From Big Tent to Anti-Concept

Monday, March 07, 2005

I have stated before that the morality of altruism espoused by Christianity conflicts with capitalism. Consequently, I am never really surprised when religious conservatives choose their religion over capitalism when the two blatantly clash. The odd bedfellows of social and religious conservatism became such in the heyday of the left-wing assault on everything American back in the sixties and they have remained in a marriage of convenience since. But this article makes me wonder if the inevitable divorce is near at hand. I have written recently about past conservative attacks on Ayn Rand as a capitalist, about the religious right feeling its oats (or what it thinks to be its oats), and about the Republicans being less and less the party of small government.

Today, through RealClear Politics, I encountered an article that fits right in with what I fear might be an emerging post-election theme: the religious right are slowly attempting to marginalize the fiscal conservatives. The title of the article, intentionally or not, oddly echoes Ayn Rand, who once called Libertarians "hippies of the right." This article is by Robert Locke, and is called, "Marxism of the Right." Its punches are about as accurate and hard-hitting as a National Review critique of an Ayn Rand novel, but it nevertheless is instructive to read as a sort of blueprint for how the religionists will attempt to marginalize capitalists and the better part of the Republican party.

Before I continue, let me make it clear that I am no fan of Libertarianism. The most succinct (and my favorite) criticism of that political movement comes from Peter Schwartz's outstanding polemic, Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty, in which he says "Libertarianism deserves only one fundamental criticism: it does not value liberty." How can a proponent of the philosophy of Ayn Rand, whom many falsely believe to be a Libertarian, and who is a defender of laissez-faire capitalism, say this? In a nutshell, because that party is an evasive attempt to ignore the fact that the idea of liberty is a complicated concept that is anything but uncontroversial. Furthermore, a proper defense of that concept requires an entire philosophical hierarchy starting, not just with the nature of man, but of reality and how we know what we know. To value liberty, one must first understand it, and this is where the Libertarians fail. To take a common example that happens to occur in the article, some Libertarians are anarchists. But a thorough understanding of what liberty is -- freedom from compulsion from others -- and what liberty requires will reveal that one must have some form of government to protect that freedom. Thus the "big tent" approach of Libertarianism results in a political movement loaded with people like anarchists who do not value freedom. Worse still, in having done this, the movement has, conveniently for the social conservatives, set up such concepts as liberty and capitalism as straw men to be torn down by a hack like Robert Locke. And this is why I'm bothering with this article at all. Because Locke isn't attacking Libertarianism proper. He's attacking fiscal conservativism and its ethical foundation by proxy.

As a case in point, take the opening paragraph, which starts off with a fairly accurate picture of the kinds of people attracted to the Libertarian movement, but quickly veers off into an attack on the straw man..

Free spirits, the ambitious, ex-socialists, drug users, and sexual eccentrics often find an attractive political philosophy in libertarianism, the idea that individual freedom should be the sole rule of ethics and government. Libertarianism offers its believers a clear conscience to do things society presently restrains, like make more money, have more sex, or take more drugs. It promises a consistent formula for ethics, a rigorous framework for policy analysis, a foundation in American history, and the application of capitalist efficiencies to the whole of society [italics added]. But while it contains substantial grains of truth, as a whole it is a seductive mistake.

Note the italicized sentence. If there is one thing Libertarianism explicitly tries to avoid, this would be it. Schwartz quotes Murray Rothbard on that score.

... Libertarianism is a coalition of adherents from all manner of philosophic (or nonphilosophic) positions, including emotivism, hedonism, Kantian a priorism, and many others. My own position grounds Libertarianism on a natural rights theory embedded in a wider system of Aristotelian-Lockean natural law and a realist ontology and metaphysics. But although those of us taking that position believe that only it provides a satisfactory groundwork as a basis for individual liberty, this is an argument within the libertarian camp about the proper basis and grounding of Libertarianism rather than about the doctrine itself. [Schwartz's emphasis]

Ultimately, Rothbard's assertion that he is an Aristotelian to the contrary, he, like any other Libertarian, must necessarily be a subjectivist. The practical results of this subjectivism plague the Libertarian movement, along with its alleged advocacy of capitalism, and permit Locke to deliver what many will regard as a withering attack on capitalism as a political system.

