Politics & Policy

The Libertarian Lobe

Libertarianism tells kids everything they want to be told.

It may be a cliché to point this out (in fact I think it’s a cliché to point out it’s a cliché), but the great thing about being young is that you can do all sorts of things for the first time: Plant your first kiss, hit your first homerun, read your first novel, discover your first love, drink your first beer, realize for the first time what Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” is really about, etc.

Alas, the thrill that comes with the novelty of youth tends to delude a lot of young people. Often, they convince themselves that just because they’ve thought of something for their first time they believe they’ve thought of it for the first time, period. This translates into a kind of arrogance where some kids think no one else can really understand something as well as they can. You know the kind of kids I’m talking about; in high school they claimed to have cracked “the real meaning of Bruce Springsteen,” or that no one else but them really “got” The Catcher in the Rye.

This is especially the case in our culture, where we fetishize the new, the fresh, the young, and all the other adjectives employed to describe Abercrombie & Fitch catalogs. Indeed, Oscar Wilde — a man who would have a well-worn stack of such catalogs if he were alive today — once remarked, “In America, the young are always ready to give those who are older than themselves the full benefits of their inexperience.”

I’ve been thinking about this in the wake of a fun debate I had with Michael Lynch of Reason magazine on Wednesday night. It was sponsored by the America’s Future Foundation, a group for right-leaning young’ns in Washington, D.C.

Lynch and I were there to hash out the relative tensions between conservatives and libertarians. In one sense, I thought it was great booking because Michael and I had a fun and engaging natter-fest. In another sense it was the wrong panel because Michael and I get along very well and neither of us fit the caricatures of our respective causes. He’s neither a radical libertine individualist nor a Lincoln-hating states’ rightser who confuses nostalgia for a fictional past with an achievable agenda for the future (golly, who could I be talking about?). Lynch is a principled libertarian who understands progress comes only by making compromises with reality. As for me, well, I seemed to disappoint some of the more hot-blooded libertoids and Randians because I’m more comfortable with quoting the Simpsons than gospel to back up my arguments.

Regardless, the place was packed to the rafters will all sorts of nice, earnest people of various rightish persuasions. But, as is usually the case in Washington, the libertoids were the most ideologically aggressive, both during the Q&A and in private conversations. It was these kids — interns from Cato, fresh Borg drones from the Libertarian party, and kids who as teenagers had read Ayn Rand or Murray Rothbard the way others had listened to Bruce Springsteen — who seemed the most cross with me.

Again, let me stress, these are not dumb people — despite the fact that, as a statistical matter, young people are dumber than older people. In many respects these were the best and brightest of the Right and I’d gladly stack them against their opposite numbers on the Left.

Forceless Ideologues

But, in a very serious way, many of these libertoids were every bit as closed-minded, zealous, and ideologically blinkered as the religious conservatives whom so many of them dislike. One young man from the Libertarian party asked during the Q&A (roughly): “Why won’t Republicans [libertarian troopers have a very difficult time grasping that conservatives and Republicans aren’t the same thing], recognize that the State uses force to achieve its ends?”

Again I’m paraphrasing and trimming, but the question is a common one. A certain breed of libertoid (and anarchist, leftist, and guy whom you’re afraid to sit next to on the bus) loves to point out that states, even the most democratic and egalitarian ones, achieve their ends only through violence or the threat of it. Try to avoid paying taxes or sorting your bottles and cans and eventually when all is said and done a man from the government will force you at gunpoint to either pay him some money or he will put you in jail.

These guys believe “the State” is simply a vast and organized murderous enterprise. As Murray Rothbard (this school’s patron saint) once wrote, “In fact, if you wish to know how libertarians regard the State and any of its acts, simply think of the State as a criminal band, and all of the libertarian attitudes will logically fall into place.” [The Italics are mine].

You catch that? “Any of its acts” means the State is everywhere and at all times participating in something illegitimate and criminal. Indeed, writes Rothbard, “…libertarians regard the state as the Supreme, the eternal, the best organized aggressor against the persons and property of the mass of the public. All States everywhere, whether democratic, dictatorial, or monarchical, whether red, white, blue or brown.” Those are his italics.

Now, in a sense, he’s right of course. For the most part governments are the only organizations that wage wars and put people in jail. The Mafia, Yakuza, the Teamsters, and all other mobs combined obviously never committed as much violence as Hitler or Stalin, nor as much as many of America’s greatest presidents. Hell, I bet the Swedes have committed more violence than any drug cartel.

But so what? Is this really so astounding an observation? Of course the state uses violence. The fact is states have always used violence and, for the foreseeable future, they always will. Libertarians — again, of a certain ilk — seem to think that this insight should settle the argument about government. The fact is that it begins the argument about government. The relevant question is, “Did the people on the receiving end deserve force?” Or, “Was the government right to use it?” That is the meaty stuff in a democracy.

