Saturday, September 22, 2012

What's Wrong with Libertarians

DISCLAIMER: Of all the articles I've posted on this blog, this has been the most controversial. It's been picked up by a few libertarian sites and, as you can see, I've had a few robust exchanges with indignant libertarians in the combox.

I don't really enjoy this kind of confrontation at all. The purpose of this blog is not to upset people with whom I disagree. Although I won't shrink from proclaiming my beliefs and denouncing blatant evils, such as abortion and euthanasia, I do want to avoid acrimony as much as I can. Given that, I would probably delete this post if there weren't so many comments on it. I don't like deleting comments.

Therefore, I'll keep it up, but I withdraw the sentiments in it. It was a pretty silly argument anyway. I am no libertarian and I do believe that libertarianism is incompatible with the social teaching of the Catholic Church, but there are many Catholics I respect who consider themselves libertarians or something close to it. As for non-Catholic libertarians, I try to respect them as I try to respect all people, and I regret that my words were so strident. Peace to you all.

Of all social philosophies, libertarianism is the one towards which I feel most hostility. I feel a certain tenderness for all the others. I think that liberals, conservatives, cynics, nationalists, communists, feminists, progressives, environmentalists-- and pretty much any other school of social thought you care to mention-- have something valuable to say. Libertarians, too, have something valuable to say-- but nothing interesting, and nothing noble-- not even misguidedly noble.

Why do I say this?

Because I think one of the great things about political and social opinions is that they are disinterested. Anyone who has a vision of what society should be, an ideal of human flourishing or human virtue-- or even someone who is partisan for a particular cause, be it proper punctuation or liberation for the left-handed or the preservation of historical houses-- is a man (or woman) who cares for something outside themselves. An Englishman who passionately believes in the monarchy, or who passionately believes that the monarchy should be abolished, cares about something that will have little effect on him either way.

One of the common arguments made against evangelistic atheists is "What difference does it make to you if people choose to believe a delusion?". But I don't like this argument myself. I think the atheist is gravely mistaken; but I don't at all blame him for trying to convince me that I am gravely mistaken (although hopefully not in the shrill, angry manner of the New Atheist). In fact, I think he is right to do so.

I like the theory that the etymology of "idiot" is from an ancient Greek word meaning "private person"-- the ancient Greeks believing that a man who was entirely devoted to his private interests, and who showed no interest in public affairs, was a contemptible fellow. Whether that is a folk etymology, or overstated, I don't know. But if it is a myth, it is a very expressive myth.

The libertarian has no vision of a good society, no ideal of the human good. He simply has a principle-- and a crude, simplistic one at that. What could be less inspiring, less interesting?

I can already hear the reply of the libertarian. He is preparing to emit a heavy, weary sigh, and to explain in slow tones-- making it clear how tiresome he finds it to have to spell this out again and again-- that he is not lacking in public spirit, or hostile to community or national or family bonds, or opposed to social causes in themselves. He is simply believes that all these things should be voluntary, that there should be no hint of coercion in such matters. A schoolchild should not have to learn Irish by law. A man's taxes should not go to supporting causes or institutions with which he disagrees. In fact (the libertarian assures us) we needn't worry that, without the glue of coercion, people would drift away from each other into some miserable, private, self-centred existence. He might even say that his faith in humanity makes him believe that social and national and community bonds would be stronger if all compulsion was removed. A libertarian may be just as much a patriot or a monarchist or a traditionalist or a communitarian as anybody else; he simply refuses to countenance coercion as a means to pursue any of these philosophies.

That may be so; I seriously doubt it, but it may be so.

But what I don't like about the libertarian is that, as a matter of fact, he chooses to emphasise non-coercion over anything else. This is his rallying cry. This is the cause for which he chooses to raise his voice, the principle he cherishes to the extent that he identifies himself as a libertarian. I am not convinced by his protestations that he may have as positive and specific a vision of the good society as anybody else. If he had one-- and if he really cared about it-- he would surely put as much (and more) energy and eloquence into broadcasting that as he would into propagating his anti-social, misanthropic, depressing creed of "live and let live". For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

I prefer every crank, revolutionary, counter-revolutionary, bigot, utopian, doomsayer and fanatic to the man whose most passionate belief is-- to use the words of Clint Eastwood, that noted libertarian-- that everyone should just leave everyone else the heck alone.


