Skip to comments.Libertarianism or Libertinism? (Frank S. Meyer Flashback)
Posted on 06/12/2002 10:55:07 AM PDT by Pyro7480
Principles and Heresies
| The development of contemporary American conservatism has been marked, on the theoretical level, by a continuing tension between a traditionalist emphasis and a libertarian emphasis. Over the years I have argued that these positions are in fact not incompatible opposites, but complementary poles of a tension and balance which, both in theory and practice, define American conservatism as it has come into being at midcentury. If anything, I have stressed the libertarian emphasis because I have felt that unmodified traditionalism, stressing virtue and order in disregard of the ontological and social status of the freedom of the individual person, tended dangerously to towards an authoritarianism wrong in itself and alien to the spirit of American conservatism.
Recently, however, there have been ominous signs that the danger of a disbalance just as alien to conservatism is arising not from traditionalist quarters, but from an untrammeled libertarianism, which tends as directly to anarchy and nihilism as unchecked traditionalism tends to authoritarianism. This libertarianism can be seen at its most extreme in such dropouts from the Right as Murray Rothbard and Karl Hess and their handful of followers. While their position has become indistinguishable from that of SDS, there are increasing signs of a more widespread, if more moderate, development in this direction, primarily among the young, but by no means restricted to them. The essential rationale of this position is so far removed from the rationale of libertarian conservatism, and so completely ignores the proper foundations of liberty in the actual circumstances of the human condition, that, like the position of the anarchist wing of the SDS, its proper denomination is not libertarianism but libertinism.
A true libertarianism is derived from metaphysical roots in the very constitution of being, and places its defense of freedom as a political end in the context of moral responsibility for the pursuit of virtue and the underlying social necessity for the preservation of order. The libertine impulse that masquerades as libertarian, on the other hand, disregards all moral responsibility, ranges itself against the minimum needs of social order, and raises the freedom of the individual person (regarded as the unbridled expression of every desire, intellectual or emotional) to the status of an absolute end.
The underlying issue between conservative libertarianism and libertine libertarianism is at bottom a totally opposed view of the nature of destiny of men. The libertineslike those other products of the modern world, ritualistic liberals, socialists, Communists, fascistsare ideologues first and last. That is, they reject reality as it has been studied, grasped, understood, and acted upon in five thousand years or so of civilized history, and pose an abstract construction as the basis of action. They would replace God's creation of this multifarious, complex world in which we live, and substitute for it their own creation, simple, neat and inhumanas inhuman as the blueprints of the bulldozing engineer.
The place of freedom in the spiritual economy of men is a high one indeed, but it is specific and not absolute. By its very nature, it cannot be an end of men's existence. Its meaning is essentially freedom from coercion, but that, important as it is, cannot be an end. It is empty of goal or norm. Its function is to relieve men of external coercion so that theY may freely seek their good.
It is for this reason that libertarian conservatives champion freedom as the end of the political order's politics, which is, at its core, the disposition of force in society, will, if not directed towards this end, create massive distortions and obstacles in men's search for their good. But that said, an equally important question remains. Free, how are men to use their freedom? The libertine answers that they should do what they want. Sometimes, in the line of the philosophers of the French Revolution, he arbitrarily posits the universal benevolence of human beings. He presumes that if everyone does whatever he wants, everything will be for the best in the best of all possible worlds. But whether so optimistically qualified or not, his answer ignores the hard facts of history. For it is only in civilization that men have begun to rise towards their potentiality; and civilization is a fragile growth, constantly menaced by the dark forces that suck man back towards his brutal beginnings.
Reason and Tradition
The essence of civilization, however, is tradition: no single generation of men can of itself discover the proper ends of human existence. At its best, as understood by contemporary American conservatism, the traditionalist view accepts political freedom, accepts the role of reason and innovation and criticism; but it insists, if civilization is to be preserved, that reason operate within tradition and that political freedom is only effectively achieved when the bulwarks of civilizational order are preserved.
Libertine libertarianism would shatter those bulwarks. In its opposition to the maintenance of defenses against Communism, its puerile sympathy with the rampaging mobs of campus and ghetto, its contempt for the humdrum wisdom of the great producing majority, it is directed towards the destruction of the civilizational order which is the only real foundation of a real world for the freedom it espouses. The first victim of the mobs let loose by the weakening of civilizational restraint will be, as it has always been, freedomfor anyone, anywhere.
