The Problem of Libertarianism
Derek Suszko is an associate editor for The St. Croix Review.
Every young conservative is entitled to, and ought to be allowed, his or her “libertarian phase.” It is inevitable in any case that many will be drawn to it. Idealism is the privilege of the young, and libertarianism has long represented the most compelling idealism to youthful conservatives. The principle at the heart of libertarianism — that every freedom is permissible (or even acceptable) that does not impede another’s liberty — is (in theory) an admirable creed of anti-despotism. It demonstrates a healthy skepticism as to the validity of one’s judgments, and is optimistic and affirming of life in ways that alternative nihilistic creeds of the Left are not. In right-minded people, a flirtation with libertarianism will fortify the mind against dubious appeals of emotional propaganda and make for more discerning citizens. However, this is contingent on the hope that it will remain merely a flirtation, a “youthful dalliance” in the development of an authentic conservative. This is by no means certain to happen. In our time, conservatives who attend colleges especially are besieged by the fruits of Leftist ideologies. They witness the plethora of “identities,” and are forced to interact with students who have wholeheartedly embraced Leftist causes. Many of them are attracted to libertarianism because it allows them to posture as “tolerant” without giving up some of the “core” principles of conservatives such as low taxes, fewer regulations, and small government. But libertarianism is hardly synonymous with conservatism, and it is inaccurate to say that it is necessarily a pipeline to conservatism. From at least the time of Reagan, the conservative movement has been infected by a powerful undercurrent of libertarian sentiment and the sub-belief has contributed to the immobilization of conservative influence at determinative stages of the culture war. The essential problem with libertarianism is that it is too far divorced from the reality of human nature and its social necessities. Like any political idealism, libertarianism seeks to impose a system on society that is more concerned with its own ideological purity than it is with the real nature of practical life. It is thus a delusion, and unlike the delusion of Marxism, will never take hold of a large enough segment of society to ever be truly implemented. No state in history has ever been libertarian. In better times than ours, libertarianism might represent a benign but ineffective intellectual diversion. But we face unprecedented threats from a horrifically bloated, partisan, and despotic administrative state that can only be destroyed by the deft and aggressive deployment of political power. The principles of libertarianism have no place in times that call for such decisive action.
Before we consider the corrosive impact of libertarianism on the efficacy of conservatism, it is important to define explicitly what libertarianism is. An exact definition of libertarianism is somewhat difficult because it tends to represent a cluster of political attitudes rather than a set of deliberate dogmas. The contemporary libertarian political theorist Roderick T. Long defines libertarianism as follows:
“Any political position that advocates a radical redistribution of power from the coercive state to voluntary associations of free individuals.”
The phrase “redistribution of power” is a conscious and contrasting allusion to the Marxist “redistribution of wealth.” Long’s definition is a great deal more personalized than the standard definition offered by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
“Libertarianism is a family of views in political philosophy. Libertarians strongly value individual freedom and see this as justifying strong protections for individual freedom. Thus, libertarians insist that justice poses stringent limits to coercion. While people can be justifiably forced to do certain things (most obviously, to refrain from violating the rights of others) they cannot be coerced to serve the overall good of society, or even their own personal good.
The libertarianism of our own time most commonly takes the form of an abdication of all assertions of values besides that of the right to be free from state coercion. Identification with libertarianism skews heavily towards those under the age of 40, and advances in technology have contributed to a widening of the scope and ambitions of its adherents. Most prominently the advent of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies has seemed to offer credence to the possibility of a monetary standard independent of any government control.1 Much of this chatter is idealistic and illusory. The rise in libertarian beliefs in the 21st century has gone alongside an unprecedented expansion of government and corporate power across the globe. Much of that government power in the United States is now working towards devaluing the lives of ordinary citizens. It is quaint to engage in debates on what the government “ought” to be doing at the expense of confronting what it “is” doing. Libertarians, obsessed as they often are with precise theoretical frameworks, are oblivious to political realities, and frequently fall for the machinations of a conniving and unscrupulous Left.
The degrading effects of libertarian apathy are nowhere more in evidence than in the realm of cultural issues. The cultural domination of the Left in the last 40 years has emerged entirely because of their willingness to use power and values as a moral cudgel coupled with a total conservative unwillingness to use these methods in turn. In recent decades many social conservatives were ridiculed as kooks for warning of a “slippery slope” implicit in allowing such things as women in the military, gay marriage, surrogate parenthood, and the encouragement of “diversity” in public spaces. But nothing has been more strongly vindicated. We now have mutilation of children in the name of gender ideology, ideological takeover of the military and other formerly patriotic institutions, Critical Race Theory in the schools, and all manner of cultural monstrosities that would have appalled anyone in 1980. This cultural collapse has largely resulted from conservatives ceding cultural ground to the Left in favor of emphasizing so-called “concrete” issues like tax cuts and deregulation. This selection of emphasis is highly libertarian, and is amply illustrative of its follies. The prosperity of a state cannot be separated from the binding force of its culture. Who can say which fell first: The Roman empire or Roman culture? The roots of a nation’s culture must grow from what it values, and these values must be communal.
