Skip to comments.Libertarianism III: It's All About Me and My Needs
Posted on 11/17/2002 2:15:27 PM PST by hscott
In the last essay I argued that libertarians have the wrong approach to advancing their cause. I could have quoted libertarian godfather Murray Rothbard: "While Marxists devote about 90 percent of their energies to thinking about strategy and only 10 percent to their basic theories, for libertarians the reverse is true." Rothbard observed that the libertarian strategy amounts to an intellectually satisfying but strategically impotent method of talking at people. "Most classical liberal or laissez-faire activists have adopted, perhaps without much thoughtful consideration, a simple strategy that we may call 'educationism.' Roughly: We have arrived at the truth, but most people are still deluded believers in error; therefore, we must educate these people -- via lectures, discussions, books, pamphlets, newspapers, or whatever -- until they become converted to the correct point of view."
Libertarians not only suffer from a lack of strategy for winning, they have little to offer in the way of maintaining authority should they some day emerge victorious. This is important to consider because American liberty (and I am largely confining this to be an American question, though many of my comments apply to libertarians in other countries) has enemies both internal and external.
Start with external enemies -- the host of armed authoritarian states that would relish an opportunity to seize American wealth and liberty. There is no gentle way of saying this: libertarians sound like absolute fools when they talk about foreign policy. I have heard libertarian thinkers much smarter than me give brilliant, sophisticated, world-wise discourses on libertarian domestic policy, only to sound like naive sophomores when the talk turns to foreign affairs.
Libertarians like to pretend, for example, that the U.S. could have avoided World War II without consequence for liberty. At best they argue from historical accident rather than principal -- the claim that Hitler would have lost by virtue of his failure in Russia, for example, or that Britain could have survived without the American Lend-Lease program.
Likewise comes the libertarian claim that American adventures in the Cold War were misguided. In this they display an ugly penchant for concerning themselves with the liberties of white Americans, which explains the view of many that the U.S. Civil War represents the earliest great infringement on liberty (as if the liberty of slaves doesn't count in the balance).
These arguments against foreign intervention derive from the libertarian principle that coercion is wrong, which is really no fixed principle at all, because nearly all libertarians admit that a military financed through taxation is a necessity for the protection of liberty. Somewhere in their calculus, however, they conclude that this coercion shouldn't extend to financing the liberation of non-Americans. Perhaps this is principled, but it is certainly not the only viable alternative for a true lover of liberty. To tell people languishing in states like China and the former Soviet bloc that our commitment to liberty prevents us from opposing their masters is the height of churlishness and foolishness.
Perhaps the worst is the libertarian position on Israel, which amounts to a replay of Joe Kennedy's see-no-evil, hear-no-evil approach to Hitler in the 1930's. Sure, without American support every man, woman, and child among the Jews might have their throats slit by Muslim thugs, but it's not like they got that country fairly in the first place, and really, it's none of our business. That's not a caricature, by the way. At an event in Washington I heard a prominent libertarian argue that we shouldn't support Israel because what happens to them is their problem, not ours. And libertarians wonder why nobody takes their views on foreign policy seriously.
The libertarian response to this critique is to point out examples of failed U.S. intervention. Yes, the CIA sowed seeds of anti-Americanism in Iran by supporting the Shah. Admitted, we supported a tyrant in Haiti. True, we armed the mujahaddin in Afghanistan. But we also dealt the death blows to Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, and accelerated the self-destruction of the Soviet Union while controlling its expansion. These are not trivial events in the history of liberty. Libertarian academics have developed a cottage industry, however, to produce counterfactual histories which amount to claiming that all of the good things would have happened anyway without American intervention, and probably would have happened faster.
Of course one can just as easily tell a story in which American isolationism leads to the emergence of totalitarian states that divide the rest of the world, restrict trade, and make all of us worse off. The point is that in the area of foreign policy libertarians are most likely to argue from principle, yet this is the area where consequentialism is most required. Nobody cares about principle if it leads to enslavement or death. When libertarians do argue from consequence, they have no experience or expertise to speak from, nor do they associate with people who do. Name the libertarian scholars with serious expertise in foreign or military affairs. Name the libertarian activists with considerable experience in foreign or military affairs. You get the point.
