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My libertarian friends may be surprised to hear this, but my respect for libertarianism has grown quite a lot since my introduction to Ricochet two years ago. Admittedly, my estimation at the time was pretty low. I had lots of libertarian undergraduates, and I also encountered a handful of professors and grad students with broadly libertarian views, so I was well familiar with that “I’m-conservative-but-not-a-moral-nag” snobbery. That bothered me only a little bit. My real reasons for dismissing libertarians were twofold.
First, libertarianism struck me as reactionary in broad sense. It presents itself as a universally applicable theory about the relationship between the individual to the state, but on that score, I found Ayn Rand far less insightful than Thomas Aquinas, Plato or Aristotle. Her influence, I saw, related to more idiosyncratic conditions of her time: the rise of the administrative state. That was, I supposed, a real problem in our time, but in historical terms it was still contingent; not every society has these same problems. As a political theory, then, it seemed to me that libertarianism drew unjustifiably broad principles on the basis of historically distinctive challenges.
Second, libertarianism seemed morally lazy to me. You can see this especially clearly when you watch undergraduates learning ethics. We spend a lot of time working through the ins and outs of an Aristotelian-type virtue ethics. That means we’re discussing lots of detailed questions about what the good life involves and what it takes for human beings to be excellent. Some of the students get into it. Others become irritated by all the nitty-gritty details and also by the general sense that a virtue-based ethics reaches into every nook and cranny of their lives. It has things to say about their dietary and sexual habits, what they read, what they watch on television, and what they do with their friends. Of course we’re only talking about ethics here and not politics; nobody’s suggesting that we hire virtue police to ensure that everyone behaves well. But even on that score, some people yearn to escape from all the complication, and to find some area of life where the only ethical mandate is, “do whatever you want just as long as you’re not bothering anybody.”
Then we get to modern moral philosophy, and you can watch the relief spreading over their faces. We knew it didn’t have to be that complicated! Being good can’t possibly require us to wrangle with all those messy details! This is the appeal of utilitarianism, for example. If you want to know what to do, just add up the relevant pleasures and pains associated with the various alternatives, and see what makes people happier. There’s no need for all this complicated stuff about virtues and human nature and detailed analyses of the common good. And on an individual level, the fact that an activity makes you happy is a good enough reason to do it, provided of course that it doesn’t make someone else sad.
Libertarianism is not explicitly an ethical theory, but for many it has a similar sort of appeal. It dispenses with troubling moral and political questions by pushing them all under the convenient heading of “not the state’s business.” Undergraduates love this. It gives them that air-clearing feeling that they’re craving after wandering through the intricacies of Aristotelian moral theory. It feels to them like that scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy and friends come out of the woods and look out over shining fields of poppies. Free at last!
Like the poppies, though, this shining simplicity is deceptive. One way to realize this is by reflecting on the complexity of the concept of “freedom”. From what do we need to be free? For what do we want to be free? When humans live together in society, one person’s exercise of freedom can obviously impinge on another’s in a wide variety of ways. My neighbor blasts his music at top volume, and I can’t sleep. Another family up the street starts feeding the squirrels and before I know it my porch pumpkins have fallen victim to the little monsters as well. Advertisers want to put up pornographic billboards, but then I’ll have to drive by them every time I grocery shop. My state legalizes pot, and now I don’t like going to the local park because I don’t want my kids running through clouds of sweet-smelling smoke.
Now, I said that my respect for libertarians has increased. That’s true. Some of them have arguments far more sophisticated I had encountered before, and some are extremely interested in promoting the good through private means. They persuaded me to take the problem of administrative bloat far more seriously. Their relentless focus on size-of-state questions has led them to some very astute insights on the nature of the technocratic state, and they make excellent watchdogs (or gadflies?) against the constant temptation to take advantage of administrative bloat. But in the end, I think my two original criticisms still stand. They’re enormously clever about suggesting ways for us to accomplish communal projects without the help of the state. That can be quite useful in its way. But they’re still elevating a theory of government beyond its contextual importance. And they still provide a large haven for the morally lazy at precisely the time when we need to be morally energetic.
Advances in science and technology have massively increased the state’s power to rule us in every minute detail of our lives. It’s also increased our ability to hector and impede one another. Advances in technology allow us to spy on one another every minute, to redistribute wealth on a massive scale without sending a tax collector door to door, and to manipulate life (plant, animal, human) on a very fundamental level. We’re wrestling now with new and sometimes terrifying questions about justice and obligation and what kind of society we want to build. Libertarianism seems like something of a haven in this storm, because its prescriptions seem so fundamental and principled, and because it doesn’t demand consensus on most of these challenging questions. It seems like a good out.
But ultimately, that’s just a dodge. Small-state principles can’t save us from working through these issues. Suppose we could achieve political victory on a “morality-free” limited-government platform, legalizing drugs and prostitution and abandoning any efforts to recognize traditional marriage or protect the unborn. None of that would deconstruct the technocratic state. Meanwhile, social breakdown would continue apace, and eventually (probably rather soon) people would cry out for government to step up its efforts to save them from themselves. We’d end up with more statism than ever. But actually, I’m not even very worried about that, because I don’t think such a platform has any chance of winning the country back in any case. If we want to win America back, we have to show real insight into the problems they’re actually facing right now. Americans think that the GOP has failed to understand or “care about” them, and to some extent they’re right. We haven’t given them any good answers to the deep social and spiritual problems that have arisen in our modernist, technocratic, democratic state.
We need to return to core principles, but not Ayn Rand’s. She doesn’t have the insights we need at this juncture. Plato and Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas all reflected on a much more sophisticated level on the relationship between humans and their neighbors and their communities and the state. That is the level of complex, careful analysis that we need to diagnose and respond to these intense challenges. And insofar as I’m hard on libertarians, it’s not because I think they have nothing useful to contribute to this effort. They do have things to contribute. But often I see conservatism’s relentless focus on small-state advocacy as something of an obstacle to the kind of conversations we really need to be having right now. That’s not because I doubt that we need to shrink the state. It’s because I don’t think we can do it without answering the bigger questions about human excellence and human community, family, life, and the complex relationship between political freedom and virtue. And regrettably, libertarians frequently use their small-state principles as a kind of excuse to avoid those conversations.
Mike H asked yesterday: what do social conservatives want? I would answer: human excellence, happiness, virtue and a thriving society. Those are my highest goals. And while I do have some interest in the thriving of the state, that’s only about the eighth or ninth question on my list of concerns.Published in