Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism

In “Our Enemy, the State,” I explain that economic behavior is just an aspect of social behavior. The long-standing treatment of economics as a statistical-mathematical phenomenon exemplifies the rationalism that dominates “learned” discourse. It is my sad duty to report that “liberals” do not hold a monopoly on rationalism.

A rationalist, as Michael Oakeshott explains,

never doubts the power of his ‘reason … to determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion or the propriety of an action. Moreover, he is fortified by a belief in a ‘reason’ common to all mankind, a common power of rational consideration….

… And having cut himself off from the traditional knowledge of his society, and denied the value of any education more extensive than a training in a technique of analysis, he is apt to attribute to mankind a necessary inexperience in all the critical moments of life, and if he were more self-critical he might begin to wonder how the race had ever succeeded in surviving. (“Rationalism in Politics,” pp. 5-7, as republished in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays)

Thomas Sowell puts it this way:

One of the things intellectuals [his rationalists] have been doing for a long time is loosening the bonds that hold a society [or a nation] together. They have sought to replace the groups into which people have sorted themselves with groupings created and imposed by the intelligentsia. Ties of family, religion, and patriotism, for example, have long been treated as suspect or detrimental by the intelligentsia….

Under the influence of the intelligentsia, we have become a society that rewards people with admiration for violating its own norms and for fragmenting that society into jarring segments. In addition to explicit denigrations of their own society for its history or current shortcomings, intellectuals often set up standards for their society which no society has ever met or is likely to meet. (Intellectuals and Society, pp. 303, 305)

Sowell’s attack is aimed at left-wing intellectuals, but it could just as well be aimed at pseudo-libertarian sophists.

Nowhere is the rationalist mindset more evident than in a contribution by “libertarian” Brink Lindsey to a Reason debate, “Where Do Libertarians Belong?” Lindsey argues that libertarians — as he defines them — should once and for all back away from Republicans and conservatives:

[A] clear-eyed look at conservatism as a whole reveals a political movement with no realistic potential for advancing individual freedom. The contemporary right is so deeply under the sway of its most illiberal impulses that they now define what it means to be a conservative.

What are those impulses?

First and foremost, a raving, anti-intellectual populism, as expressed by (among many, many others) Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck. Next, a brutish nationalism, as expressed in anti-immigrant xenophobia (most recently on display in Arizona) and it’s-always-1938-somewhere jingoism. And, less obvious now but always lurking in the background, a dogmatic religiosity, as expressed in homophobia, creationism, and extremism on beginning- and end-of-life issues. The combined result is a right-wing identity politics that feeds on the red meat of us versus them, “Real America” versus the liberal-dominated coasts, faith and gut instinct versus pointy-headed elitism.

Lindsey, in his next (metaphorical) breath, confirms his identity as a pointy-headed elitist and a rationalist, to boot:

This noxious stew of reaction and ressentiment is the antithesis of libertarianism. The spirit of freedom is cosmopolitan. It is committed to secularism in political discourse, whatever religious views people might hold privately. And it coolly upholds reason against the swirl of interests and passions. History is full of ironies and surprises, but there is no rational basis for expecting an outlook as benighted as the contemporary right’s to produce policy results that libertarians can cheer about.

And yet, just a few paragraphs earlier, Lindsey was cheering:

Without a doubt, libertarians should be happy that the Democrats’ power grabs have met with such vociferous opposition. Anything that can stop this dash toward dirigisme, or at least slow it down, is a good thing. Seldom has there been a better time to stand athwart history and yell “Stop!” So we should rejoice that at least some conservatives haven’t forgotten their signature move.

To put it baldly, Lindsey wants to piggy-back on conservatism’s renewed resistance to big government, but he wants to be sure that no one mistakes him for a Palin-esque, Beck-ish kind of conservative. Have no fear on that score, Mr. Lindsey, for you are not even a libertarian worthy of the name. You have revealed yourself as a politically correct, pseudo-libertarian, thought-nazi.