To be taken seriously as a philosophy of governance, libertarianism must grapple with foreign affairs, and with the possible reality that liberty depends on strong military power. Suggest this at a libertarian gathering, however, and you'll hear chuckles of derision. Perhaps they are right. The fact that they chuckle, however, but have yet to answer this question in a convincing manner, is evidence of the libertarian closemindedness on this issue.
But let's assume that most libertarians would support a military large enough to fend off foreign enemies. They would still have to confront the reality that they have no viable model of power maintenance against domestic enemies of liberty. To see what I mean, imagine that libertarians have nominated a slate of charismatic, well-funded, highly networked candidates (indulge me -- it's a Friday) who have won the Presidency and a solid majority of Congress. These revolutionaries proceed to create the libertarian wet dream -- drug legalization, plans for phasing out government schools and Social Security, isolationist foreign policy, no more ATF . . . and did I mention drug legalization?
In this fantasy the economy booms but foreign states are deterred by our minimal armed forces, people are happy, and sales of Atlas Shrugged go through the roof. It is the End of History.
Except, people get older. Memory fades. The Left remains committed to brainwashing children and co-opting public and private organizations. A child overdoses on heroin. Drugs are slowly re-criminalized. Some idiot old babyboomers (sorry for the triple redundancy) starve to death because they could never be bothered to save for old age. Others lose their savings when they invest them all in Bill Clinton Enterprises. Hello Social Security and financial regulation. The schools stay private because the Left realizes how much easier it is to peddle garbage by McDonaldizing it (i.e., by becoming the low-cost provider and pandering to human weakness).
So, in a generation or less, the revolution is slowly dismantled, and libertarians are blamed for the ills of society. They go back to holding their convention in a Motel Six in Las Vegas, and cheering when their candidate for Sonoma County Commissioner comes in a close third in a three-man race.
The Left doesn't face this problem. Deprived of principle, integrity, or honor, they are happy to snip the bottom rungs as they climb the ladder of power. You can already see this in Europe, where EU thugs are slowly transferring decision-making authority from quasi-democratic legislatures to unelected Brussels technocrats. We saw a hint of it in the U.S., when supposed children of the free-thinking sixties proved strikingly willing to use the power of the federal government to punish and stifle opposition.
But libertarians are all about individual liberty. Thus they face a quandary: How to maintain their state once it's built? This question should be especially pressing, insofar as their model implies that government tends to grow and become oppressive.
There appear to be two avenues open: the first is to adopt a variant of the Left's strategy, and eliminate unfavored options for future generations. Libertarians might, for example, replace the Constitution with a mirror document that does not contain any provision for amendment. This would leave the states open to adopt all manner of idiocy, however. Perhaps libertarians at the state level could adopt similarly permanent protections of individual rights as well. Thus libertarians could effectively ban most opposition parties, without suffering the guilt that Third World dictators endure when they do so more directly. I'm not sure if this would be acceptable in the libertarian paradigm. No matter, however, for the point is that they don't discuss it.
The second avenue for maintaining the libertarian state is culture. If children and new citizens are thoroughly educated in logic, economics, and other foundations of libertarian thinking, then perhaps they can be trusted to maintain liberty even in the face of very persuasive demagogues. But then certain topics become central: childrearing, childhood education, individual self-censorship and discipline, community norms, and reciprocal obligations. It would also require a consideration of the place religion plays in all of the aforementioned. Nearly all of these topics, however, are ignored by individualist libertarians, who furthermore routinely deride -- almost as a condition for membership -- those who call for their rigorous pursuit either as policy or personal practice.
Libertarians have less that's interesting to say about childhood education, for example, than does the Democratic Leadership Council. But childhood education is probably the linchpin of the libertarian society. How many libertarians, however, give much thought to where even their own children will go to school? Sure, they want safety and effectiveness, like any other parent, but how many give serious attention to finding or building schools that inculcate in children the ability to think critically, along with a sense of moral responsibility? Precious few.
If libertarians were serious about taking and maintaining power -- truly serious -- then they would drop the caterwauling over drug criminalization and focus every drop of energy on building schools. The latter is hard work, however, and forces consideration of messy things like moral instruction, and self-discipline, and what makes for good parenting. It's far easier to toke up in the discounted hotel room at the Libertarian Party Convention and rail against the DEA. Thus libertarianism remains less a force for change than a tool for self-expression.
