by N. A. Halkides 11/5/13
Part 1, The Philosophy • Libertarianism and Libertarians remind me of two things: a restaurant buffet and Playboy founder Hugh Hefner. Let’s see if I can explain the connections.
In researching Libertarianism for this essay, I was forced by time constraints to rely primarily on David Boaz’s book Libertarianism: A Primer and the Libertarian web site libertarianism.org, although I remember coming into contact with other sources of Libertarian thought over the years such as Murray Rothbard and, of course, former Congressman Ron Paul. I also remember reading an abridged version of an Objectivist critique of Libertarianism by Peter Schwartz some years ago, but I was careful not to refer to it to ensure my own “objectivity” when subjecting Libertarian ideas to critical analysis.
Let’s start at the beginning. On libertarianism.org we read that “Libertarianism is much more than a set of policies the government should enact and follow. It’s also a rich intellectual tradition reaching back thousands of years,” which comes as a surprise to those of us who date it back no further than the 1960’s. The site’s suggested reading list contains authors like Frédéric Bastiat, F. A. Hayek, John Locke, and even Objectivism founder Ayn Rand (who once referred to Libertarians as “Hippies of the Right”), while in his book Boaz refers to the concept of natural law and even the Judeo-Christian tradition(!). Now, it will be noticed that we Conservatives don’t generally claim these concepts and thinkers to be specifically Conservative, nor do we claim that Conservatism is its own philosophy; we frankly acknowledge our debt to those who created the ideas of the Western Civilization we are now trying to “conserve” (even Rand, in my opinion). For example, we know how important John Locke was to the philosophy of the American Revolution, and we try to carry on with the idea of limited government, but we don’t pretend that this is “Conservative philosophy” in the sense that we invented it or that Locke, in his day, was a Conservative in the modern usage of that term (see What Is Conservatism? for some suggestions as to what the term means), even though we should expect that if Locke were alive today he would align himself with the Conservative movement.[pullquote]They’re also a little like Hugh Hefner, but without the money and the Playmates, because Hefner also fancied himself something of a philosopher.[/pullquote]
The first observation to be made, then, is that while Conservatism is a political-social movement and largely sees itself as such, Libertarianism fancies itself to be more than that – an actual political philosophy in its own right – but it then conscripts ideas and thinkers of the past and present into the Libertarian army, even though many of those thinkers would have denied any connection had they been given the chance. It is in this way that Libertarians are like restaurant owners who offer a buffet of mismatched dishes from around the world and then claim to have invented a completely new cuisine. They’re also a little like Hugh Hefner, but without the money and the Playmates, because Hefner also fancied himself something of a philosopher.
Back in the 60’s, perhaps not coincidentally the era in which both the New Left and Libertarianism began their respective rises (such as they were), Hefner published a series of editorials in Playboy entitled “The Playboy Philosophy”. (I know this because, as the old saw goes, I only read Playboy for the articles. And if you believe that, I’ve got a plan called “Obamacare” to make your health care better by having the government take control of it that I just know you’re going to love). Hefner basically cribbed Rand’s concept of rational self-interest and turned it into a justification of his own ethical hedonism (pleasure is the chief good), while re-packaging it as if it were something new and exciting. Had he been writing just a few years later, he could have called himself a Libertarian and saved himself some effort.
Now Hefner was by no means a dumb guy – he was reasonably well-read and it’s easy to imagine him as one of the brighter students in a classroom full of undergraduates circa 1948 – but in certain ways he seemed (and seems even today in his 80’s) never to have progressed beyond adolescence. Thus a parade of nubile young women were seen not as human beings but as just so many accessories for one’s swinging bachelor pad, no different and of no more significance than one’s hi-fi (as stereo systems were often called back then) or liquor cabinet. Sex without consequences seems to have been the Playboy ideal, and Conservatives should immediately recognize this as license, not liberty, and recognize also that Libertarianism and Leftism have in common the mistaking of the first for the second. Notice that both Libertarians and Leftists favor abortion and disparage that perennial bogeyman, the Social Conservative, whom they portray as the second coming of Cotton Mather.
