Cato, the Kochs, and a Fluke

If you follow the libertarian sector of the blogosphere, as I do, you will have noted the recent dominance of two controversies: the future of Cato Institute and the subsidization of contraceptives. In the matter of Cato, it seems that the Koch brothers want to take control of Cato for the purpose of making it more “relevant” to current political issues, much to the universal dismay of the libertarians commentators whose opinions I have read. In the matter of contraceptives, it seems that the testimony of Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown University law student, has fostered libertarian-conservative agreement in opposition to Ms. Fluke’s whining plea for mandated insurance coverage of contraception (e.g., here and here).

I will not bother to recite the history of the controversies, nor will I try to summarize what various writers have said about them. If you are unfamiliar with either or both of them, start here and here, then follow the links therein. My modest aim is to show how the controversies reveal a link between left-libertarianism and the subsidization of contraceptives.

I therefore turn to Will Wilkinson, a former denizen of Cato who has described himself as a “liberaltarian.” What is a “liberaltarian”? I refer to myself:

In “More Pseudo-Libertarianism,” I say that I must come up with a new name for left-libertarians, inasmuch as they are not really libertarians. Some of them have tried “liberaltarian,” an amalgam of (modern) “liberal” and “libertarian.” To be a “liberaltarian” (with a straight face), one must believe that leftists are willing to abandon their pursuit of all-encompassing government and join left-libertarians in their pursuit of absolute fairness (by whose standards?) in economic and social outcomes. Leftists seek the latter objective, but will never be persuaded to drop the former one.

All of which suggests that  a left-libertarian is really a (witting or unwitting) collaborationist: an intellectual Vichyite or, in the parlance of the 1950s, a fellow traveler or comsymp (communist sympathizer).

Comsymp has a certain ring. Perhaps “libsymp” is what I’m looking for. I’ll give it a try.

Anyhow, the libsymp named Will Wilkinson seems to have a (libsymp-related) grievance against Cato, which is evident in his commentary about the Cato-Koch affair; for example:

Suppose Cato, without changing anything at all about its ideological orientation, were to focus more energy on some issues currently of interest to both groups like AFP [Americans for Prosperity] and groups like, say, the ACLU or Amnesty International? I think there’s a plausible argument that this would lead Cato to deliver greater libertarian bang for its donors’ bucks, while possibly even improving its non-partisan reputation.

Now, I’m not sure I buy this argument. I tend to think that a greater focus on practical political relevance would tend to exert a subtle pressure on Cato’s analysts to take it relatively easy on perceived allies when they do and say things harmful to liberty. Indeed, this pressure already exists, and it wouldn’t be a good idea to increase it, since it’s already biased toward the right. The legacy of right-fusionism has been to desensitize many libertarians to the inherently liberty-limiting aspects of social conservativism, and to reduce many self-described libertarians to acting primarily as cheerleaders for the economic agenda of “free-market” reactionaries….

For folks outside the Beltway, for whom the Cato staff are complete strangers, Cato looks like part of the right, if an odd one. There’s a reason David Boaz [Cato’s executive VP] is always complaining about newspapers identifying Cato as a “conservative” think tank, and it’s not just that David Boaz likes to complain. Just ask yourself how Cato’s work could have been more congenial to the GOP during George W. Bush’s failed attempt to reform Social Security, or during the failed attempt to block Obamacare? Cato obviously already is in the politically-relevant intellectual ammo business. And in actual large-stakes political fights in Washington, Cato is generally on the Republican side. It would not be strange to spot a Catoite at Grover Norquist’s infamous Wednesday morning meetings. Because Cato functions as part of the right.