This is in part a product of the natural individualistic nature of libertarianism. The solution isn't to eliminate -- or even drastically reduce -- the individualism that underlies libertarian philosophy, but it does require reconciliation with the social nature of human beings. It also requires acceptance of the fact that people are not only communal in nature, but spiritual. I will address this in my next essay.
To say that Libertarians are stoned all the time is just cheap invective. Whether they are stoned or not, you have to refute their arguments.
Where the Libertarian (and libertarian) mind resides!
Save you money.
In the end, they do look oftentimes like angry fools.
As the artlicle states, individual liberty is the basis of "libertarian" philosophy. It's also the basis of our country.
However, these people who call themselves "(L)libertarains" and who blame us for 9/11 really anger me.
Sounds like islamists. Which is probably why there isn't a nazi, jihadist or other kook that the losertarians don't like.
Scum calls to scum.
While individual liberty is the basis for America and the conservative philosophy, its quite different for the libertarian philosophy. A libertarian is someone who upholds the principles of absolute and unrestricted liberty. That's a formula for chaos and anarchy.
The question about maintaining the power of the libertarian state is an important one that's too rarely asked. It's not something Mencken would have asked about, though. And Jefferson would have said that it was up to people themselves to maintain their liberties, not to government.
Isn't that an oxymoron?
That is incorrect. Your desciption is better fitted to an anarchist, not a libertarian. Libertarians believe in the justice system although certain acts that are now crimes would be legal in a libertarian country.
Also it should be made clear that "liberty" for a libertarian refers only to government coercion. What happens in civil society is not the issue.
What interests me the most about the article is the foreign policy aspect. Libertarian foreign policy (if there is one) fails because it rests on an unrealistic view of the world. I don't want the US to be the world's policeman. Yet we must be, first because no one else can do it and second because our national interest requires it.
Me too - all these rascally totalitarians dont care for issues that focus on liberty - all they see is the smoke. Telling. Go WOD! Whoo hoo lets blow a few more billion, hell it grows on trees.
>>> a person who upholds the principles of absolute and unrestricted liberty especially of thought and action <<<
I have nothing against an individual choosing to think any thought they like, or writing down impractical ideas for others to read, but as a law and order conservative, I'm against "absolute and unrestricted" action in our civilized and law abiding society. America has a free and open society, but that doesn't translate into an anything goes approach, which is exactly what libertarianism is all about.
"One who advocates maximizing individual rights and minimizing the role of the state."
So hey what do we do when dictionaries don't agree? Anyway I would say that a better way to determine what the word means is to ask libertarians, "What does a libertarian believe?"
It seems to me that you are attacking libertarians on the basis of dictionary definitions - a bad idea I think. I have no problem with attacking libertarians since I am also doing that but you should attack on the basis of what they actually believe.
From my experience the equating of "libertarian" with "libertine" is baseless and shameful. If anything libertarians tend to be rather uptight controlled intellectual chaps, not wild dopers - but maybe that's just me.
If anything, my experience with Libertarians on FR is that they are uncontrolled hedonists with a leftist agenda.
not wild dopers - but maybe that's just me
IMO, by reading your responses, that's just you, and not the Libertarian, anarchist, and America hating thugs that pervade the majority of the Libertarian(i.e drugs, pornography "uber alles") threads posted by "Libertarians".
There is less "order" and less freedom in America than at any other time in our history. We now have a president putting in place measures designed to remove more of our freedoms and trample on the Bill of Rights.
What do you think about the government owning the largest share of land in the country and grabbing as much more as it can? What do you think your president will do about this (Land Grab Act Comes Back) for example?
And what do you think your president will do about gun rights? I'll tell you. When he's done, there will be no gun rights. Just watch what he does about this (BATF Moves to Block Importation of 'Obsolete' US Military Guns) for example.
I am not a libertarian, but at least they are for liberty, and that is the thing this country was founded for. For the few of us who still believe it is, "give me liberty or give me death," the demise of this country is apparently at hand. Most people do not care for freedom, most people are terrified of liberty, of actually being responsible for their own lives. They want "security," a "big brother," a "safety net," and they don't care how many people have to subjugated or repressed to get it.
That definition isn't any different then the one found in Merriam Webster. A good argument can be made, that maximizing individual rights is the same as upholding the principles of absolute and unrestricted liberty.
>>>It seems to me that you are attacking libertarians on the basis of dictionary definitions...
