Grant Me Freedom and Small Government — But Not Yet

 

libertinesda mihi castitatem et continentam, sed noli modo — St Augustine

Ricochet contributor Rachel Lu wrote an article in the FEDERALIST yesterday, taking the left-anarchist wing of the libertarian movement to task for wanting to dissolve the bonds of family and community. At least I think that is who she is attacking — it is never quite clear who actually holds the views she disagrees with (although she almost implies it is Ben Domenech). Nevertheless, the core of her argument is that, yes, freedom is great and all, and small government is a fine idea in theory, but until a strong conventional morality is re-established in society they are just too dangerous.

Small government will not succeed unless people have a strong ability to govern their own affairs. That requires a culture that provides people with clear norms and expectations, and replaces the hard and impersonal boundaries of law with the softer forces of social approval and sanction. What we need, in short, are traditional morals.

I don’t think Lu ever explicitly says that the state — and, by the logic of her argument, it must be the not-small state — should be the vehicle for fixing the culture, but it is implied by everything she says.

[N]eutrality [ed. which I take to mean ‘state neutrality’] [in the culture war] won’t work either, at least if we’re thinking about the broader conservative outlook. All conservatives agree that government should be smaller than it is. But the culture also needs to recover its moral bearings if freedom is to have a chance.

This view seems rooted in a conception of big government as a mechanism detached from the culture war, so that all it takes is the right set of policies to animate the vast bureaucratic apparatus and the decline of civil society will be reversed. Thus Lu takes the small-government reasoning (which she rejects) to be:

The main reason culture wars have reached such a fever pitch is because the state is too big. If we can limit the size of the state, then people can simply live as they like without settling hotly contested moral questions.

But there are those who would argue quite differently. The reason we have a society of atomized individuals is precisely because big government inevitably accrues power at the expense of family and community. Big government is a player in the culture wars, has its own side, and — by its own ineluctable logic — dissolves the conventional morality Lu would like to see restored.

In short, small government is not a way of surrendering in, or stepping away from, the culture wars, but the indispensible first step in winning them.

Add into the balance the undeniable fact that, in the big government we already, the apparatchiki are all on the other side.  One can but conclude that this attempt to smuggle big government ‘conservatism’ back on to the agenda under the ‘libertarian moment’ flag will do much for the government part of the equation, and, like all the attempts before it, nothing for conservatism.

Image Credit: Flickr user penguincakes.

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  1. Tuck Inactive
    Tuck
    @Tuck

    genferei: I don’t think Lu ever explicitly says that the state — and, by the logic of her argument, it must be the not-small state — should be the vehicle for fixing the culture, but it is implied by everything she says.

     Do you think she’s even aware that what she’s describing is Marxism?  Government will fade away after totalitarianism fixes everything?

    Probably not.  Yet another clueless Progressive Republican…

    • #1
  2. user_352043 Moderator
    user_352043
    @AmySchley

    Tuck:

    genferei: I don’t think Lu ever explicitly says that the state — and, by the logic of her argument, it must be the not-small state — should be the vehicle for fixing the culture, but it is implied by everything she says.

    Do you think she’s even aware that what she’s describing is Marxism? Government will fade away after totalitarianism fixes everything?

    Probably not. Yet another clueless Progressive Republican…

     Rachel is many things, but she is not a Progressive.

    [And if you’ve followed any of our dust-ups, you’ll recognize that I’m not in the habit of giving her gratuitous praise.]

    • #2
  3. The King Prawn Inactive
    The King Prawn
    @TheKingPrawn

    You read it completely differently than I did. My takeaway was that humanity/society will be governed by something whether we like it or not and that non-government is not something.

    • #3
  4. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    Tuck: Do you think she’s even aware that what she’s describing is Marxism? Government will fade away after totalitarianism fixes everything?

    I think this is pretty much the opposite of what she is saying. 

    • #4
  5. user_385039 Inactive
    user_385039
    @donaldtodd

    And here I thought Rachel was trying to enlist the younger people in a consideration of the value of virtue as the means to solve many problems, including overly-large government.

    • #5
  6. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    The King Prawn:

    You read it completely differently than I did. My takeaway was that humanity/society will be governed by something whether we like it or not and that non-government is not something.

    Could well be, whatever that means. I find that divining what Rachel is actually, concretely, in  favour of is more difficult that seeing what she is, rhetorically, firmly against. 

