions. What if a free
society needed to draft its citizens in order to remain free? What if
it needed to limit oil imports to protect the economic freedom of its
citizens from unfriendly foreigners? What if it needed to force its
citizens to become sufficiently educated to sustain a free society?
What if it needed to deprive landowners of the freedom to refuse to
sell their property as a precondition for giving everyone freedom of
movement on highways? What if it needed to deprive citizens of the
freedom to import cheap foreign labor in order to keep out poor
foreigners who would vote for socialistic wealth redistribution?
In each of these cases, less freedom today is the price of more
tomorrow. Total freedom today would just be a way of running down
accumulated social capital and storing up problems for the future. So
even if libertarianism is true in some ultimate sense, this does not
prove that the libertarian policy choice is the right one today on any
Furthermore, if limiting freedom today may prolong it tomorrow, then
limiting freedom tomorrow may prolong it the day after and so on, so
the right amount of freedom may in fact be limited freedom in
perpetuity. But if limited freedom is the right choice, then
libertarianism, which makes freedom an absolute, is simply wrong. If
all we want is limited freedom, then mere liberalism will do, or even
better, a Burkean conservatism that reveres traditional liberties.
There is no need to embrace outright libertarianism just because we
want a healthy portion of freedom, and the alternative to
libertarianism is not the USSR, it is America's traditional liberties.
Libertarianism's abstract and absolutist view of freedom leads to
bizarre conclusions. Like slavery, libertarianism would have to allow
one to sell oneself into it. (It has been possible at certain times in
history to do just that by assuming debts one could not repay.) And
libertarianism degenerates into outright idiocy when confronted with
the problem of children, whom it treats like adults, supporting the
abolition of compulsory education and all child-specific laws, like
those against child labor and child sex. It likewise cannot handle the
insane and the senile.
Libertarians argue that radical permissiveness, like legalizing drugs,
would not shred a libertarian society because drug users who caused
trouble would be disciplined by the threat of losing their jobs or
homes if current laws that make it difficult to fire or evict people
were abolished. They claim a "natural order" of reasonable behavior
would emerge. But there is no actual empirical proof that this would
happen. Furthermore, this means libertarianism is an all-or-nothing
proposition: if society continues to protect people from the
consequences of their actions in any way, libertarianism regarding
specific freedoms is illegitimate. And since society does so protect
people, libertarianism is an illegitimate moral position until the
Great Libertarian Revolution has occurred.
And is society really wrong to protect people against the negative
consequences of some of their free choices? While it is obviously fair
to let people enjoy the benefits of their wise choices and suffer the
costs of their stupid ones, decent societies set limits on both these
outcomes. People are allowed to become millionaires, but they are
taxed. They are allowed to go broke, but they are not then forced to
starve. They are deprived of the most extreme benefits of freedom in
order to spare us the most extreme costs. The libertopian alternative
would be perhaps a more glittering society, but also a crueler one.
Empirically, most people don't actually want absolute freedom, which
is why democracies don't elect libertarian governments. Irony of
ironies, people don't choose absolute freedom. But this refutes
libertarianism by its own premise, as libertarianism defines the good
as the freely chosen, yet people do not choose it. Paradoxically,
people exercise their freedom not to be libertarians.
The political corollary of this is that since no electorate will
support libertarianism, a libertarian government could never be
achieved democratically but would have to be imposed by some kind of
authoritarian state, which rather puts the lie to libertarians' claim
that under any other philosophy, busybodies who claim to know what's
best for other people impose their values on the rest of us.
Libertarianism itself is based on the conviction that it is the one
true political philosophy and all others are false. It entails
imposing a certain kind of society, with all its attendant pluses and
minuses, which the inhabitants thereof will not be free to opt out of
except by leaving.
And if libertarians ever do acquire power, we may expect a farrago of
bizarre policies. Many support abolition of government-issued money in
favor of that minted by private banks. But this has already been
tried, in various epochs, and doesn't lead to any wonderful paradise
of freedom but only to an explosion of fraud and currency debasement
followed by the concentration of financial power in those few banks
that survive the inevitable shaking-out. Many other libertarian
schemes similarly founder on the empirical record.
A major reason for this is that libertarianism has a naïve view of
economics that seems to have stopped paying attention to the actual
history of capitalism around 1880. There is not the space here to
refute simplistic laissez faire, but note for now that the
second-richest nation in the world, Japan, has one of the most
regulated economies, while nations in which government has essentially
lost control over economic life, like Russia, are hardly economic
paradises. Legitimate criticism of over-regulation does not entail
going to the opposite extreme.
Libertarian naïveté extends to politics. They often confuse the
absence of government impingement upon freedom with freedom as such.
But without a sufficiently strong state, individual freedom falls prey
to other more powerful individuals. A weak state and a
freedom-respecting state are not the same thing, as shown by many a
chaotic Third-World tyranny.
Libertarians are also naïve about the range and perversity of human
desires they propose to unleash. They can imagine nothing more
threatening than a bit of Sunday-afternoon sadomasochism, followed by
some recreational drug use and work on Monday. They assume that if
people are given freedom, they will gravitate towards essentially
bourgeois lives, but this takes for granted things like the deferral
of gratification that were pounded into them as children without their
being free to refuse. They forget that for much of the population,
preaching maximum freedom merely results in drunkenness, drugs,
failure to hold a job, and pregnancy out of wedlock. Society is
dependent upon inculcated self-restraint if it is not to slide into
barbarism, and libertarians attack this self-restraint. Ironically,
this often results in internal restraints being replaced by the
external restraints of police and prison, resulting in less freedom,
This contempt for self-restraint is emblematic of a deeper problem:
libertarianism has a lot to say about freedom but little about
learning to handle it. Freedom without judgment is dangerous at best,
useless at worst. Yet libertarianism is philosophically incapable of
evolving a theory of how to use freedom well because of its root dogma
that all free choices are equal, which it cannot abandon except at the
cost of admitting that there are other goods than freedom.
Conservatives should know better.
Robert Locke writes from New York City.
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