[Paleopsych] American Conservative: In Defense of Freedom

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In Defense of Freedom
March 14, 2005 Issue

    by Daniel McCarthy

    Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote a marvelously cynical manual of
    eristics called The Art of Always Being Right. The philosopher advised
    his readers against resort to logic; ad hominem attacks and other
    plays upon the passions could be much more effective. Put the
    opponent's argument in some odious category, he urged.

    Conservatives are long accustomed to residing in such a category: as
    their enemies would have it, conservatism is the ideology of the rich,
    the racist, and the illiterate. That this caricature bears no
    resemblance at all to the philosophy and social thought of Edmund
    Burke or Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver or Robert Nisbet, is irrelevant.
    The stereotype endures not because it is true but because it is

    Sadly, a few conservatives seem to have learned nothing from their
    experience at the hands of the Left and are no less quick to present
    an ill-informed and malicious caricature of libertarians than leftists
    are to give a similarly distorted interpretation of conservatism.
    Rather than addressing the arguments of libertarians, these
    polemicists slander their foes as hedonists or Nietzscheans. In fact,
    there are libertine libertarians, just as there are affluent and
    bigoted conservatives. But libertinism itself is as distinct from
    libertarianism as worship of Mammon or hatred of blacks is distinct
    from conservatism.

    Libertarianism is a political philosophy, not a complete system of
    ethics or metaphysics. Political philosophies address specifically the
    state and, more generally, justice in human society. The
    distinguishing characteristic of libertarianism is that it applies to
    the state the same ethical rules that apply to everyone else. Given
    that murder and theft are wrong--views not unique to libertarianism,
    of course--the libertarian contends that the state, which is to say
    those individuals who purport to act in the name of the common good,
    has no more right to seize the property of others, beat them,
    conscript them, or otherwise harm them than any other institution or
    individual has. Beyond this, libertarianism says only that a society
    without institutionalized violence can indeed exist and even thrive.

    For some exceptionally Christ-like people no demonstration of
    feasibility is needed. Doing what is right is enough, regardless of
    whether it brings wealth or happiness or even daily bread. But most
    people are not like that; they want security and prosperity--they ask,
    not unreasonably, not only "is it right?" but "can it work?" Following
    upon this is a tendency to deny that necessary evils are evils at all.
    Yes, the state seizes tax money and jails those who do not pay,
    actions that would be denounced as gangsterism if undertaken by a
    private organization. But if the only way life can go on is to have
    the government provide defense and other necessities, such
    expropriations might have to be called something other than robbery.

    Moderate libertarians say just that. They propose that the state
    should do those necessary things that it alone can do--and only those
    things. Radical libertarians contend there is nothing good that only
    the state can provide--even its seemingly essential functions are
    better served by the market and voluntary institutions. The
    differences between thoroughgoing libertarians and moderates are
    profound, but the immediate prescriptions of each are similar enough:
    cut taxes, slash spending, no more foreign adventurism.

    Discovering just which functions of government are necessary, or
    showing how life can be led in the absence of institutional coercion
    altogether, is no easy task. Any power that the state assumes
    typically comes to be seen in retrospect as absolutely essential.
    America long got by well without a Federal Reserve or a Food and Drug
    Administration, yet today it is almost unthinkable that they could be
    abolished. Coercive and grandiose statist solutions to problems real
    or imagined have the effect of crowding out voluntary approaches, so
    that sooner or later the government fix comes to seem the only one.
    Even the most statist conservative in America today does not call for
    nationalizing health care. Yet in every country in which a national
    health service is a fait accompli, conservatives do not dream of
    abolishing it--certainly Britain's Tories, even under Thatcher, did
    not. The public in such countries takes socialized medicine for
    granted; the alternative is practically pre-civilized.

    Once, conservatives really did intend to repeal the New Deal. Now a
    Republican president talks about saving Social Security--albeit with a
    phony "privatization" plan--as if society would collapse in the
    absence of mandatory savings or government social insurance.
    Conservatives complain about the media's erstwhile tendency to label
    Soviet hardliners as Russian "conservatives," but it's hard to escape
    the conclusion that if Communism were a government program, the
    Republican Party would be trying to save it, too. Consider the
    about-face that conservatives in this country have pulled with respect
    to the Department of Education--one could name other departments as
    well--which once was targeted for elimination and now is funded more
    generously than ever.

    Economics is of some help here, showing both that government is not
    necessary for prosperity and that in fact state intervention into the
    free market hurts the very people it's supposed to help. Rent control
    makes affordable apartments scarce. The minimum wage exacerbates
    unemployment. And a basic law of economics is that you get more of
    what you subsidize: doles encourage unemployment. Economics suggests
    ways in which services now provided poorly and counterproductively by
    government can be made available without coercion.

    The limits of this are worth keeping in mind, however, and are kept in
    mind by libertarians. Economics is not psychology; study of production
    and exchange does not tell a person what he should buy. Relative
    valuation of goods--without which there can be no economics, since
    exchange only takes place when each party values what the other is
    offering more than what he himself is selling--does not imply a
    relativistic ethics. The ethical assumption of libertarianism--that it
    is wrong to murder and steal--is absolute, and other values may be
    absolute as well.

    Libertarians are not wholly dependent on economics to show how freedom
    works, however. From Lord Acton onward, libertarians have taken a keen
    interest in history, and noncoercive institutions have a long
    established empirical record. Conservatives should be aware of the
    evidence. Over the past 200 years the power of the state has grown
    exponentially: in earlier eras private initiative and civil society
    provided most of the goods that the state now pretends to supply.