  1. Have you ever been to a meeting of libertarians? It's a little like a Dungeons and Dragons convention except without the medieval fantasy theme. It's a political philosophy that seems to appeal mostly to people who have borderline autistic personalities or who have reacted badly to being picked on as children.

    And as an introvert myself, I'm not saying that to be a jerk. It actually seems to me that every major political philosophy has a strong element of self interest and vanity at its core, to the extant that it's often difficult to separate these things from whatever disinterested vision it may have for society. I tend to think of the philosophies as the justifications or even the after thoughts for the personalities and interests which tend coalesce in a given group.

    But it's an interesting point that you make on the whole about libertarianism. The fact that it is an ideology with a less explicit end or purpose means that anyone who is smart enough and has enough money to disperse their message can easily twist it to whatever purpose they want. The Tea Party movement in America for instance, started as a libertarian movement of regular people advocating for middle class causes. It was predictably co-opted by plutocrats advocating tax cuts for billionaires. Many of the rank and file continue to march along because the reasoning for these new goals is impeccably in line with libertarian ideology. They do not want to be seen as victims or parasite scum, or whatever the term was that Ayn Rand used.

    The movement also seems to have found increased popularity as a front for a sort of rear guard action against liberalism. It's much easier to fight the left on libertarian principles of non-coercion than it is to argue in favor of traditional moral causes. I suspect that's why abortion was left alone during 8 years of republican rule with Bush, while Obama has not touched gun control.

    Where I personally lose all respect for libertarians is with their habit of simultaneously denigrating unions or any working man making a decent wage while screaming about class warfare if any mention is made of the bankers, accountants, CEOs or the lobbyists and the professional organizations which represent and advocate changes in the law for these groups (basically unions by proxy). For them, our markets can never be open enough. They would be perfectly happy to see working people in US having to compete against the entire world or to simply offshore every industry and service if it meant saving a few dollars at walmart. These are people who want to live in a 1st world nation while paying 3rd world prices for their goods and services -they are the ones who want the "free lunch" that they so often make reference to. I am myself right wing, but a long conversation with a libertarian generally ends with me humming the Marseille and looking for a pitchfork.

    All of that said, it's not quite my least favorite political philosophy. At the end of the day, I'd still rather have Clint Eastwood screaming at me to get off of his lawn than to live next door to a Stalin, a Mao or a Hitler.

  2. "I am myself right wing, but a long conversation with a libertarian generally ends with me humming the Marseille and looking for a pitchfork."

    Ha! EXACTLY. And then a conversation with a Marxist who blames every problem and malaise on Earth on some monolithic thing called "capitalism" makes me mutter about good hard work and there being no such thing as society!

  3. "The movement also seems to have found increased popularity as a front for a sort of rear guard action against liberalism. It's much easier to fight the left on libertarian principles of non-coercion than it is to argue in favor of traditional moral causes."

    I think you are completely right about this, and I think it's a VERY dangerous trap. The philosopher Patrick Deneen (an Irish name but an American philosopher) writes about this in this article:

  4. To be honest, I hadn't even considered that what I wrote there might apply to the health care debate. My thinking on that particular issue has always been just in terms of the rights of Catholics, for purely pragmatic reasons. So many of the most vicious disputes in America are at their root about whether or not a person recognizes the sanctity of life, and sadly there are many who are completely oblivious to the point. I argue with these people and they go into depth about the stages of development of the foetus and how it's okay to abort it if scientists propose that it's unable to feel pain at a given point in the pregnancy cycle. They ask me to define murder and human life. There have been times when I had a certain contempt for religion, but I myself have never been able to believe that abortion was anything other than murder and unequivocally wrong in anything other than dire circumstances. When I talk to these people, the recurring sensation that I have is that they and I have no common ground to argue upon.