Boaz tries to explain the agreement between Libertarianism and Leftism by crediting the Left (whom he refers to as “Liberals”) with wanting “less government intervention in free speech and personal decisions” (Libertarianism, p. 21), but this was no more true in 1997 than it is today, when the Left has made clear its desire to repeal the First Amendment and has succeeded in ramming Obamacare down the nation’s unwilling throat, despite the opposition of a majority of the people in this country – talk about “personal decisions”! Boaz’s mistake stems in part, I believe, from his attempt to recast the usual Left-Right political spectrum (often misunderstood, I would concede) into a baseball diamond-shaped figure (p.22) with “Authoritarianism” at home plate, Conservatism and Liberalism at first and third bases respectively (denoting that each is half Authoritarian and half “Libertarian”, subtly equating the two while hubristically implying that both have stolen Libertarian ideas rather than the other way around), and with Libertarianism occupying the highest, most elevated pinnacle – second base. Boaz would have done well to consider that a man on second is only halfway home, but then again, in fairness he probably didn’t intend his figure to remind readers of a baseball diamond, and the recognition that Libertarianism is at best only half a philosophy would have undercut his purpose in writing the book.[pullquote]Sex without consequences seems to have been the Playboy ideal, and Conservatives should immediately recognize this as license, not liberty, and recognize also that Libertarianism and Leftism have in common the mistaking of the first for the second.[/pullquote]
So Boaz’s error (not intending to torture the baseball metaphor) is partly due to his desire to discredit Conservatism, which in practice means to wrongly credit the Left. But I believe it runs deeper than that, for as we’ll see there are other, highly-suspicious overlaps between Libertarianism and Leftism, and I think they can be explained by the common desire of the two to negate traditional values.
The Conservative holds liberty as a value because “we hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This view of Man as having “unalienable rights” is the view of the American Revolution, the classic liberalism that is among those values Conservatism seeks to conserve. Boaz follows along the same path, of course without acknowledging that Conservatives were there first. By itself, this would support the thesis that Libertarianism freely appropriates the ideas of classical Liberalism, but it does not prove my additional charge that it attempts to negate values. But Boaz is neither the first nor the only Libertarian theorist, and going back to Murray Rothbard’s For a New Liberty we find his central axiom to be that “no man or group of men may aggress against the person and property of anyone else.”
Rothbard’s axiom is straight out of Ayn Rand (whom Boaz, it will be recalled, has classified as a Libertarian). The point I’m trying to make here is not so much Libertarianism’s repeated appropriation of ideas from other philosophical systems, which I think has been pretty well established, but its attempt to “jump start” its political program without reference to a body of moral ideas. Rand made it clear that her political ideas, although they garnered the most notice, were the last link in a long chain of philosophical development, while the Conservative embrace of classic liberalism is only part of a larger whole, including of course the moral principles from which the natural rights of man may be derived, that is, from which classic liberalism itself developed. Perhaps it might be put more simply: Libertarianism is a political program pretending to be a political philosophy, that is, Libertarianism is politics in a vacuum. This explains the Libertarian disdain for cultural concerns, and also Libertarianism’s attraction for an eclectic group of the disaffected – a point to which I’ll return in Part 2.[pullquote]Libertarianism is a political program pretending to be a political philosophy, that is, Libertarianism is politics in a vacuum. This explains the Libertarian disdain for cultural concerns, and also Libertarianism’s attraction for an eclectic group of the disaffected…[/pullquote]
With no appreciation of Western culture or of the relationship between culture and politics, it’s no wonder Libertarians generally espouse an open-borders stance on immigration (see Daniel T. Griswold, Immigration Law Should Reflect Our Dynamic Labor Market). That the continuing immigration of those who do not value freedom as much as they do welfare programs will undermine and destroy the very liberty Libertarians are supposed to be so interested in seems not to have occurred to them – a direct consequence of their disvaluing culture and its importance in supporting the ideal of freedom.