Not at all. My past exchanges with libertarians here on FR, prove conclusively, that I have very real differences with libertarians that go far beyond mere dictionary definitions. But dictionaries do offer accepted standards and basic interpretations for words, that we all use in our daily communications. In this specific case, definitions are being used for reasons of political comparison. I view those ideas found in the libertarian philosophy, much different when compared to the political agenda of the conservative movement.
>>>If anything libertarians tend to be rather uptight controlled intellectual chaps, not wild dopers...
As applied to libertarians in general, I would have to disagree with you. I see nothing intellectual about supporting drug legalization, or spreading STD's through the legalization of prostitution. Those are just two differences conservatives have with libertarians.
Hey....stop that snickering you democrats! Don't forget...Nader and the greens are still out there.
I totally disagree with you.
I do not support land grabs by the federal government and neither does President Bush. I strongly support the 2nd Amendment right for Americans to keep and bear arms, and so does President Bush.
>>>I am not a libertarian, but at least they are for liberty, and that is the thing this country was founded for.
Its true. Many libertarians favor returning America to the days of 1790, when the vast majority of folks were uneducated, poor and didn't live past 40 years old. I don't support that type of life. While life may not be perfect in the 21st century, its far better then at any time in American history. Things may not be perfect in todays world, but when has life ever been perfect?
This ain't no "eurosocialist state" we're talking about here. This is the USA! Aside from the immoral nature of prostitution, I guarantee you, the legalization of prostitution would see skyrocketing increases in STD's, from sea to shining sea.
With the exception of the first paragraph there are no attributed quotes or sources for any of the writer's allegations.
Even the most biased media hack goes to some trouble provide credible quotes and sources to back up his/her position even if they have to lie. ( True story: AP recently retracted a string of published news items because the writer's sources couldn't be found or didn't exist. I will locate a link if you are interested.)
Here is one example:
I have heard libertarian thinkers much smarter than me give brilliant, sophisticated, world-wise discourses on libertarian domestic policy, only to sound like naive sophomores when the talk turns to foreign affairs.
What Libertarian thinkers? Where? When? This is nothing more than an unsubstantiated gratuitous allegation used to buttress a contention the Libertarians don't understand Foreign Policy.
Without attribution it is meaningless.
Any Conservatives or Republicans who rely on these tactics to persuade and inform are indistinguishable from their left wing liberal counterparts.
I guarantee you, the legalization of prostitution would see skyrocketing increases in STD's, from sea to shining sea.
True to form...argument based on emotion instead of reason.
Tell me...what are the per capita rates of STDs in Nevada, as compared to the rest of the country?
What emotion would that be?
It's just like legalizing drugs. If you don't think drug use would skyrocket with legalization, you're ignorant about what comprises human nature.
Yeah, those pesky leftists, running around trying to abolish the income tax and eliminate bloated government programs. What do they think this is, a free country?
Like in Nevada? Oh wait, it doesn't happen there because the legal prostitutes are regularly tested. Try again.
Well I'll believe it when I see him do something about the Bill about to be pushed through. He doesn't even mention it.
Its true. Many libertarians favor returning America to the days of 1790, when the vast majority of folks were uneducated, poor and didn't live past 40 years old. I don't support that type of life. While life may not be perfect in the 21st century, its far better then at any time in American history.
I do not care what libertarians favor. I do know most Americans despise freedom, and think it means "freedom from responsibility."
It is not good to measure the results of any political condition, however, at its beginning. Since the conditions, politically, of the late 1790s remained to a large degree into the middle 1800s, look at what had been accomplished in this country under these free times. By 1840 Literacey in all states ranged between 93% and 100%. The first tax funded school opened ten years later. With government now in charge of education, about 40% of blacks and 17% of whites cannot read at all. As for life expectancy, it has been increasing by 1/2 year every 10 years worldwide. Certainly this can be attributed to better diet, medicine, and living conditions, but not to govenment.
When I was a boy we children used to spend hours playing in the woods, or downtown in a major NE city. We were never in any danger. No one in our neighborhood locked their doors. My neighbor worked nights and walked home most summer evening through city streets and dark neighborhoods (no street lights) after midnight. She was never in any danger.
When I was in the fifth grade all the boys were required to have a jacknife for one of our classes. (No boy would have dreamed of going anyplace without his jacknife.) No one ever threatened anyone with a knife (and none of the girls got pregnant.)
