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Libertarianism as Inverse Marxism

A thought for the moment:

The most fundamental problem with libertarianism is very simple: freedom, though a good thing, is simply not the only good thing in life. Simple physical security, which even a prisoner can possess, is not freedom, but one cannot live without it. Prosperity is connected to freedom, in that it makes us free to consume, but it is not the same thing, in that one can be rich but as unfree as a Victorian tycoonâ??s wife. A family is in fact one of the least free things imaginable, as the emotional satisfactions of it derive from relations that we are either born into without choice or, once they are chosen, entail obligations that we cannot walk away from with ease or justice. But security, prosperity, and family are in fact the bulk of happiness for most real people and the principal issues that concern governments.
[Robert Locke, "Marxism of the Right", in American Conservative]

It strikes me that many people will find American Conservative to be an unusual venue for this kind of analysis. But this is Pat Buchanan's rag, and it bears his stamp; this is Buchanan Conservatism, speaking loosely -- the "Buchananite" camp (for lack of a better term) has always been something of a herd of cats, by comparison with their more ends-means-challenged fellow-travellers on the Republican Right, like Rove and Norquist. They prize analytical thinking and intellectual independence and integrity, though they're not above swallowing a bit of that independence to take one for the team on occasion.

I've argued in the past that Pat Buchanan is more or less personally responsible for the debased state of popular political discourse in America. But I like to think he'd have exercised more restraint if he knew it was going there. And while my parents will gleefully describe me as a "flaming liberal", I still regard myself as, in many ways, conservative (that's with a small-c); and while I think this analysis is largely spot-on and that American Liberarianism (that's with a big-L) is a bunch of dangerous humbug, I'm still very sympathetic to the libertarian ideals (that's with a small-l) of free choice and freedom from external restraint; still, I cut my political teeth reading William F. Buckley and Will Safire, and sitting in on meetings of the Executive Committee of the Saratoga County Conservative Party, and I did my time as an adolescent follower of the teachings of Ayn Rand. So at the least, I understand Conservatives better than most people I know. They fascinate me. But I digress, as usual.

It's an interesting analysis of Libertarianism, and overall I think it's correct. But Locke goes too far in two areas: He characterizes Libertarianism as having a "dogma that all free choices are equal", and of having "contempt for self-restraint." The first is his own straw-man version of Libertarianism, based on his assertion that when Libertarian views on free choice are taken to their "logical conclusion", they imply "... that a man who chose to spend his life playing tiddlywinks has lived as worthy a life as a Washington or a Churchill." While that might be true that Libertarians ought to hold that view, if they were being logically consistent, it's probably also true that the vast majority of people who call themselves Libertarians don't hold that view. So the correct criticism would be for inconsistency, not for equating all free choices.

On the second point he's simply wrong, as far as I can see, since it appears he's making a simple assertion and not even a conclusion about what Libertarians ought to think. Rather than having contemt for self-restraint, in my experience, most Libertarians assume it. Which, to be fair, can end up having the same effect: Children are not taught such techniques of self-restraint as delayed gratification or imagining the consequences of their actions. (There's that imagination thing, again...)

Perhaps by "contempt", he means "neglect." And it's certainly not a spirit that's restricted to Libertarians; American popular culture -- well, really, all modern consumer culture, as well as our entire world economy -- is really predicated on the statistically "wealthiest" populations exercising as little self-restraint as they can while still retaining their capacity to spend capital.

In closing, here's a thought for the Grover Norquists of the Conservative world:

[Libertarians] often confuse the absence of government impingement upon freedom with freedom as such. But without a sufficiently strong state, individual freedom falls prey to other more powerful individuals. A weak state and a freedom-respecting state are not the same thing, as shown by many a chaotic Third-World tyranny.

To be honest, though, I'm giving Norquist credit I don't believe he deserves. I don't sincerely think he's at all interested in idealized Libertarian freedom, but rather primarily in power for its own sake -- and only secondarily in power as a means to the end of his doctrinary agenda.

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