It is curious what ironies and amusements life will present to you. Just the other day Michael Brendan Dougherty and I were corresponding about our respective styles of blogging (with Michael as the debonair master of fashion and style, while I play the role of the growling attack dog). Then this week Michael decides to get wildly combative and launch a full-scale attack on free trade and the deleterious effects of the market on moral life!
Well, not really, but that’s what you would have thought happened judging from the hectoring and lecturing he received from his libertarian friends for what Kevin Jones correctly called a “modest rebuke” of global capitalism. Actually, it was less of a rebuke and more of an inquiry into the costs such a system imposes on a society. Might this not be something reasonable people could discuss seriously? In one case, at least, apparently not.
For saying things far less radical than this or this, Michael was lambasted by Will Wilkinson of the Cato Institute. Mr. Wilkinson directed a string of unfortunate bromides at Michael and confirmed many of the things I have assumed about certain kinds of committed libertarians.
Before I address in more detail in another post the question at hand that prompted all of Mr. Wilkinson’s charges, let’s consider what passed for his reply to Michael. Here is one choice selection from his concluding remarks:
There’s a couple ways to understand Ross [Douthat]’s talk of “common culture” and “national identity.” One way is illiberal, repugnant, and dangerous. According to the other way, our common culture and national identity is robust and not at all endangered.
In other words, the only people who think there is a problem with the state of the culture and national identity are dangerous and should be ignored. There really isn’t a problem, Mr. Wilkinson says. So there. This is an argument? Then there was this gem:
The stuff you’re toying with here is really poisonous, Michael. This is not conservatism. This is illiberal, authoritarian, nationalist collectivism, and there is almost nothing good to say on its behalf. Bad stuff. Bad bad bad.
Nothing is more entertaining than having a confirmed non-conservative tell a confirmed conservative what conservatism is and is not. It is as silly as my entering into the fray about who is and is not a “real” libertarian or what constitutes “real” libertarianism, as if I would care anyway. But note the condescension here, which goes beyond telling someone what his own political philosophy “really” is: Michael is “toying with” these ideas, as if no serious person could actually hold them, and these ideas are “poisonous” (and, as we saw above, “repugnant and dangerous” to boot!), which means that no decent person could hold them. Nice.
Mr. Wilkinson might have some intelligent things to say on this subject. I have no idea, since he occupied himself for the most part with vilification and the invocation of demon-words designed to shut down discussion. Personally, I might find “illiberal” and “authoritarian” to be compliments, but they are inaccurate in this case and deliberately so. Besides, authoritarian is not a dirty word to a conservative, and authority is, in fact, one of the principles of genuine European conservatism. A general interest in the idea of preserving a nation’s cultural integrity is not really illiberal. But if it were I would rather be illiberal than a cheerleader for cultural disintegration. Nor is an interest in economic independence or even self-sufficiency either of these things, unless Jefferson was also illiberal and authoritarian. Let’s not even speak of “nationalist collectivism.” Words mean things, and the misuse of words suggests either a poor understanding or a perverse use of intellect. Let’s hope that it is just poor understanding in this case.
In case we missed his attempt to shut down discussion, he made it clear that there is really nothing to be said in response. “Bad bad bad,” he scolds. He did leave a little room: there is “almost nothing good to say on its behalf.” On whose behalf? Nationalist collectivism? Well, having already boxed the opposition into a preposterous distortion of itself and casting it in terms that few would even try to defend (raise your hands if you support nationalist collectivism–anyone?), there is naturally little than can be said in defense of a the unrecognisable position that Mr. Wilkinson has already summarily dismissed.
It isn’t that we and the libertarians agree 90 or 95% of the time and differ greatly about a few details on economics and trade here or there, but that we have entirely different understandings of human nature, society and the purpose of politics. As a recovering libertarian (hello, my name is Daniel, and I have not approvingly quoted Bastiat in five years), I should know. This was first brought home to me when I was still heavily influenced by libertarianism but was nonetheless lectured by a libertarian for being a “statist” because I supported a government constrained by the strict construction of the Constitution.
Michael was being polite and diplomatic about all of these points of disagreement (he may not entirely agree with my assessment of libertarianism anyway), emphasising the possible common ground between the two sides and appealing to the better angels of the libertarians’ nature. He was saying, as I read it, that there are moral political goods that can and should transcend the economic and material goods that the market and free trade can indeed offer, and that the costs to these goods are things that should be taken very seriously and, if at all possible, prevented. In return, he was rather brutally backhanded and condescended to in a tone that I found insulting, and I wasn’t even the target of it.
In his comment, Michael points out the libertarian tendency to want to have it both ways, and this would seem to be confirmed by the blithe “you can have it all” rhetoric that Mr. Tucker was using to run down the folks at Chronicles a couple months ago. As I said then, and will say again, you cannot have it all. If you want a plethora of the sort of secondary goods free trade offers, you ought to acknowledge the costs acquiring these goods imposes on the social fabric, cultural habits and political order of a nation. One would think that no one would be more familiar with the reality that everything has a cost than libertarians, but they are often the ones to pretend that there are no meaningfully negative consequences to the policies they endorse. In the eyes of many of them, any objection Michael or I might have to these policies is an illiberal or “authoritarian” objection that they apparently don’t see any reason to take seriously.