Is it not a tenet of libertarianism that people ought to be free to speak their minds, so that their listeners can make up their own minds about the issues under discussion? Why then, should anyone — libertarian or otherwise — stifle his views about religion and matters related thereto? In order to save you the embarrassment of hearing about things you don’t want to hear about? How libertarian of you!

Let us examine the robustness of Lindsey’s objections to the Palin-esque, Beck-ish side of conservatism:

  • “a raving, anti-intellectual populism” — I don’t know about the “raving,” but if it is anti-intellectual to resist and criticize the emissions of the leftist-dominated academy, the leading lights of which have resulted in the bloodless near-victory of communism, anti-intellectualism in the defense of liberty is no vice.
  • “a brutish nationalism, as expressed in anti-immigrant xenophobia (most recently on display in Arizona)” — If it is “nationalistic” to oppose illegal immigration and its consequences for the safety and tax burdens of citizens, let nationalism reign. Lindsey, like too many libertarians, wants a borderless world because he imagines that liberty is something that just happens, absent the protection of a limited government. It would surprise Lindsey and his ilk to learn that many Americans cling to “nationalism” precisely because they prize liberty and wish to preserve what little of it has been left to them.
  • “it’s-always-1938-somewhere jingoism” — Here’s another pseudo-libertarian theme: Only war-mongers prepare for war. Well, it was “1938” in 1941, when Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor, encouraged by vocal isolationism and lac of preparedness on the part of the U.S.; in 1950, when Truman’s foreign policy invited North Korea to invade South Korea; in 1961, when JFK’s withdrawal of support for the anti-communist invasion of Cuba led to the installation there of Soviet missiles aimed at the U.S.; in 1979, when Iran’s radical Islamic regime took Americans hostage, knowing Jimmy Carter’s fecklessness; in 1993, when the bombing of the World Trade Center by terrorists was treated as a criminal matter and not as a hostile attack on the U.S.; in 2001, when the official U.S. response to the WTC bombing and other terrorist attacks emboldened Osama bin Laden.
  • “dogmatic religiosity, as expressed in homophobia, creationism, and extremism on beginning- and end-of-life issues” — I wonder if, in Lindsey’s brave new world of pure libertarianism, there would be any room for religion or the public expression of religious views. I wonder if he understands that the enforcement of “gay rights,” will most assuredly lead to the denial of the right of conscience, as has been the case with contraception and abortion. I wonder if he truly believes that it is “extreme” to defend life against arbitrary termination. Or should we leave our fate in the hands of the very kind of irreligious leftists that have brought about the near-victory of communism and who are itching to make the world (or at least the U.S.) safe for genetic cleansing through late-term abortion, post-term abortion (i.e., infanticide), genetic engineering, and death panels (i.e., single-payer health care)?

Then there is Lindsey’s charge that

[m]odern conservatism has always had an illiberal dark side. Recall the first great populist spasms of the postwar right—McCarthyism and opposition to desegregation—and recall as well that National Review founder William F. Buckley stoutly defended both.

McCarthyism” may have been excessive in its methods, but it was aimed in the right direction: the identification of a threat to Americans and their liberty. After all, to the Lindseys’ of this world, there are no threats, just the dire imaginings of those “jingos” for whom it’s always 1938. Inconveniently, for that point of view, the information unveiled by the Venona project

show[s] that the US and other nations were targeted in major espionage campaigns by the Soviet Union as early as 1942. Among those identified are Julius and Ethel Rosenberg; Alger Hiss; Harry Dexter White,[18] the second-highest official in the Treasury Department; Lauchlin Currie,[19] a personal aide to Franklin Roosevelt; and Maurice Halperin,[20] a section head in the Office of Strategic Services.

As for segregation, it is anti-libertarian when it is a government-ordered way of conducting one’s life and business. But segregation as a fact of life is just that, and nothing more. Lindsey practices a kind of segregation when he distances himself from Republicans and rightists. And, like the rest of us, he probably practices other kinds of segregation with respect to where he lives and with whom he associates.

