Tuesday, February 4, 2014


Jonah Goldberg, who seems to get better with every column, has produced a gem of insight and breadth of scope. The key to the essay:

Of course, individual liberals may be civil-libertarians. I can certainly think of plenty who are. But as an intellectual, cultural and political project, I think liberalism is better understood as a competing value system. Think of it this way. Social conservatism is very libertarian about all sorts of things, and not libertarian about other things. Constitutional considerations aside, where it believes the State shouldn’t interfere it is because non-interference advances a cultural agenda of traditional conservatism.

In attempting to distinguish libertarian ideas from the dominant "conservative" and "liberal" families of thought -- those aren't "sneer quotes," for a change, but rather an acknowledgement that the quoted terms are labels, not denotationally applicable descriptions of the postures to which they're attached -- there is no clearer nor more defensible distinction than this, which Goldberg highlights above:

Conservatives and liberals prioritize outcomes;
Libertarians prioritize principles.

Goldberg is unabashed about his stance -- "that mainstream conservatism is vastly more libertarian than liberalism for a number of reasons" -- while gently reminding us that conservatism has its own set of heavily preferred outcomes, to the attainment of which State power should be applied:

  • "[W]here it believes the State shouldn’t interfere it is because non-interference advances a cultural agenda of traditional conservatism;"
  • "[A] very limited positive role for the State to second guess the allocation of resources in the market place or to spend money better than the people who earn it;"
  • "Conservatism, unlike liberalism, considers the family a near-sacrosanct institution."

To be fair, Goldberg's comment about the sacredness of the family is aimed mainly at the protection of the family from government intrusions, but it must be borne in mind that conservatives also favor a certain family pattern -- male husband, female wife, and dependent minor children -- to be ratified by the State.

In contrast, the libertarian approach is essentially independent of outcomes. It concedes certain outcomes as highly desirable, but it resists the use of political means to seek them, except in those cases where the inherently collective nature of the interactions at issue permits no other course. (Examples would include national defense, the control of the borders, and the protection of the helpless from exploitation or abuse.)

The thoughtful citizen, in deciding upon an alignment, must confront the demands of:

  • Liberalism, with its worship of State power and the top-down imposition of its preferences;
  • Modern conservatism, which has grown ever more libertarian with time;
  • Libertarianism, which eschews discussion of outcomes in favor of principles and the constraints and processes that arise from them.

In all three cases, the citizen looking for a political home will gauge how well his own preferred outcomes would be served by the principles and policies of each of these families of thought.

At this time, the appeal of liberalism -- call it progressivism if you like; calling a turd a "metabolic by-product" doesn't change its aroma -- is in steep decline. That's most of the reason its promoters have striven to create an ever-larger and more luxuriant welfare state; government dependents can be relied upon to vote for more government. "Pure" libertarianism, whose appeal arises from its logical coherence and its seeming universality, is in something of a decline. Too many libertarians are unwilling to allow that there's a domain outside which the core libertarian principle, individual rights, simply doesn't apply (e.g., warfare, immigration, and abortion). However, conservatism has gained allegiants as it has moved in the direction of greater freedom, especially freedom of enterprise. (It might surprise some readers to learn that conservatism hasn't always been friendly to free-market economics; nevertheless, that is the case.)

In abstract terms of alignments and positions espoused, this appears to be the pattern of the near future. Politically, what will matter most, as always, is the cleverness and ruthlessness of those who succeed in gaining power.

However, if we attempt to peer further into the future than the next two elections, the influences to be reckoned with change considerably. Imagine, for example, that a solidly conservative governing majority, well supported in the federal courts, were to emerge after the 2016 elections. Such a government, if it were faithful to the postures delineated above and in Goldberg's article, would embark upon an ambitious program of federal retrenchment, aimed at reducing to the greatest possible extent Washington's involvement in the decisions of private Americans and their voluntary associations. Whether or not you would find that goal desirable -- I certainly do -- it would elicit enormous resistance simply because of the scope of the changes sought.

Turn that a few times on your mental spit: a conservative government faithful to its posture would call forth intense resistance to the changes it seeks: a conservative backlash. As Arthur Herzog put it in The B.S. Factor, "Change is hard, and difficulty makes people impatient." But don't imagine that liberalism would fare better. Indeed, the demonstration is already before us: the past five years of liberalism in the federal saddle have provoked considerable resistance to the government's policies and programs, some of which is founded on liberals' preferences.

Sometimes outcomes aren't everything...even when they seem attainable.

1 comment:

RobertW said...

Re: conservatism becoming more Libertarian. Interesting observation. One group where that seems to have not occurred is in the Republican which is at ever growing odds their conservative base. As much as I would love to see a conservative / libertarian outcome in 2016 I wouldn't expect much from it even if it happened. There are just too many people at all levels of society that prosper by the confiscation of other people's wealth, that such a conservative / libertarian government would be thwarted at every step by the zombie hoards.