    • #6
  7. user_517406 Inactive
    user_517406
    @MerinaSmith

    Just not seeing it, G.  The logic of her argument does not at all imply big government.  She is saying that the only way to have small government is when citizens have virtue that allows them to govern themselves. This means that they have personal responsibility, concern for others and all of the things that allow society to function without big brother stepping in.  She is enlisting young people to virtue as a means of keeping the state at bay.  

    Actually, she and I had a long conversation on Sunday about some of these issues, which led to a post I put up the other day, arguing that law should be used in nuanced ways to help encourage virtue while allowing freedom.  Here’s the link.

    http://ricochet.com/to-legalize-or-not-to-legalize-that-is-the-question/#comment-2628228

    • #7
  8. user_517406 Inactive
    user_517406
    @MerinaSmith

    genferei:

    The King Prawn:

    You read it completely differently than I did. My takeaway was that humanity/society will be governed by something whether we like it or not and that non-government is not something.

    Could well be, whatever that means. I find that divining what Rachel is actually, concretely, in favour of is more difficult that seeing what she is, rhetorically, firmly against.

     Also not seeing this as you do.  She’s a very clear writer and thinker.  She does take on difficult and complex topics however, and approaches them in nuanced ways.

    • #8
  9. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    Clearly I’m missing something here.

    Are we supposed to vote for the small-government candidates now, or do we have to wait until the culture is fixed?

    • #9
  10. Tuck Inactive
    Tuck
    @Tuck

    genferei:

    Tuck: Do you think she’s even aware that what she’s describing is Marxism? Government will fade away after totalitarianism fixes everything?

    I think this is pretty much the opposite of what she is saying.

     I wasn’t quoting her, I was quoting your summary of what she said.  I presume you accurately described her implicit argument?

    • #10
  11. user_517406 Inactive
    user_517406
    @MerinaSmith

    Tuck:

    genferei:

    Tuck: Do you think she’s even aware that what she’s describing is Marxism? Government will fade away after totalitarianism fixes everything?

    I think this is pretty much the opposite of what she is saying.

    I wasn’t quoting her, I was quoting your summary of what she said. I presume you accurately described her implicit argument?

     That would not be a good assumption.

    genferei:

    Clearly I’m missing something here.

    Are we supposed to vote for the small-government candidates now, or do we have to wait until the culture is fixed?

     Yes–you are missing something.  And it is actually possible for candidates to support small government and values like self reliance and responsibility.  In fact, they usually go together.  

    • #11
  12. The King Prawn Inactive
    The King Prawn
    @TheKingPrawn

    We’re caught between a rock and a hard place. With small government immediately in place over an amoral/immoral society we’re likely to see the kind of Hobbesian war of all against all that requires either Leviathan or morality to check it. Which is why some incrimentalism might be of some value, though I would hope to never raise incrimentalism to the ideological level held by the left’s statism or the right’s classical liberalism. It’s means, not ends.

    • #12
  13. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    Merina Smith:

    Are we supposed to vote for the small-government candidates now, or do we have to wait until the culture is fixed?

    Yes–you are missing something. And it is actually possible for candidates to support small government and values like self reliance and responsibility. In fact, they usually go together.

    I completely agree. And yet RL seems to be arguing that it would be dangerous to actually achieve small government until we have “persuade[d] the young to embrace some version of conventional morals”. My argument is (a) it will be easier to achieve this persuasion in the absence of big government; and (b) it would be fruitless (and, I’ll add, wrong) to try to use big government to do the persuading.

    • #13
  14. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    Tuck: I wasn’t quoting her, I was quoting your summary of what she said. I presume you accurately described her implicit argument?

    By popular consensus I am incapable of grasping the subtle nuances of her argument so I urge you to read her original article. However, nowhere does she (or I) say the state with whither away.

    • #14
  15. Tuck Inactive
    Tuck
    @Tuck

    Merina Smith: That would not be a good assumption.

     Yes, apparently not.  I just read her whole piece.  I don’t think state-enforced morality is implicit in what she says at all.  She’s not saying anything fundamentally different from this

    “Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be, that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.”

    Some degree of virtue is required for Republican gov’t to function, as the Founders observed.

    • #15
  16. Tuck Inactive
    Tuck
    @Tuck

    genferei: By popular consensus I am incapable of grasping the subtle nuances of her argument so I urge you to read her original article.