Desegregation, properly carried out, removes the influence of government and renders it neutral with respect to race. But desegregation is neither neutral nor libertarian when it is used as an excuse for depriving persons of liberty by denying their freedom of association, freedom to work, and property rights. Is it any wonder that conservatives opposed the way government went about desegregation?

It’s interesting that Lindsey should point to what he calls the “illiberal dark side” of modern conservatism. Perhaps there’s a bit of projection at work there; in the next paragraph he recalls with fondness the “good old days” of censorship by the media cartel:

To be visible at all in the nation’s public debate, conservatism was forced to rely on intellectual champions whose sheer brilliance and sophistication caused the liberal gatekeepers in mass media to deem them suitable for polite company. People such as Buckley, George Will, and Milton Friedman thus became the public face of conservative ideology, while the rabble-rousers and conspiracy theorists were consigned to the shadow world of mimeographs, pamphlets, and paperbacks that nobody ever reviewed.

How “liberal” of you, Mr. Lindsey! It was all right for “liberal gatekeepers” — many of them beholden to the FCC — to inundate the unwashed with their left-wing views, as long as they kept those same unwashed from hearing conservatives of whom you disapprove. Perhaps you would like the federal government to suppress right-wing talk radio and equivalent web sites. Would you then find public discourse sufficiently civilized?

I have encountered Lindsey’s type before. It is left-libertarian, which is to say not libertarian at all. A left-libertarian wants “liberty,” but only if it yields outcomes favorable to certain groups, and to hell with the liberty and property rights of others. Theirs is a dangerous flirtation with political correctness (PCness), which includes unblinking support of open borders, head-in-the-sand opposition to defense spending, “gay rights,” and premature infanticide. (In what follows, I borrow heavily from an old post.)

Some “libertarians” have become apologists for PCness. Will Wilkinson, for example, suggests that

most PC episodes mocked and derided by the right are not state impositions. They are generally episodes of the voluntary social enforcement of relatively newly established moral/cultural norms.

Wilkinson grossly simplifies the complex dynamics of PCness. His so-called “newly established … norms” are, in fact, norms that have been embraced by insular élites (e.g., academics and think-tank denizens like Wilksinson) and then foisted upon “the masses” by the élites in charge of government and government-controlled institutions (e.g., tax-funded universities). Thus it is no surprise that proposals to allow same-sex marriage fare poorly when they are submitted to voters. Similarly, the “right” to an abortion, almost four decades after Roe v. Wade, remains far from universally accepted and meets greater popular resistance with the passage of time.

Roderick Long is another “libertarian” who endorses PCness:

Another issue that inflames many libertarians against political correctness is the issue of speech codes on campuses. Yes, many speech codes are daft. But should people really enjoy exactly the same freedom of speech on university property that they would rightfully enjoy on their own property? Why, exactly?

If the answer is that the purposes of a university are best served by an atmosphere of free exchange of ideas — is there no validity to the claim that certain kinds of speech might tend, through an intimidating effect, to undermine just such an atmosphere?…

At my university [Auburn], several white fraternity members were recently disciplined for dressing up, some in Klan costumes and others in blackface, and enacting a mock lynching. Is the university guilty of violating their freedom of expression? I can’t see that it is. Certainly those students have a natural right to dress up as they please and engage in whatever playacting they like, so long as they conduct themselves peacefully. But there is no natural right to be a student at Auburn University.

Long — who describes himself as a “left-libertarian market anarchist” (whatever that is) — makes a clever but fallacious argument. The purposes of a university have nothing to do with the case. Speech is speech, except when it really isn’t speech, as in sit-ins (trespass), child pornography (sexual exploitation of minors), and divulging military secrets (treason, in fact if not in name).

Long is rightly disgusted by the actions of the fraternity members he mentions, but disgust does not excuse the suppression of speech by a State university. It is true that there is no “natural right” to be a student at Auburn, but there is, likewise, no “natural right” not to be offended.