    Indeed, as libertarian historian-theorists have noted, as state power
    grows so civil society proportionally diminishes. Before Social
    Security, families and churches cared for the elderly. Now it is
    easier for young people to forget their parents and grandparents in
    old age; let the government take care of them. Social networks decay
    when they aren't used, and the state crowds out civil society.

    There is something rather counterintuitive--or just plain
    nonsensical--to the belief that bureaucrats and politicians care more
    about the elderly than families and communities do. The same holds
    true for the notion that the state upholds the interests of children.
    No, libertarians do not want to see youngsters emancipated from their
    parents. The family is natural and is not upheld, even allowing for
    corporal punishment, primarily by force. The power of state over
    individual and society, on the other hand, is rather different.
    Government is nobody's parent, and the idea that President Bush would
    be in any sense the father of citizens who are wiser and more just
    than he is perversion. When the state treats adults as children,
    infantilizing its subjects, the more prudent and older becomes
    subservient to the more reckless and younger, for society antedates
    the state.

    Social conservatives have long faced an apparent paradox. No matter
    how Christian the president and members of his party claim to be, no
    matter how many "solid" conservatives are elected Congress, the fabric
    of the social order continues to fray. At some point the question must
    be asked, is this because there still aren't enough good people in
    government?--how many would ever be enough? Or is it because the state
    by nature, far from buttressing the organs of civilization and the way
    of life dear to conservatives, instead undermines those very things?
    As Albert Jay Nock once observed, sending in good people to reform the
    state is like sending in virgins to reform the whorehouse.

    The free market sometimes involves things that conservatives dislike,
    such as pornography. What should be considered here, however, is not
    how the market performs relative to some idealized abstraction of the
    state run by wise and pure censors, but how a specific market compares
    to a particular state. If there is a market for pornography there is
    sure to be a constituency for it, too. Moreover, the state produces
    far worse depravities of its own: Playboy may be bad, but one is not
    forced to subsidize it, unlike public-school sex ed, Andres Serrano's
    "Piss Christ" (funded by the National Endowment for the Arts), and
    Lynndie England's S&M jamboree with Iraqi prisoners of war. One can
    avoid pornography on the market, but everyone pays for the depravities
    of the political class.

    That is not about to change. The state, since it acts by compulsion,
    cannot inculcate real virtue in anyone but only a hypocritical and
    ersatz kind. One can compel action but not belief. No wonder then that
    as the scope of the state has grown, patriotism has degenerated into
    warmongering and religion has succumbed to politicization and scandal.
    The moral muscles atrophy in the absence of personal responsibility.
    That some self-identified conservatives cannot seem to tell the
    difference between self-responsibility and compulsion, or between the
    standards of civil society and those of the state, demonstrates just
    how thorough the process of crowding out genuine virtue with the
    coercive counterfeit actually is.

    Consider the involvement of the state in marriage. Presently the state
    defines marriage for all, and there is considerable angst among
    traditionalists that government will redefine the institution to
    include homosexual unions. This concern is not misplaced: if gay
    marriage is given state sanction, the force of law will support
    demands by wedded homosexuals to receive the same privileges from
    civil society--including churches and religious charities--that
    married heterosexuals receive. In the absence of state involvement in
    marriage and in telling businesses and nonprofit organizations whom
    they can hire, however, individuals, churches, and businesses could
    make up their own minds as to which marriages they considered
    legitimate and could act accordingly.

    This is not a matter of imposing on anyone; libertarianism allows
    different standards to prevail in different places rather than
    dragging everyone down to the level of the state. The libertarian
    rests content to let Utah be Utah and San Francisco be San
    Francisco--and to let Iraq be Iraq. If the property owners of a
    neighborhood wanted to establish a certain set of common moral
    standards, they could do so. Other places could do differently.
    Libertarianism thus responds to the reality of difference, including
    profound cultural and religious difference, much better than other
    political philosophies, which are left trying to smash square pegs
    into round holes.

    Libertarian societies in all their variety would not be utopias, of
    course. Libertarianism does not propose an end to evil or even to
    coercion, but only the flourishing of civilization in the absence of
    institutionalized coercion. Crime would not disappear, poor taste
    would still exist, and even conservative communities would remain
    beset with imperfection. Removing the privileges of the state would
    make these evils smaller, less centralized, and more manageable,
    however. This picture is no abstraction or economic construct; it
    arises from the practice of actual institutions. The record of civil
    society and the free market is as old as the human race.

    The libertarian idea of society would hold true even if a degree of
    coercion were absolutely necessary and ineradicable: the more
    authority residing in civil society rather than the state, the better.
    But there are at least a few prima facie considerations that lend
    weight to so-called radical libertarianism. The most widely agreed
    upon of all so-called public goods, national defense, is not what it
    seems. The mightiest military on earth failed to prevent the atrocity
    on 9/11. On the contrary, U.S. interference in the Middle East and
    support for thuggish regimes has endangered Americans. Is a country
    ripe for invasion without a standing army? The last 200-odd years have
    shown many instances, including our own Revolutionary War, where
    guerrilla forces have been more effective than regular armies. Nor is
    there any need for conscription when people want to defend their
    homes; conscription is what states need to make people fight for
    causes in which they don't believe.

    A libertarian order is not coming any time soon, but it should be
    plain to anyone who undertakes the investigation that the solution to
    war, bureaucracy, taxation, personal irresponsibility, and the rot of
    culture is not more government, it's less.

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