It’s tempting to think that Cato almost never does anything to help the Democrats largely because it’s just too far to the left of the Democratic Party on foreign policy and civil liberties. Yet Cato is equally far to the “right” of the Republican Party on economic policy, welfare policy, education policy, and lots more. Social Security privatization is a forced savings program. School vouchers and/or education tax credits are taxpayer-funded education. Lower income-tax rates concede the income tax. Again and again Cato finds a way to settle on non-ideal, “second-best” economic, welfare, and education policies, and argue for them in away that provides “ammo” to the right. But it very rarely develops compromising second-best policies on foreign policy or civil liberties that would be of any practical use to dovish or civil-libertarian Democrats. Why not? Why was coming out in favor of gay marriage more controversial at Cato (the state shouldn’t be involved in marriage at all!) than coming out in favor of school vouchers (the state shouldn’t be involved in education at all!)? Why not a bigger institutional push for medical marijuana as a second-best, nose-under-the-tent alternative to outright legalization? The fact is that Cato has so deeply internalized the ethos of the venerable right-fusionist alliance that there is almost no hope of it functioning on the whole in a truly non-partisan way. I think its status-quo reputation reflects that.

I reproduced that much of Wilkinson’s post just to give you an idea of the depth of his animus toward the Cato of Ed Crane‘s making. A particular aspect of Wilkinson’s “indictment” bears on the thesis of this post. It does not take much reading between the lines to detect Wilkinson’s embrace of “positive liberty,” which is the antithesis of liberty. He spells it out more explicitly here:

[F]reedom has a number of meanings, and one of them is “ability to do stuff.”… Persons, natural or legal, are either coerced or they aren’t. Mugged people with fat wallets aren’t coerced or wrongly interfered with more than mugged people with thin wallets. They just lose more money. That conservatives and libertarians always ultimately do treat tax increases as losses of freedom suggests to me that they’re really proponents of positive liberty after all, but haven’t thought the implications through. In that case, they’re right to see growth as a matter of freedom. But then they’re also are quite wrong to think that a well-functioning welfare state isn’t a matter of freedom.

There you have it. Wilkinson — like other left-libertarians — hews to a key tenet of modern “liberalism,” which is that people are not really free unless they have a certain measure of economic wherewithal. The taking of income by taxation, in Wilkinson’s view, is morally equivalent to a lack of income.

This left-libertarian (and “liberal”) view of the world depends on the slippery use of the term “coercion.” The taking of something from a person by force or the threat of force is coercion. Taxation is coercion, and resistance to taxation is not a plea for “positive liberty.” On the other hand, there is no coercion when a person is “forced” to accept a standard of living that is arbitrarily deemed sub-standard simply because that person does not earn enough “to do stuff,” according to the arbiter’s standards of what “stuff” a person needs “to do.”

There is, in sum, no moral distance between the left-libertarian and “liberal” worldviews, both of which favor “positive liberty.” What kind of and how much “positive liberty” should be doled out are merely matters of taste. The likeness of left-libertarianism and “liberalism” reminds me of this famous anecdote:

A man asks a woman if she would be willing to sleep with him if he pays her an exorbitant sum. She replies affirmatively. He then names a paltry amount and asks if she would still be willing to sleep with him for the revised fee. The woman is greatly offended and replies as follows:

She: What kind of woman do you think I am?

He: We’ve already established that. Now we’re just haggling over the price.

Which brings me, at last, to Sandra Fluke, who has established what kind of person she is, and is just haggling over the price.

Related posts:
The Causes of Economic Growth
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
A Short Course in Economics
Fascism with a “Friendly” Face
Democracy and Liberty
The Interest-Group Paradox
Addendum to a Short Course in Economics
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Fascism and the Future of America
The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
The Constitution: Original Meaning, Corruption, and Restoration
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
The Devolution of American Politics from Wisdom to Opportunism
The Near-Victory of Communism
Tocqueville’s Prescience
Accountants of the Soul
Invoking Hitler
Rawls Meets Bentham
The Left
Enough of “Social Welfare”
A True Flat Tax
The Case of the Purblind Economist
Youthful Wisdom
The Divine Right of the Majority
Our Enemy, the State
Social Justice
Taxing the Rich
More about Taxing the Rich
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
More Social Justice
Luck-Egalitarianism and Moral Luck
Nature Is Unfair
Elizabeth Warren Is All Wet
“Occupy Wall Street” and Religion
Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice
More about Merit Goods
What Is Bleeding-Heart Libertarianism?
The Morality of Occupying Private Property
In Defense of the 1%

What Is Libertarianism?