Values do not persist in a vacuum. Some kind of system of values will always persist because it is essential to the conduct of a fulfilled life, and any system must be held to be “objectively” true, that is, necessary for others. The few in whose nature it is to pursue an Emersonian self-reliance and independence may be able to take on the libertarian perspective of “to each their own” without internal contradiction, but it is incumbent on them to recognize that this is insupportable for the broad swath of humanity. Humans are social creatures with an innate need to see their personal values reflected in their communities. A community as large as a nation will inevitably have its differences and contradictions but it must be true that the value of reverence for one’s country is common to all groups within that nation. If this is not true, then the culture has entered a stage of collapse. Notice that the ideologies of the Left are riddled with value judgments, derived from a moral vision of retribution and the primacy of victimhood and resentment. These values are totally at odds with traditional values, and by declining to insist on them forcefully, conservatives have sacrificed the culture to the Left. Systems of morality, just like political power, will never be absent because they are both inevitabilities stemming from human social nature. Conservatives (under the influence of libertarianism) refused to insist on their morality as binding and true, and now the alternative moralities of nihilism, hedonism, and resentment fostered by the Left have acceded to the cultural standard.
It is interesting to compare libertarianism with Marxism since both ideologies evince a destructive ignorance of human nature. Marxism is lethal to mankind while libertarianism is not, but it is not too harsh to remark that libertarianism is in many ways the ideal foil of Marxism, since it offers no real resistance to an ideology bent on domination of political power. Marxism (though from the beginning it was mostly bad faith and resentment) may at one time have included some well-meaning adherents, but the crucial failure in the ideology to understand the inherently competitive nature of mankind led to the inundation of its ranks by the traffickers of hatred, and the criminally maniacal. Libertarianism, delinquent in its understanding of the communal in our nature, often attracts selfish misanthropes or those with an essentially unflattering view of human potential. The central delusion of Marxism is that man-made systems of order can remain equitable — they cannot be because Nature is inequitable. The central delusion of libertarianism is that systems of order can be repressed — they cannot be repressed because of the human perturbation at any intimation of societal chaos, including a chaos of values. It is true that all governments and systems of order are fallible — because humans are fallible — but to declare, as libertarianism does, that standards for the deployment of government power are not dependent on circumstances is merely to remain impotent in the face of any less pious ideology. The only deterrent of power is power. To disdain power is not to make it disappear but only to guarantee that those entirely without the scruples of principles acquire it. Principle must fall at times before necessity. When the survival of the nation is at stake, it is necessary for a strong assertion of values and aggressive policies to drive internal enemies from power. In our present situation it is clear that only a strong president can make any headway at curbing the rampant abuses of power of the federal bureaucracies. Thus, a true conservative (as against a libertarian) would support a president who would stop at nothing to reduce them. An interesting recent example of the disparities between conservatives was demonstrated in the reactions to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis repealing by executive order the tax privileges for Disney that had been embedded into Florida law. Those conservatives with vestiges of libertarian inclinations cautioned that the move represented a potentially dangerous precedent of government interference into a “private” company’s “rights.” But the more authentic conservatives recognized that the move was an appropriate punishment for an entertainment behemoth using its influence to corrupt children and propagandize them away from traditional values. Such methods (and beyond) will be necessary for the battles ahead.
We have spoken about the essentially practical faults of libertarianism. A philosophical system that strives for an ideal while retaining pragmatism may have utility if it stays within the boundaries marked by human nature. But libertarianism does not, in fact, represent such an ideal. A mistrust of “government” muddles the truth of the matter, which is that citizens should mistrust “bad government” and cherish “good government,” which may not necessarily mean “small.” It is worth remembering that the American Constitution represented an enlargement of government in its time, not a curtailment. Government has real functions beyond the minimalist allowances acquiesced by the libertarians. It is the proper duty of any representative government to uplift the people that most contribute to a nation’s prosperity, and to protect them from the predations of those who would denigrate them. When the institutions of a government have become enemies to those they should govern, it is the imperative of elected representatives to assert power against them and return an appropriate autonomy to the people. Power corrupts, but it corrupts to degrees. Who among us would not trust a leader of the greatness of Washington with absolute authority to remedy our present situation in any manner he saw fit? Such persons do exist, and we must have faith in the ultimate wisdom of the people to find out those with the will to power to salvage the integrity and prosperity of the nation.
- An analysis of cryptocurrencies is well beyond the scope of this essay. I mention them only because of their strong associations with libertarianism. Many enthusiasts confidently declare that Bitcoin can never be destroyed and that its adoption will lead to the end of state-issued currencies and the implementation of a “free” standard. The riposte to this is that though no government collusion can destroy Bitcoin, it can make it prohibitively hazardous, quite aside from inflicting severe legal restrictions on ownership and targeting it with propaganda. Global governments hardly need to prevent every person from owning it; they need only keep it so volatile through market manipulation that widespread adoption is out of the question. Note that governments can incur losses that no individual or business can incur. In any game of stakes, those who can afford to lose the most have all the advantages, and governments could assume enormous losses for the sake of catastrophizing all lesser holders. If (or when) the temporal powers of the globe decide to declare war on Bitcoin, they can (and will) marginalize it into irrelevance. *