Recall that, despite its total lack of a philosophy, Locke asserts that Libertarianism is, of all things, a coherent philosophy. He has a reason for this assertion:

But because 95 percent of the libertarianism one encounters at cocktail parties, on editorial pages, and on Capitol Hill is a kind of commonplace “street” libertarianism, I decline to allow libertarians the sophistical trick of using a vulgar libertarianism to agitate for what they want by defending a refined version of their doctrine when challenged philosophically. We’ve seen Marxists pull that before.

Locke is arguing against a "refined version of their doctrine." Well, since they don't have a doctrine, I guess Locke gets to make one up! If we're wondering why he wants to do this (and thus what he is really attacking), we don't have to read much further.

If Marxism is the delusion that one can run society purely on altruism and collectivism, then libertarianism is the mirror-image delusion that one can run it purely on selfishness and individualism

Interesting how he phrases this. "One can run a society." This is not just an evasion of the fact that, free to trade with one another, men in a society will organize themselves, it is also an expression of a desire: to be the one "running" things. (This is a common desire among social conservatives.) This will become clearer as we go on. It is also worth asking, "What is 'society'?" for that matter, too. He correctly sets up two pairs of polar opposites: altruism vs. selfishness and collectivism vs. individualism. He then incorrectly claims, with the hackneyed objection of "extremism" that, just as Marxism was a delusion, so is the idea that selfishness and individualism can form the basis for a politics.

But to make this charge, he has to rely on the fact that most readers don't grasp the concept of freedom with the sophistication that would be required in the general public before it would accept the idea of laissez-faire. So he goes on the attack. Remember that he is attacking capitalism as a political system under the proxy of Libertarianism. " The most fundamental problem with libertarianism is very simple: freedom, though a good thing, is simply not the only good thing in life." No shit, Sherlock. That's part of where having a coherent philosophy of life comes in. A political system can only allow men to think or not. It cannot live fulfilling lives for them. To damn capitalism for failing to provide fulfillment is patently absurd.

But remember, that's not what Locke is really attacking. In the next few paragraphs, Locke paints quite the picture of the boogey-man. "Libertarianism" (i.e., "excessive" selfishness and individualism) results in quite a few excesses and deficiencies. Without the moral compass of altruism, we get moral relativism. Without good-ole collectivism, we lack national security, clean air, and a healthy culture. (Whether by that last he means we're all on fad diets, we've banned smoking, or we can see only G-rated movies is anyone's guess.) Has it ever occurred to this ironically-named Locke that Washington might have fought against British tyranny for selfish reasons? Or even that Washington realized that good character is of great selfish value? Or for that matter that men who realize that their selfish interests are at stake need not be drafted to fight in wars? (I think Washington led a voluntary force or two in his time.) Or that clean air might be better achieved with a more rational definition of property rights as applied to factory emissions? Or that freedom is our best protection from meddlers forcing us to do what they deem "healthy." Somehow, I think he is painfully aware of that last one and is desperately hoping we'll not be too fastidious in what we regard as a "healthy" society.... He similarly pretends later, for an entire paragraph, that similar questions are unanswerable to what he calls Libertarianism.

