Politics & Policy

The Libertarian Lie

Responding to Nick Gillespie and Virginia Postrel.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Yesterday I responded to Andrew Sullivan. Today I respond to the libertarians, primarily Reason magazine editor Nick Gillespie and former Reason editor Virginia Postrel. Virginia, whom I consider a friend, has also linked to numerous other sites taking me to task. I know that many readers are uninterested by these doctrinal squabbles. But others are, and I think they’re worthwhile. Regardless, I promise this is the last you will hear from me about such things for a while. I’ll be getting back to meat-and-potatoes G-Files starting tomorrow.

Lighten Up, Libertarians

Before we get to the heart of all this, let me address perhaps my biggest peeve about libertarians. Trust me, it’s relevant. They are, without a doubt, the most defensive and thin-skinned group on the Right — far more so than Christian conservatives, gay Republicans, whoever. Maybe it’s because so many of them became libertarians in the first place in order to escape criticism of any kind, or maybe it’s because there’s something about libertarianism that excites the region of the brain responsible for religious utopianism, or maybe it’s the accumulated resentment at being in the backseat of the right-wing coalition — I don’t know. But I am continually amazed by how so many libertarians can maintain a tone and posture of reflexive defensiveness and moral superiority, simultaneously.

Out of the hundreds of e-mails I got from angry libertarians, a sizable majority simply asserted that I didn’t understand libertarianism. Not that I was wrong in the application of my analysis, or that I was being unfair or overly broad — but that I simply don’t “get” it.

Now, as I conceded yesterday in my response to Andrew Sullivan, last Wednesday’s column was not surgical in its argumentation, so I’m open to some thoughtful criticism on that score. But I get these letters anytime I write anything critical of libertarianism. Liberty magazine runs regular squibs mocking me for my obtuseness. Harry Browne, the 2000 Libertarian Party candidate, went out of his way to lecture me — on NRO — to explain how I don’t get it.

Virginia Postrel suspects that my “anti-libertarian outbursts” stem from a desire to get her and other libertarians to link to my site. Well, we can put aside the suggestion that it’s a web-traffic bonanza to get linked on something called “Libertarian Samizdata” (I actually lose traffic when I indulge my anti-libertarian bent). But Postrel seems to believe my arguments are so silly that they’re better explained by some sort of cynical ploy. Hell, I’ve even got my own Greek chorus at LewRockwell.com, which can barely go a week without singing some tune about how I’m slow on the uptake (or how Abraham Lincoln tempted Eve into taking a bite of the apple).

So let me just say once and for all: I’m sorry, but your philosophy ain’t that complicated. I think I’ve got a handle on it: The government uses force, so we should keep it limited; open society; maximize human freedom; respect contracts; free minds, free markets, blah blah blah. I get it. Good stuff. Thanks.

In fact, I thought the whole point of libertarianism was that it’s simple. I mean, whenever I hear libertarians trying to convert people, they always make their creed sound so uncomplicated. They begin their sentences with, “We libertarians simply believe X”; or, “Libertarianism is just a partial philosophy of life.” Harry Browne says conservatism is worse than libertarianism because it can’t give you “one sentence” answers on every political issue. In fact, he makes libertarianism sound like a warm bath you can slip into to melt all your political cares and concerns away.

And that’s all fine. Except for the fact that when criticized, all of a sudden libertarianism becomes this deeply complex body of thought with all sorts of Kantian categories and esoteric giggling about “rational fallibility” flying all about (many of my blogger critics actually sound like self-parodies). On offense, you guys are like the “Drink Me” bottle in Alice in Wonderland, or Morpheus’s pill in The Matrix. But on defense, you turn on the smoke machines and cloud the room up with faculty-lounge verbiage. You can’t have it both ways.

And besides, there’s nothing particularly wrong with simple philosophies — which is why I’m pretty much a libertarian when it comes to the federal government. Regardless, please spare me the more-sophisticated-than-thou crap. When smart people (and I’ve always said libertarians are very smart) — whether they’re Marxists, libertarians, whatever — claim that other smart people “just don’t get” very simple ideas, they only lend credence to the impression that their intellectual adherence is the product of a religious impulse. Or, they just sound obnoxious.