Meyer is a "forgotten founding father" of the modern conservative movement. He was a senior editor of the National Review from 1957 until his death in 1972. I think Meyer's important contribution to the formation of the conservative movement, both intellectual and political, is often overlooked and/or forgotten. Thankfully, a recent biography titled "Principles and Heresies: Frank S. Meyer and the Shaping of the American Conservative Movement by Kevin J. Smant (printed by ISI Books) tries to right this wrong. The biography came out less than a month ago in May 2002, and was recently reviewed by Ramesh Ponnuru in the National Review. For a short bio. on Meyer, visit the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty
``Recently, however, there have been ominous signs that the danger of a disbalance just as alien to conservatism is arising not from traditionalist quarters, but from an untrammeled libertarianism, which tends as directly to anarchy and nihilism as unchecked traditionalism tends to authoritarianism.''
This sentences makes me want to look for more writing by Mr. Meyer. Pyro, you made part of this sentence boldface, while it is important in its entirety.
This is something I've said frequently here on FR: Liberty and responsibility go hand in hand. Liberty without responsibility leads to mayhem, and responsibility without liberty leads to slavery.
For example, the left-wing approach to drug prohibtion revolves around isolating people from their bad acts with such suggestions like giving people free needles, or free health care and drug counseling. The left cannot see that these undermine personal responsibility. On the other hand, the authoritarian approach to drug-prohibition involves punishing everyone for the bad acts of others. The authoritarian does not acknowledge that some people can handle addiction better than others, and want to jail all users to get the ones would cause trouble.
If we have a balanced approach to drug prohibition, we would in no way subsidize people's bad habits on the one hand, but when someone commits a crime we should lock the door and throw away the key.
Do you mean when someone engages in a personal or property crime while on drugs? I assume under this balanced approach, possession, sale or manufacturing of "drugs" would not be a crime.
I do not think that committing a murder sober should be punshed less than while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. I feel the same about hate crime: is it more wrong to kill someone because of their race, or for the money? Is it more wrong to slay someone with a firearm or your bare hands? No.
I believe with any softening of our stance of drug prohibition should come a strengthening of penalties for all crimes. In my opinion, child rape should be a capital offence. Why is there such gnashing of teeth over what to do with sexual-offenders? If they are such a danger, don't let them out of prison. Likewise with murderers.
Every wall of the house, and even an addition to the house, was lined with books. This reflected both the Meyers' great minds and Frank's work as book editor of National Review. The discussions were intense and instructive. I was going to say "enLIGHTening," but Frank was so much a night person, he hardly ever saw daylight! The talks lasted all night, over too many glasses of Dewar's.
Their two young sons, John and Gene, frequently joined the grown-up talk, or whupped their elders at chess (Gene today is an international Grand Master, John a Master). Gene is still active as founder and gray eminence of the Federalist Society. He looks just like his dad :-)
I agree. Actually, I could probably agree that murder, rape, child molestation and treason should be the four crimes that are capital offenses.
"Obviously, nobody around here is in favor of cannibalism, and everyone, libertarians included, agree that murderers should be punished." -- allend, reply #21 from the thread.
Changed your mind, I see. The oldest and crudest rhetorical device for demonizing one's opponents is to claim that they are cannibals. To your credit you've stopped just short of that, and merely declared us to be their moral equivalent.
Another great quote by Meyer comes from his 1964 essay "Freedom, Tradition, Conservatism."
"But both extremes (of traditionalism and libertarianism) are self-defeating: truth withers when freedom dies, however righteous the authority that kills it; and free individualism uninformed by moral value rots at its core and soon brings about conditions that pave the way for surrender to tyranny."
I admire your well-thought comments. The "essay" describing your train of thought on your profile page seems to back up my thought that you are a well-trained thinker. I agree with you that the all the name-calling on FR needs to stop. It is very immature. It can be a very anti-intellectual environment on here at times.
If you want to read more about the "tension" between liberty and tradition, a good book (also printed by ISI) is "Freedom and Virtue: The Conservative/Libertarian Debate," edited by George W. Carey. It includes essays by Meyer, and commentary by Murray Rothbard on Meyer's ideology.
I don't know. Since you've distinguished it from rape, the definition of child molestation gets awfully fuzzy.
I'm a big fan of corporal punishment, myself. If some old lech feels up a 15-year-old, a thorough caning will probably suffice to correct his behavior.
Thank you for your reply. I feel much the same as Mr. Meyer when he said conservatives and libertarians need each other.
I don't know what he has in mind here. He mentions Rothbard and Hess, but no position or stand of theirs - no specifics.
Certainly I would apply my principles in defense of the ritual cannibalism practiced by Catholics and other religious sects.
Provided no rights were violated of course.