[Paleopsych] American Conservative: In Defense of Freedom
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Fri Apr 1 20:31:07 UTC 2005
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
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
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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