Gillespie’s Pose

Which brings me, inexorably, to Nick Gillespie’s response to my column last Wednesday, which Virginia Postrel tells us is “the best so far (of course).” To his credit, Nick doesn’t resort to a fog of jargon, merely a typical tone of smirking self-amusement and condescension (but who am I to criticize tone?). We do actually agree on quite a bit. I’ve long argued that libertarianism will be the real challenger to conservatism, and I’ve long conceded that I’m — to use his word — “anxious” about it. Nick makes this observation sound like this is some sort of penetrating analysis of the subtext when in fact it’s pretty much just the text.

Let’s be clear about a few other observations Nick seems eager to pass off as penetrating insights. He chuckles, “It’s a funny thing, but conservatives are never so quick to call Rorschach on one of their own: For instance, when it came to light a few years ago that George Roche III, the fabled president of conservative Hillsdale College, had been carrying on with his unstable and suicidal daughter-in-law for years, that twisted scene carried no definitive ideological import.”

It’s an even funnier thing that Nick uses this example — since it was National Review, specifically my colleague John Miller, who broke the story of George Roche III in the first place. Not only did NR make a big deal about Roche, we did it first and more than once — despite a long association with Hillsdale College and Mr. Roche. If Gillespie cannot find the “definitive ideological import” in National Review’s integrity in policing the Right, that’s his shortcoming, not ours.

But then Nick has, I think, a much harder time “getting” National Review than I have understanding Reason. “Nothing exercises National Reviewers quite so much as the sense that despite their standing athwart history yelling stop, it still keeps on a rollin’ without them,” Gillespie writes. He later adds: “[I]t only makes sense that conservatives and libertarians would start to line up on different sides of the barricades that surround the battleground of individual choice and autonomy.”

That’s all cute and fine, and I’m sure it plays well in letters to subscribers. But it’s worth noting that while I am against drug legalization, Bill Buckley and the editors of National Review called for — and continue to call for — an end to the drug war, and for the legalization of drugs, when Reason was little more than an obscure pamphlet.

Nick might read a bit deeper into Hayek as well. Like so many other libertarians, Nick pulls out Hayek’s excellent essay “Why I am Not a Conservative” as some sort of grand trump card. I admit this is another peeve of mine, but Hayek did not call himself a “libertarian” in that essay, as Nick gamely suggests. In fact, he explicitly rejected the label, calling it “singularly unattractive.” “The more I learn about the evolution of ideas,” wrote Hayek, “the more I have become aware that I am an unrepentant Old Whig — with the stress on the ‘old.’”

Old Whig just so happens to be the same appellation the founding father of conservatism, Edmund Burke, used for himself — as Hayek approvingly notes several times.

More important, the conservatives in “Why I Am Not a Conservative” aren’t even the ones Nick has so many problems with. Hayek was referring to the conservatives of the European tradition (de Maistre, Coleridge, et al), and he was a great deal more generous even to them than the folks at Reason are to the American conservatives of today.

Which is a shame because, as I pointed out in my column last Wednesday, Hayek argued that United States was the one place in the world where you could call yourself a “conservative” and be a lover of liberty — because we want to defend those institutions which preserve it. And that’s why — despite a lot of propaganda from the folks at Reason — most conservatives are closer to classical liberals than a lot of Reason-libertarians.

Cultural Libertarians, Again

And that gets us, finally, to the meat of our disagreement. I say “cultural libertarians” are people unwilling to draw value judgments between various personally defined lifestyle choices, or “personal cultures.” In response, legions of libertoids cry: “Not fair!” “You’re talking about ‘libertinism,’” say some. “Libertarians are just unwilling to use the state to coerce others into subscribing to our value judgments,” say all.

Again, fine, fine — I get it. But I’m also not talking about most of the people who read my column and refer to themselves as libertarians. Most of these folks are fairly conservative people; they want a smaller government, and, hey, so do I. That’s why I put the word “cultural” in front of the phrase in the first place. I’m beginning to think we should simply call such people “anti-state conservatives” and let the Reason types have the “singularly unattractive” label of “libertarian” all to themselves.

The people I am talking about are people like Nick Gillespie and the chirping sectaries on these various blog sites. These people quite proudly proclaim that maximizing individual liberty, and minimizing coercion by the state or the culture, is their mission. It’s shouted from the rooftops in just about every issue of Reason. In fact, it’s odd that Virginia cites Nick’s rejoinder as the best so far — for a number of reasons, among them that he more or less concedes the lion’s share of my argument. Nick concedes that he wants to maximize the “right to exit from systems that serve them poorly.”

