Gimme liberty!

"Those who can, do; those who can't, govern." That's the motto of many libertarians. But is it realistic in practice?
Richard Bastien | Apr 16 2009 | comment  



In recent years, there has been a growing interest amongst college and university students for libertarianism. At a Conservative Networking Conference held recently in Ottawa, a number of adults, particularly those in their 20s and early 30s, spoke as committed libertarians. More generally, it appears that governments are being increasingly criticized by libertarian groups, who view the State as the main culprit behind the current economic crisis. If it were not for the unwarranted interference of public officials in economic and financial affairs, we are told, the market would operate in an optimal manner and we would not be in the mess we now find ourselves in.

Libertarians usually define libertarianism as a political philosophy that seeks to maximize individual freedom in both the economic and the social spheres, thus distinguishing it from conservatism (maximum economic freedom but little social freedom), "leftism" (maximum social freedom but little economic freedom) and socialism (no economic freedom and no social freedom).

The problem with that picture is that it is one-dimensional: it assumes that all political philosophies can properly be gauged on the basis of a single criterion – respect for personal liberty. This might seem reasonable to libertarians, who assume that liberty trumps all other values. However, many people living in free societies simply do not share that assumption. They believe instead that, while it is vitally important, personal liberty isn’t the be-all and end-all of human life. 

Their main reason for thinking so is that their understanding of social life is utterly different from that of libertarians. The latter reduce social life to economics: they believe that what holds civil society together is material self-interest. But most people do not view their relationship to society as being merely economic. They see themselves both as members of a family and as participants in a wider society that can function only against a backdrop of mutual trust between citizens. This requires a shared sense of membership in a community defined by social ties and loyalties – religious, ethnic and cultural – that reach far beyond considerations of economic self-interest.

Because it reduces social life to a strictly economic affair, libertarianism can be described as a mirror image of Marxism. While Marxists believe that society is to be organized solely on the basis of altruism and collectivism, libertarians assume it can be organized solely on the basis of individualism and egoism.

But things can never be that simple. Social life in fact requires a certain dosage of both individualism and collectivism. While it is certainly true that no society can survive without allowing for the pursuit of self-interest, as was amply demonstrated by the failure of the Soviet system, it is equally true that no society can function solely on the basis of selfishness and individualism, as demonstrated by the experience of 19th century laissez-faire capitalism. Like their Marxist counterparts, libertarians bask in the intellectual security of a completely a priori account of man and his world without offering a shred of empirical evidence in its support.

Libertarians also assume that if people are not subject to prevailing cultural models or fashions, they will automatically end up adopting conventional bourgeois lifestyles. They take for granted that, whatever their education, people will somehow bring themselves to defer certain gratifications and to exercise reasonable self-restraint. They ignore that self-discipline requires effort and the presence of role models. They forget that preaching unlimited freedom often leads to unstable lives and over-indulgence. The problems experienced in high schools and colleges (drugs, drunkenness, teenage pregnancies) testify to the incredible naïveté of libertarianism’s view of human nature.

Libertarians’ contempt for self-restraint reflects a deeper philosophical problem. They assume that, from a political perspective, the only thing that matters is the capacity to choose, regardless of the nature of the choices actually made. Thus, indulging in pornography, gluttony, sado-masochism is deemed to have the same social value as any other activity. All choices are equal because there is no value higher than personal freedom. Libertarianism requires cultural relativism. And like all cultural relativists, libertarians are deeply sceptical of civil or religious institutions. They sneer at anything that smacks of "tradition", assuming that they have nothing to learn from the accumulated wisdom of earlier generations.

Finally, one should note that libertarians view "the State" as nothing more than a vast and murderous conspiracy. As Murray Rothbard, the maître à penser of libertarians, once wrote: "…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 (his italics)." And to make sure we wouldn’t miss the point, he added the following: "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."

What this means is that no State, whatever its form or nature, can have any kind of legitimacy. All "State acts" should be viewed as so many aggressions against the citizenry and there is no such thing as the "public interest".

As exaggerated as it might seem, such a view is not uncommon amongst libertarians. American philosopher Robert Nozick, one of their intellectual champions, held that taxation amounts to forced labor, which implies that the web of duties and obligations binding citizens to each other and to the State are worthless and, indeed, should be abolished. One easily understands why libertarianism is more fashionable in academia than in society at large.

Richard Bastien is director of the Catholic Civil Rights League for the National Capital Area (Canada) and a regular contributor to Égards, a French-language conservative journal.

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