This article goes on interminably. Like a recent article on Ayn Rand that occurred in Reason magazine and that I discussed
, it would take an entire book to refute all the misconceptions, deliberate or not. I'll go through just a few here. "They flout the drug laws but continue to collect government benefits they consider illegitimate." This is a twofer. The whole certainly describes a lot of the moonbats who populate the Libertarian party, but is used to tar all capitalists. But note the ingenuous additional attack on genuine individualists. Am I somehow a hypocrite unless I boycott, say, our socialistic highway system? Um. No. I haven't much of a choice, but to use these roads and point out that toll roads might be a better funding mechanism. "Total freedom today would just be a way of running down accumulated social capital and storing up problems for the future." How? To cite one of his examples, "What if a free society needed to draft its citizens in order to remain free?" Aside from the fact that a society that holds a draft is not, in that respect, free, what is a "society"? Our leaders decided that they -- I mean "society" -- "needed" a draft to fight in Vietnam. To put it in crass terms (Locke's), that sure does sound like a "running down [of] accumulated [human] capital" to me. In my words, that's a huge number of irreplaceable human beings lost forever for a war they should have been free not to fight in. It sounds like in Locke's "free" utopia that men don't even own their own lives! How free is that? I guess that beats extreme individualism any day. "[L]ibertarianism would have to allow one to sell oneself into [slavery]." In a society that respects individual rights, since no one can own slaves, no one can sell themselves into slavery. (No buyers, you see, Bobby.)

One criticism bears closer attention because it shows how inimical to laissez-faire capitalism Locke really is. After first asserting that a return to the gold standard would result in "currency debasement" and "fraud" -- and that our fiat currency is thus superior (in being both fraudulent and debased, I suppose) -- Locke goes on to say the following.

... [L]ibertarianism has a naïve view of economics that seems to have stopped paying attention to the actual history of capitalism around 1880. There is not the space here to refute simplistic laissez faire, but note for now that the second-richest nation in the world, Japan, has one of the most regulated economies, while nations in which government has essentially lost control over economic life, like Russia, are hardly economic paradises. Legitimate criticism of over-regulation does not entail going to the opposite extreme.

1880 would pretty much mark the end of the period in which we were ever even close to having laissez-faire. The comparison of Japan and Russia is particularly interesting. On the one hand, it equivocates on the one fundamental positive role of government in an economy: maintaining rule of law. This is not the same thing as attempting to regulate an economy. This is the state getting itself out of the way of the economy while also keeping criminals out of the way. Aside from the fact that Russia still needs to recover from decades of much more extensive government control over its economy than Japan ever had, its current government both attempts to regulate the economy and fails to fend off the interference of criminal syndicates like the Russian Mafia. On the other hand, note what Locke is advocating: government "
control over economic life"! Too bad Russia lost that! (If Locke doesn't understand the difference I elaborated on above, we have to assume that he advocates state intervention in the economy.) It is not government control of an economy that brings prosperity, but government protection of the freedom of individuals. This is needed for such hedonistic manifestations of reefer madness as contractual agreements and long-range planning.

I will close with Locke's final paragraph.

This contempt for self-restraint is emblematic of a deeper problem: libertarianism has a lot to say about freedom but little about learning to handle it. Freedom without judgment is dangerous at best, useless at worst. Yet libertarianism is philosophically incapable of evolving a theory of how to use freedom well because of its root dogma that all free choices are equal, which it cannot abandon except at the cost of admitting that there are other goods than freedom. Conservatives should know better.

This is Locke's closing argument after a litany of falsehoods and misconceptions about what life in a completely free society would be like. But how was he able to get to this point so easily? In large part because the Libertarians (the real movement rather than Locke's straw man now) have helped him by being poor advocates for freedom. Note the return to the theme of "individualism=moral relativism." This is the most damning aspect of the article, because it is precisely this new criticism of capitalism that the Libertarians have added to the anticapitalist arsenal by being so intellectually promiscuous. While some conservative thinkers will find reasons to attack capitalism anyway, they would have to be more open about their altruistic morality and thus would appeal to fewer people. Sloppiness about basic premises and moral relativism are no way to advocate capitalism.

-- CAV


3-8-05 (1) Corrected a few typos and some bad wording. Made clearer my point about how a government contributes to the functioning of an economy by maintaining law and order. (2) And a few more typos, courtesy of reader Adrian Hester.

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