Many definitions of libertarianism are available online. I like this one for its depth:

Although there is much disagreement about the details, libertarians are generally united by a rough agreement on a cluster of normative principles, empirical generalizations, and policy recommendations. Libertarians are committed to the belief that individuals, and not states or groups of any other kind, are both ontologically and normatively primary; that individuals have rights against certain kinds of forcible interference on the part of others; that liberty, understood as non-interference, is the only thing that can be legitimately demanded of others as a matter of legal or political right; that robust property rights and the economic liberty that follows from their consistent recognition are of central importance in respecting individual liberty; that social order is not at odds with but develops out of individual liberty; that the only proper use of coercion is defensive or to rectify an error; that governments are bound by essentially the same moral principles as individuals; and that most existing and historical governments have acted improperly insofar as they have utilized coercion for plunder, aggression, redistribution, and other purposes beyond the protection of individual liberty. (“Libertarianism,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Two aspects of this definition merit closer examination. The first is “that individuals have rights against certain kinds of forcible interference on the part of others.” Whence these rights, and how extensive are they? I say here that

[r]ights, as products of social evolution, are strictures on interpersonal behavior, not “essences” that emanate from individuals. Rights, therefore, are culturally variable in their precise contours, but certain constants of human nature (empathy, self-interest) lead most cultures in the direction of a modus vivendi like the Golden Rule.


There’s a mainstream interpretation of the Golden Rule — one that still holds in many places — which rules out certain kinds of behavior, except in extreme situations, and permits certain other kinds of behavior. There is, in other words, a “core” Golden Rule that comes down to this:

  • Murder is wrong, except in self-defense. (Capital punishment is just that: punishment. It’s also a deterrent to murder. It isn’t “murder,” muddle-headed defenders of baby-murder to the contrary notwithstanding.)
  • Various kinds of unauthorized “taking” are wrong, including theft (outright and through deception). (This explains popular resistance to government “taking,” especially when it’s done on behalf of private parties. The view that it’s all right to borrow money from a bank and not repay it arises from the mistaken beliefs that (a) it’s not tantamount to theft and (b) it harms no one because banks can “afford it.”)
  • Libel and slander are wrong because they are “takings” by word instead of deed.
  • It is wrong to turn spouse against spouse, child against parent, or friend against friend. (And yet, such things are commonly portrayed in books, films, and plays as if they are normal occurrences, often desirable ones. And it seems to me that reality increasingly mimics “art.”)
  • It is right to be pleasant and kind to others, even under provocation, because “a mild answer breaks wrath: but a harsh word stirs up fury” (Proverbs 15:1).
  • Charity is a virtue, but it should begin at home, where the need is most certain and the good deed is most likely to have its intended effect.

Adherence to the Golden Rule is vestigial because in the past century — since the advent of the regulatory-welfare state and the seizure of state power by social “activists” — eons of socially evolved behavioral norms have been distorted and swept aside. Thus the phenomena of broad support for abortion and growing support for same-sex “marriage” — both of which are due to the anti-social combination of “activism” and sponsorship by an anti-religious state.

This leads me to the second aspect of the definition of libertarianism that merits closer attention: “social order is not at odds with but develops out of individual liberty.” The ranks of self-styled libertarians abound with social engineers who would, if they could, override the social order with their own visions of how that order should look. These pseudo-libertarians do not hesitate to prescribe a social order aligned with their effete sensibilities.