Porn Versus Christianity

Take this porn thing. Virginia is fighting mad at me for writing that she won’t draw distinctions between pornography sales and Christian-bookstore sales. But she admits that she has no opinion on the issue, and concedes that many of my libertarian critics think Christianity, even in a liberal order, is a “bad thing.” Meanwhile she also raves about this fellow Will Wilkinson who, according to Virginia, “makes the good (and obvious but not to Jonah) point that ‘If you ask whether porn or Christian books are better, you have to ask “better in what respect?”’” “Goldberg owes us moral arguments against porn… if he wants to be taken seriously.”

Touché, I suppose. But doesn’t this make my point? Cultural libertarians are uncomfortable with, and quite defensive about, drawing distinctions between such bedrock components of Western civilization — in this case a little thing called “Christianity” — and the latest installment of On Golden Blonde. According to these guys, the burden is on me to explain why and how porn is worse than Christianity. I’d be glad to do it sometime (though I’m hardly an anti-porn zealot); it doesn’t sound too tough.

Meanwhile, let’s stay on track. Cultural libertarians, as Nick readily concedes, don’t “blindly respect ‘established authority’ the way conservatives tend to.” The “blindly” is, of course, a cheap shot, but we’ll let it go. That’s my point. We’re not talking about the state here; we’re talking about the culture — the thousands of ingredients which, in various amounts, combine to form the recipe for Western civilization generally and American culture specifically.

Virginia even faults me for not making the positive case for Western civilization in the same column — which, aside from being a fairly high standard for any argument, also seems to underscore the point that these folks don’t see its superiority as a given. To the cultural libertarian, all authoritative cultural norms should be scrutinized again and again.

But just to be clear, some of the ingredients for Western civilization I have in mind are such categories as Christianity and religion in general, sexual norms, individualism, patriotism, the Canon, community standards of conduct, democracy, the rule of law, fairness, modesty, self-denial, and the patriarchy. Obviously, all cultures have these things (or their equivalent). But it is the combination of ingredients — and their relative potency toward one another — that make the recipe for Western civilization unique.

The Libertarian Dodge

It’s also obvious that — just like conservatives, liberals, and the unaligned — cultural libertarians like some of these things a great deal, and some only a little, and others not at all. We all have our own suggestions for how we should improve the culture. But when criticized on their cultural priorities, they get all defensive and claim they aren’t making a subjective cultural argument. “We’re just neutral. We just want the state out of things.” But then they go right along mocking the cultural choices of conservatives, and of anyone who respects the established cultural authority more than they do. Nick makes it sound like it’s a concession to allow cultural conservatives to make their arguments at all, though I doubt he would be so grudging about allowing a polygamist make his arguments.

Because I won’t brag about my past experiences with drugs or extrapolate from those experiences a pro-drug stance, Nick grandiosely says that my hypocrisy is “the vice virtue pays to tyranny” (taking, in effect, the position that current or former gluttons should always proclaim that gluttony is good for everybody). Well, if hypocrisy is such a crime, what about the persistent hypocrisy of those libertarians who say that they are “neutral” on cultural questions while they constantly make undeniably cultural arguments?

Nick is on record denouncing America as a “grotesquely prohibitionist society” when it comes to drugs, and he’s nigh upon orgiastic about the spread of pornography. If the anti-state conservatives who prefer the label “libertarian” want to tell me that the editor of Reason is unrepresentative of libertarianism, fine. But maybe you should consider the possibility that it’s you who are unrepresentative of libertarianism.

Look, the libertarian critique of the state is useful, valuable, important, and much needed. But, in my humble opinion, the libertarian critique of the culture — “established authority” — tends to be exactly what I’ve always said it was: a celebration of personal liberty over everything else, and in many (but certainly not all) respects indistinguishable from the more asinine prattle we hear from the Left. (The great compromise between libertarians and conservatives is, of course, federalism see “Among the Gender Benders“).

Personal liberty is vitally important. But it isn’t everything. If you emphasize personal liberty over all else, you undermine the development of character and citizenship — a point Hayek certainly understood.

Kids are born barbarians, as Hannah Arendt noted. Without character-forming institutions which softly coerce (persuade) kids — and remind adults — to revere our open, free, and tolerant culture over others, we run the risk of having them embrace any old creed or ideology that they find most rewarding or exciting, including some value systems which take it on blind faith that America is evil and, say, Cuba or Osama bin Laden is wonderful. That’s precisely why campuses today are infested with so many silly radicals, and why libertarians in their own way encourage the dismantling of the soapboxes they stand on. For cultural libertarians this is all glorious, or at least worth the risks. I just wish more libertarians had the guts to admit it.


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