    I don't know if you're familiar with the social scientist who put forward the idea that liberals and conservatives place different emphasis on different social values with the exception of sanctity, which liberals are simply partially or wholly tone deaf to (it's been a while since I read about it, so I'm not sure that's exactly correct). I don't like the theory because I believe that it amounts to a sort of biological form of predestination, but I think that he might be on to something.

  5. A great phrase that, Mao-o my lad. "The glue of coersion"-you could sign up Hitler, Mao, and Stalin and countless other dictators for that advertising campaign...making a blandishment out of evil.LOL I notice you posit Libertarianism as a reactive political philosophy "Leave me alone", aligned against the poor, and countless other things that upset a Class Warrior. However, far from being anti-cloud,the libertarians are much more pro-sun than the collectivist confiscators. It is a long and positive history of love of Liberty and Individual Rights-in all aspects of democracy as well as its economic expression-the free market. Adam Smith, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson ("the government that governs least governs best") It's a helluva pedigree. True, the brilliant Ayn Rand had a hellish personality. However, any feminist who isn't a hypocrite must admire what she accomplished in near poverty, writing books rejected by The Establishment until the woman achieved great success.Today's Academic Establishment still regards her as a glib, shallow outlier but laud Marx as a great intellectual for his tracts written in a reading room in the British Museum library, free from money worries as he sponged off a wealthy widow.(I find THAT a bit hellish, too). The proof of the pudding is in the eating and UK, US although not libertarian come relatively close to that ideal. Marxist states like Cuba where people strap together a few old tyres and risk shark attack to escape? Whose philosophy actually works? And as much as I like Hank Hill, "Rusty", and readily acknowledge that "movement" people have a big nerd factor..try finding any difference in a poly sci faculty lounge. The only difference would be that the libertarian nerds might not toss nickels around like they were manhole covers like their academic brethren. I do note that hundreds of thousands of students at those same US colleges were the driving force in the door-to-door campaign of Ron Paul, the libertarian (no stern visaged Randian he) presidential candidate that the GOP establishment torpedoed. Freedom is hard work but it's also fun

  6. If freedom is so much fun, how come every game and sport ever invented has very rigid rules and forfiets? Why do boys play soldiers and why do girls play nurses, those very regimented roles? How come people have most fun in childhood and adolescence, when they usually have the most supervision and external constraint? Why are environments like the army and the fire brigade and the police known for their hilarity and cameraderie and folklore? Why are there so many humorous political anecdotes and so few humorous anecdotes about stockbrokers?

    Freedom is only fun as a novelty. All real fun involves authority and discipline.

    1. Actually, most psychologists agree that for well-adjusted people, the happiest times of their lives are as young adults 23-35 yrs. old. Leaving aside the easy observation that voluntary fire brigade members have as many stories as their municipal brethren and the all volunteer army in the States still has as much camaderie and yarns as their conscripted predecessors, I have heard a few brokers at the timber" in pubs tell humourous andecdotes-usally self deprecating. Fun and authority linked? Hmmm. Please tell me who is the Richard Pryor or Benny Hill of North Korea

  7. What I really love about your comments is that you see that this is a CATHOLIC blog and you somehow jump to the conclusion that I am in the business of lauding the Marxist-Leninist or Maoist or Juche tyrants who do a special line in persecuting my co-religionists...

    If you want to argue that libertarianism (though it has never existed, and at least communism has THAT advantage over it-- it's easy to argue for something that can never be seen in action, eh?) would be a better system than Marxism, I grant you that. Fortunately, we don't live in a world where the choice is between "tax is theft" and "property is theft"-- at least, most of us don't. My argument is not that communism is better than libertarianism. My argument is that communists seem more appealing to me than libertarians because at least they have a positive vision for society, one that goes beyond "get out of my face".

    And your point about volunteer fire brigades and armies is simply missing the point. Volunteer or not, you are under discipline and supervision in any such cadre, and THAT is what builds the esprit de corps. Why do people watch films and read books about boarding schools rather than progressive, child-centred schools? Freedom is a bore, once the novelty wears off.