To the many examples of pseudo-libertarianism that I have adduced in previous posts (e.g., here and here), I will add two. First comes Charles Johnson, one of the Bleeding Heart Libertarians, points with pride to his article, “The Many Monopolies” (Freeman, September 2011). Regulations, according to Johnson,

fundamentally restructure markets, inventing the class structures of ownership, ratcheted costs, and inhibited competition that produce wage labor, rent, and the corporate economy we face….

A fully freed market means liberating essential command posts in the economy from State control, to be reclaimed for market and social entrepreneurship. The market that would emerge would look profoundly different from anything we have now.

What it would look like — in Johnson’s dreams — is a kind  of leftist Utopia: “Independent contracting, co-ops, and worker-managed shops.” This, of course, is pure guesswork — and wishful thinking — about the effects of abolishing all regulations, whether they superficially favor labor, business, or consumers. (I have more to say about such guesswork in this post.)

The subtitle of Johnson’s analysis should be “Small is beautiful.” It reads like a nostalgic lament for pre-industrial America, as if large corporations are evil per se.

Then there is the reliably leftist libertarian, Will Wilkinson, who says that

there are other legitimate public goods beyond the police protection of property rights. The need to finance the provision of these goods can justifiably limit our property rights, just as a system of property can justifiably limit our right to free movement. The use of official coercion to collect necessary taxes is no more or less problematic than the use of official coercion to enforce claims to legitimate property. Of course, those who suffer most from the absence of adequate public goods are the poor and powerless. (“A Libertarian’s Lament: Why Ron Paul Is an Embarrassment to the Creed,” The New Republic, September 2, 2011)

What are those other “public goods” to which Wilkinson refers? One of them is public schooling. It may seem strange for a so-called libertarian to endorse public schooling, but — in Wilkinson’s view — the cause is just if it benefits “poor kids.” Well, then, why not tax “the rich” to put everyone in the lower half of the income distribution on the dole? Where does one draw the line? Where Wilkinson says to draw the line, I suppose. After all, one mustn’t allow social outcomes that displease Mr. Wilkinson.

The point of these examples is that they illustrate a decided antagonism to a “social order [that] develops out of individual liberty.” They are consistent with “positive liberty,” which — as I have written — is not liberty at all.

Libertarianism — true libertarianism — does not presume to prescribe the outcome of social activity, only its conditions: peaceful and voluntary. It is inevitable and unavoidable that peaceful, voluntary social activity will yield outcomes that are unequal — in terms of income, wealth, and social status — and even distasteful — in terms of inter-group antipathies and discriminatory behavior.  But unequal and distasteful outcomes are rooted in the reality of human nature, which Michael Schermer summarizes quite well in his essay, “Liberty and Science,” at Cato Unbound:

  1. The clear and quantitative physical differences among people in size, strength, speed, agility, coordination, and other physical attributes that translates into some being more successful than others, and that at least half of these differences are inherited.
  2. The clear and quantitative intellectual differences among people in memory, problem solving ability, cognitive speed, mathematical talent, spatial reasoning, verbal skills, emotional intelligence, and other mental attributes that translates into some being more successful than others, and that at least half of these differences are inherited.
  3. The evidence from behavior genetics and twin studies indicating that 40 to 50 percent of the variance among people in temperament, personality, and many political, economic, and social preferences are accounted for by genetics.
  4. The failed communist and socialist experiments around the world throughout the 20th century revealed that top-down draconian controls over economic and political systems do not work.
  5. The failed communes and utopian community experiments tried at various places throughout the world over the past 150 years demonstrated that people by nature do not adhere to the Marxian principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
  6. The power of family ties and the depth of connectedness between blood relatives. Communities have tried and failed to break up the family and have children raised by others; these attempts provide counter evidence to the claim that “it takes a village” to raise a child. As well, the continued practice of nepotism further reinforces the practice that “blood is thicker than water.”
  7. The principle of reciprocal altruism—I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine”—is universal; people do not by nature give generously unless they receive something in return, even if what they receive is social status.
  8. The principle of moralistic punishment—I’ll punish you if you do not scratch my back after I have scratched yours—is universal; people do not long tolerate free riders who continually take but almost never give.
  9. The almost universal nature of hierarchical social structures—egalitarianism only works (barely) among tiny bands of hunter-gatherers in resource-poor environments where there is next to no private property, and when a precious game animal is hunted extensive rituals and religious ceremonies are required to insure equal sharing of the food.
  10. The almost universal nature of aggression, violence, and dominance, particularly on the part of young males seeking resources, women, and especially status, and how status-seeking in particular explains so many heretofore unexplained phenomena, such as high risk taking, costly gifts, excessive generosity beyond one’s means, and especially attention seeking.
  11. The almost universal nature of within-group amity and between-group enmity, wherein the rule-of-thumb heuristic is to trust in-group members until they prove otherwise to be distrustful, and to distrust out-group members until they prove otherwise to be trustful.
  12. The almost universal desire of people to trade with one another, not for the selfless benefit of others or the society, but for the selfish benefit of one’s own kin and kind; it is an unintended consequence that trade establishes trust between strangers and lowers between-group enmity, as well as produces greater wealth for both trading partners and groups.