As to the family, Libertarianism’s views should come as no surprise by this point:
“Libertarians don’t think the government needs to support and encourage traditional families, as moralistic conservatives advocate. It just needs to stop undermining families so people can form the kinds of families they want. Ideally Libertarians would like the government to get out of the marriage and family business altogether.” (Libertarianism, p. 241).
Boaz was more revealing than he knew when he wrote that passage. He couldn’t resist the opportunity to deride conservatives by inserting the adjective “moralistic” – God forbid there should be any connection between morality and politics! And while this is not the place to get into the case for traditional marriage or details about the proper relationship of a free state to its minor citizens, it should be apparent to everyone that society does have some interest in the welfare of its minors without conceding that “it takes a village” to replace parents in the task of child raising. But we cannot determine, for example, that children are best raised in a family unit consisting of one father and one mother without making a value judgment that this is a better arrangement than having two same-sex “parents,” and since value judgments are anathema to Libertarianism, if we adopt Libertarian politics we will often be prevented from formulating the best public policy. And what about matters of child custody? These clearly must be the province of state law, since minors must be cared for. If “people can form the kinds of families they want” without any restriction as Libertarianism demands, what do we do with the children when some polyamorous congregation (I refuse to call it a marriage) of males and females breaks up, going two or three or more separate ways? Presumably, the Libertarian either doesn’t like to think about this or else believes such matters can simply be left to the unbridled discretion of Family Court judges.
Boaz treats war and foreign policy with notable circumspection, perhaps realizing that Libertarians have aroused more opposition with some of their declarations in this area than they have in any other (and he wrote Libertarianism in 1997, before the attacks of 9/11 and some of the truly reprehensible statements of Ron Paul blaming America for those attacks). Yet it is clear that Boaz, like earlier Libertarian theorists such as Rothbard, view war as bad chiefly because they see it as an expression of state power (“The apotheosis of state power is war” – p. 205), revealing that hatred of the state, and not mere hatred of dictatorship specifically, lies at or near the heart of Libertarianism. Boaz blames first the Civil War, then World War I, then perhaps most strangely of all World War II for the expansion of American government. Now in fairness, others have suggested that the Civil War, which by extirpating slavery should be credited with increasing the net amount of freedom in this country, so altered the balance of power between the Federal Government and the states that the Federal system itself was changed for the worse, but a careful examination of history will show that this was not true outside of the states of the former Confederacy, and that the assault on state prerogatives by the Federal Government took place over many decades, beginning perhaps near the founding of the Republic and of course continuing (and accelerating) to the present time. The 1920’s after World War I were a relatively free and prosperous time, although the growth of statism during the decade led to the Great Depression of the 1930’s. Yet some of the economic controls of New Deal, which were responsible for turning what would have probably been no more than a two-year recession into the Great Depression, were repealed during or after World War II, and it seems indisputable that the country was freer and more prosperous in 1948 than in 1938 ten years earlier. Boaz’ attempt to link war to the permanent growth of state power in America thus seems questionable at best.
I don’t want to simply apply the term “isolationist” to Libertarian foreign policy, partly because I don’t think the term has a precise definition, but also because I see Libertarian ideology driven by hatred of the state as noted above. Again and again Rothbard adopts a “blame the victim” mentality regarding totalitarian aggression. Tim Starr gives plenty of examples in Rothbard, Finland, and Soviet Russia:
“He blamed Poland for its invasion by the Nazis. Libertarian Chris Tame witnessed Rothbard claim the Holocaust was just propaganda made up to justify WW II after the war. That was the line taken by Rothbard’s favorite historian, Harry Elmer Barnes, who ended up publishing glowing reviews of Holocaust denial books. He blamed Finland for its 1939 invasion by the Soviets. His fabrications about the Winter War are simply unforgivable, especially as he made that the basis for his misinterpretation of the entire Cold War. There were no ethnic Russians in Finnish Karelia. Rothbard simply made them up to rationalize Stalin’s aggression. He blamed South Korea for its invasion by North Korea; He blamed Israel for the Six Day War; He also sided with the Viet Cong and the Khmer Rouge. Tom Palmer was present in the living room of well known libertarian George Smith the day Saigon fell. Smith is the author of author of ‘Atheism: The Case Against God.’ Rothbard called to celebrate, crowing: ‘We did it! We won!’ He toned down his views in print, saying the great thing about the fall of Saigon and Phnom Penh was that it was ‘The Death of a State.’ His followers recycled that line about the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, which has only resulted in more oppression for the Lebanese and more aggression against Israel, of course.”