     LOL.  Thanks.  See my comment above.

    • #16
  17. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    The King Prawn:

    We’re caught between a rock and a hard place. With small government immediately in place over an amoral/immoral society we’re likely to see the kind of Hobbesian war of all against all that requires either Leviathan or morality to check it. Which is why some incrimentalism might be of some value, though I would hope to never raise incrimentalism to the ideological level held by the left’s statism or the right’s classical liberalism. It’s means, not ends.

    This is exactly the siren call I want to warn against: we can shrink the state, but not quite yet; government can be used to do good things — compassionate, conservative things; treating people as objects to be manipulated by government policy is OK if it’s for their own good. And for a good 70+ years this thinking has only moved things in one direction.

    Here’s a (genuine) question: has the culture / society / morality / virtue benefited from the growing alliance between churches and government in the delivery of charity?

    • #17
  18. Mendel Inactive
    Mendel
    @Mendel

    So, I just read the article, and I don’t see anything in it advocating larger government. 

    Frankly, I thought the article makes a point we hear on Ricochet all the time: society needs some system of self-restraint in order to thrive, so if it’s not going to the be the government, then civil society needs to fill the void through active (yet non-coercive) promotion of virtue using tools such as churches, traditional morality, etc.

    I don’t agree 100% with the argument, but I didn’t sense some type of hidden Rick Santorum agenda in the article.

    • #18
  19. user_517406 Inactive
    user_517406
    @MerinaSmith

    genferei:

    Merina Smith:

    Are we supposed to vote for the small-government candidates now, or do we have to wait until the culture is fixed?

    Yes–you are missing something. And it is actually possible for candidates to support small government and values like self reliance and responsibility. In fact, they usually go together.

    I completely agree. And yet RL seems to be arguing that it would be dangerous to actually achieve small government until we have “persuade[d] the young to embrace some version of conventional morals”. My argument is (a) it will be easier to achieve this persuasion in the absence of big government; and (b) it would be fruitless (and, I’ll add, wrong) to try to use big government to do the persuading.

     No, I think it’s the opposite of what you say.  Notice how she started the piece by saying that the idea of a “truce” on social issues is silly?  She is saying that we must couple small government with virtue or our society cannot survive.  Libertarians who think that freedom per se can thrive without virtue to regulate it are dangerously wrong.  

    • #19
  20. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    Tuck: I don’t think state-enforced morality is implicit in what she says at all. She’s not saying anything fundamentally different from this

    “Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be, that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.”

    Some degree of virtue is required for Republican gov’t to function, as the Founders observed.

    But she is drawing the inference that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government. So are you agreeing that she is for maintaining the chains of despotism to restrain them from destroying and devouring one another?

    • #20
  21. user_517406 Inactive
    user_517406
    @MerinaSmith

    In other words, big government is not necessary when citizens have the self-restraint and virtue to govern themselves.

    In general I don’t like the idea of government aligning with churches and the like in charitable causes.  My own church avoids this.  But it might work in some cases.  Unfortunately now government is far more likely to align with lefty causes like planned parenthood and their abortion regime.

    • #21
  22. Mendel Inactive
    Mendel
    @Mendel

    genferei:

     

    I completely agree. And yet RL seems to be arguing that it would be dangerous to actually achieve small government until we have “persuade[d] the young to embrace some version of conventional morals”. My argument is (a) it will be easier to achieve this persuasion in the absence of big government; and (b) it would be fruitless (and, I’ll add, wrong) to try to use big government to do the persuading.

    Rachel is indeed implying that we can’t shrink the government just yet – but not because government necessarily does great good, but rather because the required foundation of traditional morality has not yet been restored among the people.

    It’s more a question of how and when do we wean the country off of its opiate addiction – too soon and it may collapse from withdrawal symptoms, too slowly and it’ll never kick the habit.

    • #22
  23. user_86050 Inactive
    user_86050
    @KCMulville

    genferei

    I don’t think Lu ever explicitly says that the state — and, by the logic of her argument, it must be the not-small state — should be the vehicle for fixing the culture, but it is implied by everything she says.

    With respect, I didn’t see this at all. I don’t think it’s implied.

    In an ideal society, people go about their lives, dealing with each other with due respect and integrity and honesty … the basics of conventional morality … and government is reserved for coordination problems, dealing with public goods, etc.  The vibrancy of society depends on maximizing both; keeping society moral and keeping government limited.