Efforts to channel human nature in contrary directions — whether those efforts are “liberal” or “libertarian” —  can lead only in one direction: the stifling of liberty:

The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought indeed to teach the student of society a lesson of humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men’s fatal striving to control society – a striving which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, but which may well make him the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals. (Friedrich A. Hayek, “The Pretence of Knowledge,” Nobel Prize lecture, December 11, 1974)

Related posts:
Beware of Libertarian Paternalists
Columnist, Heal Thyself
The Mind of a Paternalist
Accountants of the Soul
Rawls Meets Bentham
Enough of “Social Welfare”
Our Enemy, the State
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
In Defense of Marriage
Understanding Hayek
We, the Children of the Enlightenment
Why I Am Not an Extreme Libertarian
Facets of Liberty
Burkean Libertarianism
Crimes against Humanity
Rights: Source, Applicability, How Held
The Ideal as a False and Dangerous Standard
The Arrogance of (Some) Economists

A New Political Label

In “More Pseudo-Libertarianism,” I say that I must come up with a new name for left-libertarians, inasmuch as they are not really libertarians. Some of them have tried “liberaltarian,” an amalgam of (modern) “liberal” and “libertarian.” To be a “liberaltarian” (with a straight face), one must believe that leftists are willing to abandon their pursuit of all-encompassing government and join left-libertarians in their pursuit of absolute fairness (by whose standards?) in economic and social outcomes. Leftists seek the latter objective, but will never be persuaded to drop the former one.

All of which suggests that  a left-libertarian is really a (witting or unwitting) collaborationist: an intellectual Vichyite or, in the parlance of the 1950s, a fellow traveler or comsymp (communist sympathizer).

Comsymp has a certain ring. Perhaps “libsymp” is what I’m looking for. I’ll give it a try.

More Pseudo-Libertarianism

I am often gobsmacked by left-libertarian obtuseness, several examples of which I proffer in “Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism.” As I say in that post,

[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.

I have, in the past few days, encountered some left-libertarian “reasoning” that compels comment. I begin with an old “favorite,” Bryan Caplan, whose post “The Libertarian Penumbra” at EconLog offers these bits of “wisdom”:

[L]ibertarians have many beliefs in common that have little to do with the consequences of liberty.  They’re just part of our vibrant, iconoclastic intellectual subculture.  A few examples:

  • Most libertarians accept the validity of IQ testing.  A perfectly good libertarian could reject IQ tests as “culturally biased,” but few do.
  • Libertarians have favorable views of home schooling – even though conventional private schooling is equally consistent with libertarian principles.
  • Libertarianism implies opposition to government population control, but it doesn’t imply another view common among libertarians: that population growth has major economic benefits because people are “the ultimate resource.”  Notice: A statist who took this idea seriously could easily argue for government intervention to raise the birth rate.