    Fun and authority is linked. Totalitarian regimes are wonderfully fertile environments for jokes. "A plane carrying the entire Politburo crashed today." "Was anybody saved?" "Yes, Russia was saved". That kind of thing.

    But I do like your spunky comments and your sporting reply to my rather throwaway and impish response. It's not that I think I wouldn't like libertarians as people-- I bet you are all good guys and a lot of fun and help old ladies across the road. But don't you have more of a SPECIFIC vision for the society you would like to live in? Why don't you talk about that more? Isn't "good fences make good neighbours" rather a watery philosophy of life? It doesn't take you very far.

  8. "The libertarian has no vision of a good society, no ideal of the human good."
    Yes, if we ignore the fact that libertarians have a vision of a good society, we can conclude that libertarians have no vision of a good society. Brilliant reasoning.

  9. So what is the libertarian vision of a good society? Saying "a society where everybody is free" won't qualify. I want a specific, concrete vision.

    Surely freedom in itself can't be a vision of the human good and human flourishing? Isn't libertarianism simply too thin to serve as a life philosophy?

  10. "I want a specific, concrete vision."

    Why is freedom not concrete enough, and what it wrong about not wanting to control people?

    "Surely freedom in itself can't be a vision of the human good and human flourishing?"
    *Sigh* No, I guess if we ignore the fact that we can, we can only conclude that we can't. Brilliant insight.

    " Isn't libertarianism simply too thin to serve as a life philosophy?"
    Libertarians realize that no one can know what's good enough for everybody, and that no one should force anyone else to live a certain lifestyle, because no one knows how he/she should live his life.

  11. A vision of society where everyone is free is completely neutral. It could be a wasteland of poverty and disease or a Cockaygne of comfort and cosiness. It could be a civilization with a high degree of culture and sophistication, full of salons and concerts and poetry readings, or it could be a society where everybody is doped by moronic TV around the clock. By the libertarian test, there seems no way to judge which of those societies is better.

    I do appreciate that you don't want to control other people, and I see that's noble, but my worry with libertarianism is that this attitude goes too far in the other direction and it inhibits people from having a more positive vision of what society should be. Putting forward such a vision is not control, it's just advocacy. And though there is nothing intrinsic to libertarianism which would impeded a libertarian from doing so, my experience is that, given the libertarian mindest, this whole faculty atrophies.

    1. Is enda Kenny responsible for your vision?!

      Is bad TV attributable to living in a constitutional republic?

      I'm somewhat of a political determinist myself, but this guy takes the biscuit.

    2. You obviously ignored the disclaimer I put at the top of this post some time ago.

  12. I find your assessment of who we are to be rather childish, ill-informed and is the typical view of the Statist.

    "Libertarians, too, have something valuable to say-- but nothing interesting, and nothing noble-- not even misguidedly noble."

    This is so completely laughable. We are actually the MOST interesting and most informed.

    "The libertarian has no vision of a good society, no ideal of the human good. He simply has a principle-- and a crude, simplistic one at that. What could be less inspiring, less interesting?"

    I literally had to pick myself off the ground after laughing myself silly. We have a very good idea of what society should be. In ours, PEOPLE would decide how THEY would want THEIR lives to transpire sans interference from the State.

    In reality, how often do you have direct contact with government, with the exception of the Tax Man. The least important person in society is the one involved with or employed by government. These are people that mostly could not function in the private sector, or if they have, depended on crony capitalism to function.

    We believe government is only there to protect the rights of people where they might not be able to themselves.

    I can tell you have absolutely zero idea of what we are. You're typical.

    When I move back to Ireland, I intend to build libertarianism as fast as I can.

  13. "We believe government is only there to protect the rights of people where they might not be able to themselves." This is from a fellow with several posts about the moon landing, that wonderful triumph of private initiative and minimal government, on his Google plus profile. Ho hum.

    Welcome home, in anticipation, anyway. I hope it goes well.

  14. Timothy,

    As you can see, I have put a disclaimer at the top of my post, as I felt it had caused too much upset and I'm not really entitled to judge the motives or mindset of libertarians. I'm sorry my initial reaction was more sardonic. I really do hope things go well for you when you come back here.