    The (1) decline of traditional morality and the (2) increase of government interference in daily life are indeed related, but they’re not the same thing. As I read it, Rachel was arguing that we need to address both at the same time. As I read it, her specific criticism is that “libertarian libertinism” may address the government part but miss the importance of social morality … but that doesn’t imply that government must be turned into the main vehicle for correcting course on morality. We need both, in parallel.

    • #23
  24. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    Merina Smith: She is saying that we must couple small government with virtue or our society cannot survive. Libertarians who think that freedom per se can thrive without virtue to regulate it are dangerously wrong.

    I agree with this, but, because I agree with it, I think these libertarian arguments are self-defeating. In the absence of big government the voices of the churches and the call of natural law will be all the louder, the libertines will have no-one but themselves to blame for their unhappiness, and virtue will be restored to the Republic.

    Problem solved, no?

    • #24
  25. Mendel Inactive
    Mendel
    @Mendel

    Merina Smith:

    Also not seeing this as you do. She’s a very clear writer and thinker. She does take on difficult and complex topics however, and approaches them in nuanced ways.

     With all due respect to your daughter, I also found that the article lacked focus.

    The article is written very academically (not necessarily surprising given Rachel’s profession): it takes 2,000 words to describe a concept which is often expressed equally thoroughly on Ricochet in a single 200-word comment. Yet the other 1,800 words do not add to her argument as much as they dot rhetorical i’s and cross t’s. It’s probably easy for someone already aligned with her thinking to follow, but it was more difficult for me.

    I don’t mean to come across as harsh; I have also done my share of academic writing, and it tends to suffer from the exact issues listed above.

    • #25
  26. user_517406 Inactive
    user_517406
    @MerinaSmith

    genferei:

    Merina Smith: She is saying that we must couple small government with virtue or our society cannot survive. Libertarians who think that freedom per se can thrive without virtue to regulate it are dangerously wrong.

    I agree with this, but, because I agree with it, I think these libertarian arguments are self-defeating. In the absence of big government the voices of the churches and the call of natural law will be all the louder, the libertines will have no-one but themselves to blame for their unhappiness, and virtue will be restored to the Republic.

    Problem solved, no?

     Ah well, once we have figured out what she is actually saying, I don’t think we disagree.

    • #26
  27. user_517406 Inactive
    user_517406
    @MerinaSmith

    Mendel:

    Merina Smith:

    Also not seeing this as you do. She’s a very clear writer and thinker. She does take on difficult and complex topics however, and approaches them in nuanced ways.

    With all due respect to your daughter, I also found that the article lacked focus.

    The article is written very academically (not necessarily surprising given Rachel’s profession): it takes 2,000 words to describe a concept which is often expressed equally thoroughly on Ricochet in a single 200-word comment. Yet the other 1,800 words do not add to her argument as much as they dot rhetorical i’s and cross t’s. It’s probably easy for someone already aligned with her thinking to follow, but it was more difficult for me.

    I don’t mean to come across as harsh; I am also the author of numerous academic publications and my writing tends to suffer from the exact issues listed above.

     Well, maybe I need to read it again, but sometimes what strikes some as lack of focus is nuance.  Anyway, I loved it and agree with every word.  But obviously she and I think alike.  But thanks for the analysis, Professor.

    • #27
  28. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    Let me come at this from another angle, then.

    Which parts of the actually existing big government are necessary to preserve while virtue is being inculcated in the masses? The EPA carbon emissions regulations? The Department of Education? The NSA mass-surveillance programs? Dodd-Frank? Sarbanes-Oxley? The NLRB? Obamacare? Medicare? The ExIm bank? Foreign aid? NASA? The TSA?

    • #28
  29. The King Prawn Inactive
    The King Prawn
    @TheKingPrawn

    “government can be used to do good things — compassionate, conservative things”

    I do not believe or advocate this at all. I think government can only do one thing well, and that is coerce. In the absence of any personal, individual controls, it is the only thing left to fill that void.

    • #29
  30. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    The King Prawn:

    “government can be used to do good things — compassionate, conservative things”

    I do not believe or advocate this at all.

    Indeed – I didn’t mean to attribute this view (or those views) to you.

    In the absence of any personal, individual controls, [government coercion] is the only thing left to fill that void.

    By personal controls do you mean to include morality, social pressure, religious requirements, game rules etc.?

    • #30
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