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In Defense of Freedom

Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote a marvelously cynical manual of eristics called The Art of Always Being Right. The philosopher advised his readers against resort to logic; ad hominem attacks and other plays upon the passions could be much more effective. Put the opponent’s argument in some odious category, he urged.
Conservatives are long accustomed to residing in such a category: as their enemies would have it, conservatism is the ideology of the rich, the racist, and the illiterate. That this caricature bears no resemblance at all to the philosophy and social thought of Edmund Burke or Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver or Robert Nisbet, is irrelevant. The stereotype endures not because it is true but because it is useful.
Sadly, a few conservatives seem to have learned nothing from their experience at the hands of the Left and are no less quick to present an ill-informed and malicious caricature of libertarians than leftists are to give a similarly distorted interpretation of conservatism. Rather than addressing the arguments of libertarians, these polemicists slander their foes as hedonists or Nietzscheans. In fact, there are libertine libertarians, just as there are affluent and bigoted conservatives. But libertinism itself is as distinct from libertarianism as worship of Mammon or hatred of blacks is distinct from conservatism.

Libertarianism is a political philosophy, not a complete system of ethics or metaphysics. Political philosophies address specifically the state and, more generally, justice in human society. The distinguishing characteristic of libertarianism is that it applies to the state the same ethical rules that apply to everyone else. Given that murder and theft are wrong—views not unique to libertarianism, of course—the libertarian contends that the state, which is to say those individuals who purport to act in the name of the common good, has no more right to seize the property of others, beat them, conscript them, or otherwise harm them than any other institution or individual has. Beyond this, libertarianism says only that a society without institutionalized violence can indeed exist and even thrive.