Steven Horwitz is a kindred spirit:

Yes, legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 involved some interference with private property and the right of association, but it also did away with a great deal of state-sponsored discrimination and was, in my view, a net gain for liberty.

Well, some parts of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, together with its progeny — the Civil Rights Acts of 1968 and 1991 — did advance liberty, but many parts did not. A principled libertarian would acknowledge that, and parse the Acts into their libertarian and anti-libertarian components. A moral scold who really, really wants the state to impose his attitudes on others would presume — as Horwitz does — to weigh legitimate gains (e.g., voting rights) against unconscionable losses (e.g., property rights and freedom of association). But presumptuousness comes naturally to Horwitz because he — like Lindsey, Wilkinson, and Long — stands high above reality, in his ivory tower.

Wilkinson is sympatico with Horwitz in the matter of state action:

Government attempts to guarantee the worth of our liberties by recognizing positive rights to a minimum income or certain services like health care often (but not always) undermine the framework of market and civil institutions most likely to enhance liberty over the long run, and should be limited. But this is really an empirical question about what really does maximize individuals’ chances of formulating and realizing meaningful projects and lives.

Within this framework, racism, sexism, etc., which strongly limit the useful exercise of liberty are clear evils. Now, I am ambivalent about whether the state ought to step in and do anything about it.

Wilkinson, like Horwitz, is quite willing to submit to the state (or have others do so), where state action passes some kind of cost-benefit test. (See “Utilitarianism vs. Liberty.”)

In any event, what more could the state do than it has done already? Well, there is always “hate crime” legislation, which (as Nat Hentoff points out) is tantamount to “thought crime” legislation. Perhaps that would satisfy Long, Horwitz, Wilkinson, and their brethren on the “libertarian” left. And, if that doesn’t do the trick, there is always Richard Thaler’s “libertarian” paternalism (with its statist slant), and Cass Sunstein’s proposal for policing thought on the internet. Sunstein, at least, doesn’t pretend to be a libertarian.

Pseudo-libertarianism — as it is found in the writings of Brink Lindsey, Will Wilkinson, Roderick Long, and Steven Horwitz (among others) — is no better than any other kind of rationalism. It simply posits a sterile, abstract standard of conduct — one that has nothing to do with the workaday world of humanity — and finds wanting everyone but those who pay lip-service to that standard of conduct.

That is not libertarianism. It is sophomoric dream-spinning.

Where is libertarianism to be found? In conservatism, of all places, because it is a reality-based political philosophy.

But what does conservatism have to do with libertarianism? I have in various posts essayed an answer to that question (here, here, here, and here, for example), but now I turn the floor over to John Kekes, who toward the end of “What Is Conservatism?” says this:

The traditionalism of conservatives excludes both the view that political arrangements that foster individual autonomy should take precedence over those that foster social authority and the reverse view that favours arrangements that promote social authority at the expense of individual autonomy. Traditionalists acknowledge the importance of both autonomy and authority, but they regard them as inseparable, interdependent, and equally necessary. The legitimate claims of both may be satisfied by the participation of individuals in the various traditions of their society. Good political arrangements protect these traditions and the freedom to participate in them by limiting the government’s authority to interfere with either.

Therein lies true libertarianism — true because it is attainable. Left-libertarians believe, foolishly, that liberty is to be found in the rejection of social norms. Liberty would be the first victim of the brave new disorder that they wish for.

It is fitting and proper to close this post with my version of Russel Kirk’s six “canons” of conservatism (summarized here):

  1. Belief that political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems.
  2. Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and egalitarian and utilitarian aims of most radical systems.
  3. Conviction that civilized society requires order.
  4. Persuasion that property and freedom are inseparably connected, and that economic leveling is not economic progress.
  5. Faith in traditional mores and distrust of “sophisters and calculators.” Tradition and sound prejudice provide checks upon man’s anarchic impulse.
  6. Recognition that change and reform are not identical.