Most people understand implicitly that governments use violence. When we outlaw murder and rape we authorize the use of violence against those who murder and rape. The use of force against these sorts of people bothers virtually no one, libertoids included.

Force in and of itself is not evil, despite what you hear from the Kumbayah crowd. Parents ultimately must use force on the people whom they love most — their children. We start with persuasion, but no parent would hesitate to yank his child from an open window if it were necessary, and few would overly ruminate about whether a spanking was in order for a kid who shoplifted. In sense, to believe that violence, even government violence, is always wrong, you cannot believe in doing right.

A Philosophy for Teenagers

A young lady at the AFF event brimmed with the type of arrogance I’m talking about. First she seemed convinced that I didn’t understand things as well as she did (which is always possible and often probable, but not in this case). She asked me if I had read Virginia Postrel’s excellent book, The Future and Its Enemies. When I said yes, she responded, “Well, then I can’t understand how you can think the way you do.”

So we started talking about the use of force being illegitimate and I decided to break out my tried-and-true trick question. I asked her something to the effect of: “Imagine a very close friend of yours were suicidal. She just broke up with her boyfriend, lost her job, had been drinking, and is depressed. If you knew she would feel better in the morning, would you physically restrain her to keep her from killing herself?”

Now the correct answer, of course, is “Well, yes I would.” Because, free will and individual liberty aren’t always right. And while we can’t live other people’s lives for them, we can inconvenience them for a few hours until they sober up. Most people, even radical libertoids, agree to this.

And, usually, it’s an easy walk from there. If it’s moral for one person to use force to keep a friend from committing suicide — under these specific circumstances — would it be wrong for two people to do it? I mean, what if you’re not strong enough to keep her from killing herself? Can you ask another friend to help? Again, the answer is supposed to be yes. From there it’s downhill. Okay, so if it’s right for two people, how about ten? If it’s right for ten, how about a hundred? If a hundred, how about a thousand? And so on.

And if instead of a thousand people, how about one person — called a “police officer” — whom the thousand people had hired to handle precisely such situations? Is he morally barred from doing the right thing because he gets a government paycheck?

At some point they see where I’m going; if an individual is morally required to do something, it’s odd to think that the government should automatically be proscribed from doing it. Government action, at its best, is a mixture of doing the right thing and representing the popular will at the same time.

Alas, this young lady refused to take the bait. Instead, she steadfastly insisted — no matter how I changed the hypothetical — that she would never use force to keep a friend or family member from committing suicide. She would try to persuade her hysterical, depressed, drunk friend, but she wouldn’t dream of holding her down for a few hours.

Now, there are four obvious responses to this position. 1) She really didn’t mean it, but didn’t want to fall for my trap (though I don’t think so, because I kept trying to let her out). 2) She is bone-crushingly stupid (again, doubtful; she seemed very bright). 3) She suffers from a mix of cowardice, evil, and apathy (certainly possible, but not likely). 4) Or, she’s so blinded by the religious fervor that overtakes all extreme ideologues that she is willing to justify evil for the sake of keeping a principle pure.

This is my biggest problem with all ideologues. Ideology is useful when used as a checklist of your principles; a plan you’d like to stick to but are prepared to diverge from when events warrant. Most left-wing ideologues are dangerous because they don’t recognize that they have an ideology. They simply think they’re doing the obvious and right thing. Libertarians of the stripe I’ve been talking about have a different problem. They know they have an ideology. They know it and they love it. And they love it so much they are unwilling to loosen their clench on it when reality — and more importantly, morality — demand it. Just as they consider “state violence” to be always and everywhere evil, they fetishize change, assuming it to be always and everywhere good.

What ideologues miss is that life is always about choices and tradeoffs, what we call the “context.” And, no, I don’t mean context in the relativistic Brown University English-department sense. I mean that even the greatest principles and loftiest ideals often clash with each other when manifest in the crooked timber of humanity. These libertarians see freedom as the highest, best value. Conservatives see freedom as one of the highest and best values, but they recognize that no abstraction should get in the way of doing the right thing. Conservatism, rightly understood, requires making hard decisions about the inherent tradeoffs between liberty and community, altruism and economics, ideals and practicalities.

Which I guess is why young libertarians have so much more energy and verve than pretty much anybody else these days, young conservatives included. Libertarianism is an ideology best suited for young folks. It compellingly tells kids everything they want to be told. Self-interest is not merely indulged; it is sanctified. Experience — represented either in the traditions accumulated over the centuries or simply in the lessons learned by one’s elders — has no greater authority than the self-gratifying whims of a single person. In the world of these young libertarians, the utopian future is one where they get to share with the world the full benefit of their inexperience.


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