[Paleopsych] TCS: Marxism of the Right?
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Fri Apr 1 20:33:19 UTC 2005
Marxism of the Right?
By Max Borders Published 03/10/2005
Until this article by Robert Locke appeared in The American
Conservative, conservatives and libertarians have enjoyed a mutually
beneficial relationship. After all, there is so much on which they
But can it last? Distortions like this one should make us wonder:
"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."
Since Mr. Locke tempers these characterizations of the lib-curious
with the word "often," one can no more verify his claim than take
issue with it. Still, I should mention that I know a number of
libertarians who don't even drink caffeine -- much less smoke crack --
due to their personal and religious choices. As one of my colleagues
is fond of saying to those ignorant about our movement: "You're
thinking of libertinism." Mr. Locke is, perhaps, guilty of the same
And that's what makes this article titled "The Marxism of the Right"
so fascinating in its contradictions. One can assume that Mr. Locke
counts himself among those ready to wield the power of the state in
defense of his cloudy notions of "the moral," i.e. to prevent the
ambitious from getting too avaricious (one of the seven deadly sins,
you know), or to keep sexual eccentrics from using VapoRub in ways
unintended by God. If anything is clear in his article, it's that Mr.
Locke's only contact with libertarian thought comes from "cocktail
parties, on editorial pages, and on Capitol Hill." Consider this
"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."
The notion that libertarians believe society ought to be run based on
"selfishness" indicates that Mr. Locke frequents cocktail parties with
Objectivists, not libertarians. First of all, most libertarians
don't think society should be "run" at all, rather -- as Hayek taught
-- society should essentially run itself. If we have the
appropriate rules of non-harm enshrined in proper institutions,
society is, while a complex system, a self-regulating one. The very
notion that it can be "run" is a form of the fatal conceit, which has
evidently entranced Mr. Locke.
Social norms like citizenship, community, patriotism and the like can
be wonderful (and diverse) epiphenomena of these underlying rules --
but they are meaningless without said rules. And they don't need to be
enforced by religious zealots, communitarians, or lesser Pat
Mr. Locke goes on to say:
"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."
Notice how Mr. Locke attempts to create a dichotomy through
philosophical claptrap. First, he wants to pigeon-hole all
libertarians into the simplistic category of a priorism. While some of
us are Kantians or (eh hem) Lockeans, such is certainly not universal
in our ranks. Indeed there are at least as many types of libertarian
as there are prefixes to be fitted with "con." Are such fallacies of
generalization typical among paleo-cons?
Libertarian thinkers like James Buchanan and Jan Narveson, for
example, are contractarians, which means they don't rely on a priori
truths for their justification and are -- in many senses -- moral
skeptics. If the charge of a priorism was meant to suggest that
libertarians simply don't use evidence to support their claims, I
would say that is just false -- and wonder about such a curious
accusation coming from one who claims that the existence of
pornography "vulgarizes" society. (I can't think of anything less
The assertion that Marx "reduced social life to economics" is amusing
if not misguided. While I realize that Marx's labor theory of value
was economics in some vague sense, most contemporary economists are
reluctant to give a footnote to Marx in Econ 101 textbooks. Perhaps
the better description of Marxist thought is an attempt to "reduce
social life to materialism." This more accurate description of Marx
has nothing to do with libertarianism, and with that correction, Mr.
Locke's cutely constructed "mirror-image" theory collapses.
Mr. Locke's biggest mistake comes in the common -- but false --
conflation between individualism and selfishness. All we libertarians
are saying is that we are prepared to direct our own "altruistic" and
"collectivist" urges in ways that the government simply cannot and,
indeed, should not. We are collaborative and cooperative -- and
radically so. And, yes, we think that since the market in goods and
services is dynamic, the market in making positive changes in peoples
lives can be dynamic too. Call it Tocquevillianism on steroids. If Mr.
Locke would like to call this a reduction of everything to economics,
I suppose we're guilty.
In a sense, we do believe that all human values are economic. One
makes an economic choice when he gives his money to Bob Jones U or the
Nature Conservancy, rather than to Wal-Mart. But if Mr. Locke thinks
that doing "moral good" means the government should continue stripping
resources away from people and their communities to be managed by the
moral elite in Washington, he is more than mistaken -- he is a part of
I will forego any lengthy criticism of Mr. Locke's quasi-philosophical
discussion on the nature of "good," which terminates in this sentence:
"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." But I will
say that if we were all Churchills, we would have no heroes. For the
state to get involved with trying to create Churchills is not only
likely to fail, it is likely to infantilize a population. Do we want
to "create" people incapable of independent action? If we are to take
Mr. Locke's implicit rationale to its logical conclusion, we should
expect his manual for "how to make inherently good choices and live a
worthy life" in the next edition of The American Conservative.