Why should one reject IQ tests as “culturally biased,” and under what conditions? I have no doubt that there is some degree of cultural bias in IQ tests, but so what? As an employer, I may want employees who are not only capable of carrying out certain kinds of mental tasks but who also are attuned to the culture in which I operate my business. If that rules out, say, inner-city blacks who prefer rap to Bach, who wear outré clothing, and who speak a language other than standard English, so be it. Thanks to the kind of PCness that has been foisted upon American business by leftists (libertarian and otherwise), it is difficult for private employers to be selective about whom they hire, and therefore to serve consumers and shareholders as well as they should. There is no hope at all for governments and universities, where the rule of PCness gobbles up tax dollars and inures to the benefit of third-rate minds.

Caplan’s second item — about home-schooling — puzzles me. Is one supposed to have a less-than-favorable view of home-schooling just because “conventional private schooling is equally consistent with libertarian principles”? Perhaps he is unable to fathom the (libertarian) tenet of subjective value. Some persons prefer home-schooling for their own, perfectly legitimate, reasons (e.g., greater control over the content of what their children are taught). If Caplan has a point, it is on the top of his head.

Caplan’s third point — about population control and growth — is a marvelous non sequitur. Libertarians oppose government population control because it is anti-libertarian. The fact that population growth has economic benefits should be of no consequence to a libertarian qua libertarian.

Another “libertarian” economist, Scott Sumner, weighs in with a comment about Caplan’s post. Sumner offers a list of “libertarian tendencies that make [him] cringe.” One of them is “global warming denial.” First, I object to his use of “denial”; “skepticism” is the operative word. A reasonable basis of skepticism — aside from the fact that there is no “settled science” about global warming — is that the proponents of anthropogenic global warming would use it as an excuse to reshape economic activity along lines that they prefer. That is to say, the proponents of AGW have a strong, unconcealed dictatorial agenda. Any libertarian worthy of the name should “cringe” at that, not at skepticism about AGW.

Sumner also “cringes” at “distrust of democracy.” Does he not understand the history of American politics in the twentieth century? It can be summarized, quite accurately, as follows: promise, elect, spend, tax, regulate, promise, elect, spend, tax, regulate, etc., etc., etc.

The rest of Sumner’s list is even worse, so…

I turn to Will Wilkinson’s defense of unions in “Libertarian unionism” at The Economist‘s Democracy in America column. I will not bother to recite and refute all of Wilkinson’s claims with respect to unions, when it will suffice to strike at the heart of his argument:

The right of workers to band together to improve their bargaining position relative to employers is a straightforward implication of freedom of association, and the sort of voluntary association that results is the beating heart of the classical liberal vision of civil society. I unreservedly endorse what I’ll call the “unionism of free association”.

Freedom of association is all well and good, but a union is not a social club. It is an organization formed for the purpose of collective bargaining, backed by the threat and use of the labor strike. Accordingly, Wilkinson’s glib defense of unionism omits several of its anti-libertarian features:

  • Workers who prefer to bargain for themselves are not allowed to do so; that is, they are deprived of their economic liberty. (If you believe that a union would refrain from intimidating “scabs,” you must believe in the tooth fairy.)
  • The ability of an employer to hire whom he sees fit to hire is therefore compromised; that is, he is deprived of his economic liberty.
  • By the same token, the employer is deprived of the right to use his property as he sees fit, in the lawful pursuit of profit.

These objections hold even where the employer is a corporation. Corporate status is not a “gift” of the state, Wilkinson’s implication to the contrary notwithstanding. The essential features of incorporation — the pooling of assets and limited liability — are available through private, contractual arrangements involving insurance pools. The belief that corporations owe their existence to the beneficence of the state is due to the use of the corporation to advance state interests in the era of mercantilism.

I can only shake my head in amazement at the delusions of left-libertarians. I must come up with a new name for them, inasmuch as they are not libertarians.

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.