For some exceptionally Christ-like people no demonstration of feasibility is needed. Doing what is right is enough, regardless of whether it brings wealth or happiness or even daily bread. But most people are not like that; they want security and prosperity—they ask, not unreasonably, not only “is it right?” but “can it work?” Following upon this is a tendency to deny that necessary evils are evils at all. Yes, the state seizes tax money and jails those who do not pay, actions that would be denounced as gangsterism if undertaken by a private organization. But if the only way life can go on is to have the government provide defense and other necessities, such expropriations might have to be called something other than robbery.
Moderate libertarians say just that. They propose that the state should do those necessary things that it alone can do—and only those things. Radical libertarians contend there is nothing good that only the state can provide—even its seemingly essential functions are better served by the market and voluntary institutions. The differences between thoroughgoing libertarians and moderates are profound, but the immediate prescriptions of each are similar enough: cut taxes, slash spending, no more foreign adventurism.
Discovering just which functions of government are necessary, or showing how life can be led in the absence of institutional coercion altogether, is no easy task. Any power that the state assumes typically comes to be seen in retrospect as absolutely essential. America long got by well without a Federal Reserve or a Food and Drug Administration, yet today it is almost unthinkable that they could be abolished. Coercive and grandiose statist solutions to problems real or imagined have the effect of crowding out voluntary approaches, so that sooner or later the government fix comes to seem the only one. Even the most statist conservative in America today does not call for nationalizing health care. Yet in every country in which a national health service is a fait accompli, conservatives do not dream of abolishing it—certainly Britain’s Tories, even under Thatcher, did not. The public in such countries takes socialized medicine for granted; the alternative is practically pre-civilized.
Once, conservatives really did intend to repeal the New Deal. Now a Republican president talks about saving Social Security—albeit with a phony “privatization” plan—as if society would collapse in the absence of mandatory savings or government social insurance. Conservatives complain about the media’s erstwhile tendency to label Soviet hardliners as Russian “conservatives,” but it’s hard to escape the conclusion that if Communism were a government program, the Republican Party would be trying to save it, too. Consider the about-face that conservatives in this country have pulled with respect to the Department of Education—one could name other departments as well—which once was targeted for elimination and now is funded more generously than ever.
Economics is of some help here, showing both that government is not necessary for prosperity and that in fact state intervention into the free market hurts the very people it’s supposed to help. Rent control makes affordable apartments scarce. The minimum wage exacerbates unemployment. And a basic law of economics is that you get more of what you subsidize: doles encourage unemployment. Economics suggests ways in which services now provided poorly and counterproductively by government can be made available without coercion.
The limits of this are worth keeping in mind, however, and are kept in mind by libertarians. Economics is not psychology; study of production and exchange does not tell a person what he should buy. Relative valuation of goods—without which there can be no economics, since exchange only takes place when each party values what the other is offering more than what he himself is selling—does not imply a relativistic ethics. The ethical assumption of libertarianism—that it is wrong to murder and steal—is absolute, and other values may be absolute as well.
Libertarians are not wholly dependent on economics to show how freedom works, however. From Lord Acton onward, libertarians have taken a keen interest in history, and noncoercive institutions have a long established empirical record. Conservatives should be aware of the evidence. Over the past 200 years the power of the state has grown exponentially: in earlier eras private initiative and civil society provided most of the goods that the state now pretends to supply.
Indeed, as libertarian historian-theorists have noted, as state power grows so civil society proportionally diminishes. Before Social Security, families and churches cared for the elderly. Now it is easier for young people to forget their parents and grandparents in old age; let the government take care of them. Social networks decay when they aren’t used, and the state crowds out civil society.
There is something rather counterintuitive—or just plain nonsensical—to the belief that bureaucrats and politicians care more about the elderly than families and communities do. The same holds true for the notion that the state upholds the interests of children. No, libertarians do not want to see youngsters emancipated from their parents. The family is natural and is not upheld, even allowing for corporal punishment, primarily by force. The power of state over individual and society, on the other hand, is rather different. Government is nobody’s parent, and the idea that President Bush would be in any sense the father of citizens who are wiser and more just than he is perversion. When the state treats adults as children, infantilizing its subjects, the more prudent and older becomes subservient to the more reckless and younger, for society antedates the state.
Social conservatives have long faced an apparent paradox. No matter how Christian the president and members of his party claim to be, no matter how many “solid” conservatives are elected Congress, the fabric of the social order continues to fray. At some point the question must be asked, is this because there still aren’t enough good people in government?—how many would ever be enough? Or is it because the state by nature, far from buttressing the organs of civilization and the way of life dear to conservatives, instead undermines those very things? As Albert Jay Nock once observed, sending in good people to reform the state is like sending in virgins to reform the whorehouse.
The free market sometimes involves things that conservatives dislike, such as pornography. What should be considered here, however, is not how the market performs relative to some idealized abstraction of the state run by wise and pure censors, but how a specific market compares to a particular state. If there is a market for pornography there is sure to be a constituency for it, too. Moreover, the state produces far worse depravities of its own: Playboy may be bad, but one is not forced to subsidize it, unlike public-school sex ed, Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” (funded by the National Endowment for the Arts), and Lynndie England’s S&M jamboree with Iraqi prisoners of war. One can avoid pornography on the market, but everyone pays for the depravities of the political class.
That is not about to change. The state, since it acts by compulsion, cannot inculcate real virtue in anyone but only a hypocritical and ersatz kind. One can compel action but not belief. No wonder then that as the scope of the state has grown, patriotism has degenerated into warmongering and religion has succumbed to politicization and scandal. The moral muscles atrophy in the absence of personal responsibility. That some self-identified conservatives cannot seem to tell the difference between self-responsibility and compulsion, or between the standards of civil society and those of the state, demonstrates just how thorough the process of crowding out genuine virtue with the coercive counterfeit actually is.
Consider the involvement of the state in marriage. Presently the state defines marriage for all, and there is considerable angst among traditionalists that government will redefine the institution to include homosexual unions. This concern is not misplaced: if gay marriage is given state sanction, the force of law will support demands by wedded homosexuals to receive the same privileges from civil society—including churches and religious charities—that married heterosexuals receive. In the absence of state involvement in marriage and in telling businesses and nonprofit organizations whom they can hire, however, individuals, churches, and businesses could make up their own minds as to which marriages they considered legitimate and could act accordingly.
This is not a matter of imposing on anyone; libertarianism allows different standards to prevail in different places rather than dragging everyone down to the level of the state. The libertarian rests content to let Utah be Utah and San Francisco be San Francisco—and to let Iraq be Iraq. If the property owners of a neighborhood wanted to establish a certain set of common moral standards, they could do so. Other places could do differently. Libertarianism thus responds to the reality of difference, including profound cultural and religious difference, much better than other political philosophies, which are left trying to smash square pegs into round holes.
Libertarian societies in all their variety would not be utopias, of course. Libertarianism does not propose an end to evil or even to coercion, but only the flourishing of civilization in the absence of institutionalized coercion. Crime would not disappear, poor taste would still exist, and even conservative communities would remain beset with imperfection. Removing the privileges of the state would make these evils smaller, less centralized, and more manageable, however. This picture is no abstraction or economic construct; it arises from the practice of actual institutions. The record of civil society and the free market is as old as the human race.
The libertarian idea of society would hold true even if a degree of coercion were absolutely necessary and ineradicable: the more authority residing in civil society rather than the state, the better. But there are at least a few prima facie considerations that lend weight to so-called radical libertarianism. The most widely agreed upon of all so-called public goods, national defense, is not what it seems. The mightiest military on earth failed to prevent the atrocity on 9/11. On the contrary, U.S. interference in the Middle East and support for thuggish regimes has endangered Americans. Is a country ripe for invasion without a standing army? The last 200-odd years have shown many instances, including our own Revolutionary War, where guerrilla forces have been more effective than regular armies. Nor is there any need for conscription when people want to defend their homes; conscription is what states need to make people fight for causes in which they don’t believe.
A libertarian order is not coming any time soon, but it should be plain to anyone who undertakes the investigation that the solution to war, bureaucracy, taxation, personal irresponsibility, and the rot of culture is not more government, it’s less.

March 14, 2005 Issue

about the author

Daniel McCarthy is editor at large of The American Conservative. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today, The Spectator, The National Interest, Reason, Modern Age, and many other publications. Outside of journalism he has worked as internet communications coordinator for the Ron Paul 2008 presidential campaign and as senior editor of ISI Books. He is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied classics. Follow him on Twitter.

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