One can reasonably make a good argument these days that libertarianism is ascendant. Yes, we are living amidst large progressive gains in politics and society, as evident in the re-election of Barack Obama and recent Pyrrhic defeats in the culture wars. However, I would submit that what we’ve seen lately isn’t as much a victory for progressivism as much as it’s been a victory for libertarianism. Oftentimes, the two are easily confused. It’s easy to see why! Progressives and libertarians often share the same goals.
Huge swaths of the general public now favor two issues that for decades were either a distinct minority or didn’t even come up as an issue: legalization of pot and marriage re-definition, just to bring up two easy examples. Libertarians have always decried the illegality of drugs. They have incisively pointed to the huge cost of enforcement as well as the double standards imposed by the government (pot is wrong but cigarettes are ok? Really?). On some of these issues, they actually make a whole lot of sense. That is, until you start thinking about what the road to hell is paved with.
One area in which libertarians are particularly vulnerable to legitimate criticism is their apparent total reductionist ideology to what amounts to a one-note symphony: liberty. Simply give people liberty and, if you believe the rhetoric, the problems of society would largely correct themselves. This beguilingly simple solution to the problems that have vexed humanity for thousands of years ought to give the thoughtful reader a moment’s pause.
Please allow me to dump a large bucket of cold water reality on the libertarian pipe-dream. I will do so respectfully, but with full vigor.
Let us begin.
Libertarians maintain that people should be allowed to do what they want provided that they do no harm to others. Yet a fatal flaw of this thesis is in the precise definition of the term “harm”. How do libertarians measure harm? Can we measure societal harm? Civic harm? Neighborhood harm? Do we have a mechanism for the apprehension of moral harm? What about generational harm? Do we have duties and obligations that can reasonably be expected of us to ensure that future generations prosper?
It is my thesis that libertarianism is not capable of adequately addressing the issues of moral harm and generational harm, nor is it capable of providing the substance of what conservative thinker Russell Kirk described as the “glue” of a thriving civilization. The Old Conservatives maintain that humanity requires the use of “old” institutions, steeped in wisdom, in order to maintain a successful structure for civilization’s growth and thrift. Some of these institutions include the family, religion, private and civic virtues, and so on. Libertarianism has literally nothing to say about strengthening these institutions.
As Kirk wrote: “Conservatives distrust what Burke called ‘abstractions’—that is, absolute political dogmas divorced from practical experience and particular circumstances”. Context is king. Libertarians eschew the notion that we hold a moral debt to our ancestors that we must maintain and bequeath to our descendants.
Kirk again wrote: “The past is a great storehouse of wisdom; as Burke said, “the individual is foolish, but the species is wise.” The conservative believes that we need to guide ourselves by the moral traditions, the social experience, and the whole complex body of knowledge bequeathed to us by our ancestors. The conservative appeals beyond the rash opinion of the hour to what Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead”—that is, the considered opinions of the wise men and women who died before our time, the experience of the race. The conservative, in short, knows he was not born yesterday.”
The libertarian and progressive ethos are to be contrasted with another Kirkian gem:
“Change and reform, conservatives are convinced, are not identical: moral and political innovation can be destructive as well as beneficial; and if innovation is undertaken in a spirit of presumption and enthusiasm, probably it will be disastrous. All human institutions alter to some extent from age to age, for slow change is the means of conserving society, just as it is the means for renewing the human body. But American conservatives endeavor to reconcile the growth and alteration essential to our life with the strength of our social and moral traditions. With Lord Falkland, they say, “When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.” They understand that men and women are best content when they can feel that they live in a stable world of enduring values.”
Libertarians have not been able to show how a libertarian world would foster a stable society in which enduring values could be fostered. They have not been able to show how a libertarian world would guarantee the flourishing of the human spirit – for the human spirit requires not just liberty, but law. The human soul requires discipline in addition to freedom. What the libertarian ethos comes down to is “live and let live”, rather than “let us live well”. They have no answer for the well part because they reject the tyranny of morality – except their own.
For, spirit must be tempered in wisdom. Enthusiasm must be channeled to ends that benefit civilization and the continued flourishing and enrichment of the human imagination. These are great ends in and of themselves and require no real defense; they are self-evident. I have discovered in my study of libertarianism that their doctrines are a mile wide but an inch deep.
Kirk again shall have the last word:
“[The] great ends are more than economic and more than political. They involve human dignity, human personality, human happiness. They involve even the relationship between God and man. For the radical collectivism of our age is fiercely hostile to any other authority: modern radicalism detests religious faith, private virtue, traditional personality, and the life of simple satisfactions. Everything worth conserving is menaced in our generation.”