You may be too young to know how free we really were, just 40 years ago, and how much more orderly life was.
How many people do you think really want to take drugs now that do not take them because they are illegal. Is it only because they are illegal that you do not take drugs? Are you better than everyone else?
If you think anyone who wants to take drugs isn't, you are completely ignorant about today's society.
I don't know, I usually consider myself something of a libertarian, yet I don't believe in "absolute and unrestricted liberty." It seems pretty clear that if one person has absolute and unrestricted liberty, he cannot avoid being able to encroach on someone else's absolute and unrestricted liberty.
F.A. Hayek, who is one of my inspirations, rejected, after consideration, the label of "libertarian." I'll have to look up why, later.
Isn't that an oxymoron?
Yes, but it's the author's oxymoron. Maybe he's using "state" to mean condition or situation, though.
It "seems pretty clear," is the problem. If liberty is defined as being free to do whatever one chooses without interfering with anyone else's liberty, what you suggest is impossible. In fact, thus defined, every other relationship between individual means that someone is usurping authority over another individual's life. The correct name for that is tyranny.
Those are your choices, liberty or tyranny. Most people are petrified of liberty, because it also means they must be responsible for their own lives. Most people prefer tyranny.
That comes pretty close to my definition of libertarianism. I believe it is also not too far from "classical liberalism." I believe it is also not far off from what our founding fathers had in mind.
"Absolute and unrestricted liberty" is not what I think of as libertarianism, but was suggested by another poster. However alot of folks who call themselves "Libertarians," such as the ones at Lewrockwell.com, seem like damn fools.
Within the general group of "libertarians," one must distinguish between members of the Libertarian Party and those who call themselves "libertarians" but are members of some other party or have no political affiliation. Within either of these groups, there are factions just as there are in any other political group. I think there's a strong pro-Second Amendment faction that really has a more conservative Republican outlook on life but is frustrated with the Republican Party. I think there's a strong pro-drug faction that just wants drugs to be legal and likes the intellectual cover that libertarianism provides. I've met Libertarians whose real agenda is that they hate God and hate anyone who is an active, practicing Christian but at the same time want low taxes. They can't be Democrats without supporting taxes and think that supporting the Republicans is to support Christian morality. I think another faction is made of business people who are frustrated with the Republican Party's failures but whose beliefs could just as easily fit within the party.
The point of this long introduction is that generalization about the "libertarians" is always going to have some inaccuracies just as generalization about any political movement.
I differ with libertarianism on its advocacy of open borders. If we throw our borders open to anyone and ask no questions, a foreign enemy can send entire divisions into our country with all of their equipment to seize anything they want whenever they want it. This may sound silly, but listen to the rhetoric of a hard-core libertarian and ask yourself where their position would allow us to act for our own defense. If 10,000 men came sailing over from Cuba with rifles, does any policy that the libertarians advocate allow us to ask them what they are doing? Do any of their policies allow us to stop them before they form into ranks and start shooting?
Another national security issue where I disagree with libertarianism is free trade. I don't believe that tariff policies should allow the unions to put the entire American economy in a stranglehold, but I believe that our policies should try to encourage domestic manufacture of many products. One cause of the War Between the States was the tariff. The South wanted free trade because there was little manufacturing in the South and most powerful Southerners preferred to receive goods from England or France without paying tariffs. The North wanted a tariff to protect Northern manufacturers. When the war was being planned, the South knew that it would need manufactured goods from Europe. The South assumed that the draw of free trade with the South would cause British and French ships to run the Union blockade in order to maintain trade with the South. What the South learned was that when the lead starts to fly, free trade is revealed as nice idea to debate particularly when one is a consumer of goods that might come in trade but not a principle for which people brave the battlefield. One reason that the South lost was that it simply couldn't manufacture needed goods. A lesson for us should be that the nation that can't make what it needs will eventually fall to the nation that can. If a modest tariff helps keep manufacturing at home, it is a good thing.
The final point is that too many libertarians assume that everyone will behave as they do. They assume that because they are motivated largely by economic concerns, others will be as well. They think that if someone has what they need, that person will trade with them so that they can obtain what they need. They don't understand that many people realize that there is more profit in refusing to sell and then conquering those who do not have when they become weak. On a national security level, this blindness is dangerous.
My grandmother always said there are more horse's arses than there are horses.