Much of Rothbard’s bilge will sound depressingly familiar to anyone who has listened to Ron Paul for very long, and I bring this up because I don’t believe Paul’s foreign policy views were idiosyncratic in the sense of existing outside of his other views, e.g. those on the Federal Reserve – I think they were part and parcel of his Libertarianism and directly traceable to Rothbard and perhaps other Libertarian theorists as well. The seemingly-strange agreement between Libertarians and Leftists on these matters has been remarked upon by Conservatives in passing, for example Sean Hannity mentioned several times on his television program that he did not agree with Paul’s foreign policy views, which were often indistinguishable from Leftist Congressman Dennis Kucinich, but he left it at that and I think it is worth going into a little more deeply here.[pullquote]But we cannot determine, for example, that children are best raised in a family unit consisting of one father and one mother without making a value judgment that this is a better arrangement than having two same-sex “parents,” and since value judgments are anathema to Libertarianism, if we adopt Libertarian politics we will often be prevented from formulating the best public policy. [/pullquote]
Two strains emerge from the Rothbard-Paul cacophony: (1) the state itself, regardless of its nature as free or unfree, is evil; (2) States like America and Israel that in their very founding express particular values rather than being born in the usual way from historical or geographical accidents are particularly to be abominated and blamed for any conflict in which they are involved. This is logically a direct consequence of Libertarianism’s negation of values. Thus Rothbard claimed the Soviet Union was no threat to America during the Cold War and Paul claimed that Iran is no threat to America today – the real problem is America herself, absurdly and maliciously portrayed as an international bully. And we can see why Leftists and Libertarians agree: Leftists extolled the Soviet Union because it exemplified their (statist/collectivist) values and hate the U.S. because it represents the opposing (capitalist/individualist) values; Libertarians see no difference between the Soviet Union and the U.S. because they’re averse to value judgments or else believe the U.S. to be worse because it was founded on exactly such judgments. The agreement between Leftism and Libertarianism here and on issues like abortion is not because both value liberty as the Libertarian claims, but because in fact neither do – the only difference being that Leftism is opposed to the particular values of individualism and freedom while Libertarianism is opposed to all values save “liberty” — and we see here that generally as it did with immigration specifically that Libertarianism undercuts the very liberty that supposedly animates the movement.
Libertarianism, then, is an ad hoc political program, bereft of any guiding values other than a rather nebulous concept of liberty, plagiarized from more complete philosophical systems and often distorted into mere license. Conservatism acknowledges its debt to classical liberalism, while Libertarianism simply appropriates it and stamps “Libertarian” on it in bright red ink. Conservatism understands that culture is more than a system of government and seeks to preserve as well those non-governmental institutions and values that have proven their worth over the centuries; Libertarianism’s disdain for cultural values causes it to undermine the very Western culture which has been the sole bastion of liberty – its ostensible raison d’être – in all of recorded history. The only “Libertarian” ideas of any value are borrowed, and the only libertarian policy prescriptions of any real use, e.g. the superiority of a free market in health care over socialized medicine, could just as well have come from the Conservative or Objectivist camps, and indeed have done so. It is for this reason the title “Libertarianism Minus Conservatism = Zero” was chosen for this essay (Objectivism having been left out for algebraic/stylistic reasons), consciously recalling Werner Keller’s book on the impotence of the Soviet economy, East Minus West = Zero, and as we’ll see in Part 2, it is also the main reason for Libertarianism’s failure as a political movement.
1. The Strange Views of Libertarian Founder Murray Rothbard
2. Tim Starr, on no-treason.com, reprinted on Facebook