I must admit, Mr. Locke does raise some good questions about the
nature of common goods:
"But some [goods], 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 often disagree about the nature of common goods, and a
lot of great innovations have come out of these discussions. But these
disagreements are no more fatal to our movement than conservatives'
internal arguments about whether the Ten Commandments should sit in
state courthouses or whether the war in Iraq was justified.
Libertarians have been the ones asking whether some private roads
might actually be a sound alternative to traffic snarls. (Only now are
conservative politicos picking up on innovations like HOT lanes.)
Libertarians are the ones asking if private initiatives and market
forces will help clean the air and conserve natural lands more
effectively (and efficiently). And while no serious libertarian
discusses the idea of tracing pollutants back to smoke-stacks, we were
the first to propose market alternatives to the environmental
regulatory morass that was begun under -- and we proudly lay claim to
insightful theories like public choice that show how government
can scarcely well provide for the "public good" even if it wanted to.
But according to Mr. Locke, libertarians need to consider other "hard
HQ: "What if it needed to limit oil imports to protect the economic
freedom of its citizens from unfriendly foreigners?"
A: Why would we want to cripple our economy in pursuit of an autarkic
fantasy? (Besides, how can vehicles without oil protect us?)
HQ: "What if it needed to force its citizens to become sufficiently
educated to sustain a free society?"
A: This is like asking whether we need a state religion to preserve
HQ: "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?"
A: Why can't we simply have constitutional checks on redistribution?
Granted, some of Mr. Locke's cited "hard questions" are hard, and
we've been going over them for a long time. In addition to questions
about genuinely public goods, we wonder about whether conscription
might be necessary to protect our freedoms in war; or whether open
borders without assimilation are dangerous to our institutions. Some
libertarians are pragmatic, not just "abstract and absolutist." Most
libertarians don't think of children as full agents deserving full
freedom despite Mr. Locke's invented claims of libertarian "idiocy."
And while there are some extreme libertarians who are against
state-sanctioned care for the senile or the insane, few if any
libertarians are opposed to volunteer-driven and philanthropically
funded care for those who represent a danger to themselves or others
-- and this might require oversight of some form to ensure folks
On the question of drug legalization, Mr. Locke would have done well
to put his pen down. Even some conservatives are starting to see
that the War on Drugs has done little or nothing to clean up inner
cities and has created an underclass of prison inmates unnecessarily.
The resources the state has wasted in trying to control people's
personal lives is appalling, and its failure is evident (yes, there is
empirical data for this fact). And "drug users who caused trouble"
would be put in prison. Why Mr. Locke assumes otherwise is disturbing,
because it appears he really hasn't looked to libertarian resources on
this. Putting drug users who cause trouble into prison is a heck of a
lot simpler and less costly than imprisoning people simply for
possessing or using drugs -- all out of a moral imperative that is not
The sad part about this article is that Robert Locke sounds like many
people. Behind all of his golden mean rhetoric, Locke assumes that an
inefficient bureaucracy with a monopoly on power can not only spare us
from the "extreme costs" of our free choices, but effectively identify
them. Many good thinkers since Frederic Bastiat have spent the last
century and a half showing how unintended consequences end up doing us
more harm than good. We should wonder how Mr. Locke or anyone else
thinks he has finally figured out how to fix complex society. This
anointed power-class, while they usually disagree on almost every
policy issue, does agree on one thing: that they should be in power.
Locke believes he has reached the point of full-tilt profundity when
"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."
Mr. Locke should consider something more ironic. In a truly free
society, people will be just as able to enter into collective
arrangements with people who have also chosen to forego so-called
"absolute freedom." Mr. Locke and I can start a Hutterite commune
where everybody shares the work and bows hourly to a statue of Edmund
Burke as a condition of residing there. I can't imagine why in the
world Mr. Locke puts so much faith in democracy while simultaneously
implying that inexpensive foreign laborers that might turn 'commie
pink' on us should be kept out.
Locke's economic assertions in this next passage rival those of Paul
"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."
There is not the space here to explain the complexities of economics
to Mr. Locke, but suffice it to say that Japan has been successful
despite stultifying regulation, and those regulations (most notably in
banking) are showing signs of making the country's economy
sclerotic. Russia, on the other hand, has only been "free" for
fifteen years and has lived close to a century without the formal or
informal institutions to make a market economy and a free society
tick. Nevertheless, it is still growing at close to six percent
I will close this article without addressing Mr. Locke's visions of
how libertarianism in practice would unleash "sadomasochism" and other
caligulan horrors. Suffice it to say that libertarians know that we
are able to exercise self-restraint not because the Great Nanny in
Washington threatens us with chastening, but because we belong to
communities, families, and relationships in which the values of
healthy living are naturally grown orders.
Max Borders is a libertarian by day, libertine by night in the
Washington, DC area.
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