Thursday, December 15, 2016

Learning The Limits

     Despite my own libertarian inclinations, I frequently find myself at odds with persons who regard libertarianism as the be-all and end-all of sociopolitical thought. You see, I’ve been there. From my own experiences, I can tell you why the philosophy has gained so little traction among other Americans.

     Here’s a typical case of the sort that elicits my disdain:

     “Conservatism” is Limp Dicked and Useless

     What is “conservatism,” exactly?

     I was one once – and I can’t tell you. Not coherently, anyhow. Which got to bothering me when I was a “conservative.” Which is probably why I no longer am a “conservative.” I like a philosophy that has defined, defensible principles.

     Like Libertarianism.

     Conservatism, on the other hand, is intellectually transgendered – a confused mishmash of conflicting urges.

     Read the rest if you like, but having done so myself, I can assure you that the insulting tone of the above is a reliable indication of what you would find.

     Eric Peters is apparently unconcerned with persuasion. If the recent election season has reminded us of anything, it would be that insulting your opponent’s allegiants won’t earn you their favor. But there’s more to the problem of the contemptuous libertarian purist than that. In particular, there’s this: the “pure” libertarian lacks a sense for the bounds around libertarianism’s application.

     Where they apply, libertarian principles are wholesome and constructive; outside those bounds, they’re utterly destructive.

     In a long essay on this subject, I wrote:

     Many conservatives find themselves at odds with the official positions of the Republican Party on one or more important points. Yet most of those persons would not be comfortable with "pure" libertarianism, and for good reasons. It's too wholesale. It attempts to answer every question, to be all things to all men. And it fails to recognize where it ceases to provide palatable answers.

     Please don't mistake me. I think the libertarian political philosophy, where applicable, is a very good one. It's more accurate in its assessment of human nature and its controlling influences, and leads to better societies and better economic results, than any other political concept ever advanced. But the "where applicable" part is very important; in fact, it's the most important part of this paragraph, as it explains in near-totality the "conservative-libertarian schism."

     Where would the libertarian postulates of individual rights and individual responsibilities fail to apply? Three generic places:

  1. Where the atoms that interact are not individuals, but collectivities;
  2. Where the "individual" under discussion is incapable, either from innate incapacity or from injury, of understanding rights and responsibilities;
  3. Where rights clash in an absolute and irreconcilable way.

     Important specific topics that fall within these categories are:

  1. National defense and foreign dealings;
  2. The protection and restraint of the immature and the mentally diseased;
  3. Abortion.

     Ponder the above for a moment while I fetch more coffee.


     The position of Mankind de novo would appear Stateless, and indeed it was so. The State is an invention of men, not something created by God that awaited Man’s emergence. In his tome The State, Franz Oppenheimer describes the proto-States that became the embryo of what we endure today. Those proto-States were marauding raiders that ceased to maraud, and settled in place to mulct communities they had already conquered. A great movie well known to Americans, The Magnificent Seven, illustrates an early stage of this process.

     A community so conquered became the de facto property of its conquerors. That imbued the conquering band with a sense of what we would call responsibility for its property: the need to maintain it, which of course includes an obligation to defend it when it’s attacked. Thus, a sense of allegiance could be fostered between conquered and conquerors: “Yes, it’s irritating that we must tithe to them, but all the same, they do protect us from the robbers over the hill.”

     The salient point here is that the State arises naturally from human evil and rapacity. It persists – when it persists – because the rulers learn a sense of obligation to the ruled, and the ruled come to appreciate “what we get for our money.” Unless and until the distribution of human characteristics should be abolished – and in that regard, I refer you to C. S. Lewis’s the Abolition of Man, – particularly Chapter 3 – there will be no doing-away with the dynamic that produces the State.

     (For those interested in fictional depictions of the emergence of States, I can do no better than to refer you to these works. You might find them unpersuasive, but I can do no better.)

     From the moment States are formed, men are compelled to interact, at least some of the time, as collectives. Quod erat demonstrandum.


     “Freedom is a tenable objective for responsible individuals only. We do not believe in freedom for children or madmen." – Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom

     I trust that no one will dispute that there have been, are, and will always be persons who cannot look after themselves or protect their own interests. Some are cognitively or intellectually deficient. Some are insane. And some are infants, whether inside or outside the womb. The survival of such individuals depends in great measure on restraining them from harming themselves, which is inconsistent with a full measure of individual freedom. This is a point that cannot be debated; one must accept it or dismiss it. The “pure” libertarian tends to dismiss it...but as with the existence of the evil and rapacious, the generative phenomenon is not something whose elimination our species can confidently anticipate.

     Granted that there are difficult problems here, especially the questions of “who shall decide” and on what grounds. That doesn’t make them vanish as we might hope of such inconveniences.


     Finally for this morning, there are clashes between seemingly unchallengeable possessors of rights. The most vivid one occurs between an unborn baby and the mother who contemplates abortion. Either both individuals possess a right to life – i.e., a right not to be killed – or neither does. There is no deontological difference between the two. That argues powerfully in favor of the prohibition of abortion and some variety of official enforcement of laws against it, at least in those cases where no invasion of privacy is required to garner the evidence that an unborn child has been aborted.

     There may be other clashes that must be resolved in favor of one side over the other – ethical theorists call these “lifeboat cases” – but one is all we need to drive the point home.


     To sum up: There is a good case that governments – States – will always exist, and that in some situations at least they perform useful services of which their subjects approve. There is no case whatsoever that the characteristics and circumstances that produce States can somehow be obviated.

     It follows that for “pure” libertarians to vend insults at those of us who see things a bit differently – and for context, I was once the Chairman of the Libertarian Party of New York – is unjustified, wholly apart from the inutility of such behavior. Perhaps Eric Peters and those who think like him should ponder that awhile.

3 comments:

  1. The old quote often attributed to Lenin "the Capitalists will sell us the rope with which to hang them" is instructive here. A purely libertarian society would, indeed, allow the selling of much rope to militant Communists. The Libertarian shrugs when industry is outsourced to China, or when service is outsourced to India. The Libertarian shrugs when the profits from both activities are used to buy up land in America, and shares of American companies... and then shrugs again when such companies start acting more like Chinese firms, than American ones. China, of course, is no friend of our interests.

    Many self-described Libertarians are in favor of open borders, thinking their ideology will convert newcomers. This is an idiotic position. You do not accept mass immigration of Communists, Islamists, and other peoples in favor of gross tyranny. They will soon subsume and outvote you, and install their preferred tyrants over you. To me, this is the biggest contradiction in their thinking, but by no means the only one.

    Libertarianism works well enough in a traditional American context. Better than anything else I can think of. But it must also be protected and defended from tyrants, especially foreign ones.

    I'm not smart enough to suggest how the problems may be fixed. But I can say that any self-described Libertarian who does not admit these problems exist is foolhardy and may be arguing for slitting his own throat.

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  2. It seems that trying to fit oneself into a category is a maiming Procrustean operation. Why not take positions based on specific issues, stating the values and their hierarchies which you will choose as best applicable to the situation involved?
    Thus, you become responsible to the laws, and your personal morality/ethics, case by case. Ideas and their expressions have consequences, therefore it be hooves one to be prepared.
    Anarchy, nullification of societal laws, is less likely when you have your own derriere on the line.

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  3. The case of abortion fits a philosophy of limited government very well. Under present law, pregnant women have the legal power of life and death over their fetuses. That makes them very local governments and their powers should be limited.

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