Obligatory Navel-Gazing

This summer, I’ve spent far more time with self-professed libertarians than I have with self-professed conservatives. Usually, it’s about 50-50, but this summer has been much more like 70-30.

I’ve especially been influenced–directly and in person–by fine folks such as Larry Reed, Jim Otteson, Ed Lopez, Carl Oberg, and Ben Stafford. The former two have influenced me for a quarter of a century, while the latter three have influenced me only relatively recently.

And, of course, I also had other excellent influences–some wonderful discussions this summer with Barbara and Winston Elliott and Annette Kirk. Again, all in person.

Regardless of the intellectual influences–each of these persons mentioned above is an absolute joy to be around, and each has been a blessing.

My own via media–alternating between libertarian and conservative–is nothing new. For probably twenty-five years, I’ve gone through seasons leaning somewhat explicitly toward conservatism or toward libertarianism. No form of progressivism has ever tempted me; even as a child I was rather immune to visions of some inane and vague future of goodness. I saw too much struggle in those around me to know that all works out in the end in this world.

In the next, sure. But not here and now. Here and now, we just do our best to promote integrity and excellence, attenuating the darkness that wishes–with all of its might and will–to engulf us.

My reading as a child, perhaps paradoxically, also gave me a sense of realism about the failings of this world. As Tolkien taught me, good triumphs only to see the rise of a newer and smarter evil.

I’m at a point now–especially given the events of the world and in the U.S.–where I’m fine with either label. Indeed, after spending the last two weeks reading Albert Jay Nock, Isabel Paterson, and the earliest writings of Russell Kirk, I’d be pretty happy with a term such as “Individualist.” Frankly, the term “individualist,” though, seems rather too noble, and I’m not sure I’m worthy of it.

“Individualism, the ideology called individualism, ‘was born in hell; and look to it, for some of you shall be the father,” Kirk wrote in 1955, quoting the vice of Wrath from book six of Marlowe’s sixteenth-century play, Doctor Faustus. “It is a denial that life has any meaning except gratification of the ego. In politics [individualism] must end in anarchy; its philosophers are Godwin, Hodgskin, and Spencer.”

Kirk, though, would not have written this six or seven years earlier, and he certainly never lived a life fighting individualism. Indeed, in almost every action of his life, Kirk lived as a strict individualist, avoiding entanglements with academia, etc., though he certainly never embraced the ideas of Godwin, Hodgskin, and Spencer.

Here and Now: What the Austrians Tell Us

What seems to matter to me most, July 30, 2011, are three things: 1) a promotion of the dignity of the human person, especially in education and culture; 2 a radical reduction in the size and scope of government, domestically; and 3) a reexamination of our foreign policy, especially in terms of the U.S. Constitution.Obviously, almost any conservative or libertarian would find these three things fine.But, what about the free-market economy—a subject, admittedly, about which I know very little as a professional, though I spent much of my free time in high school reading as much of Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, Julian Simon, and Henry Hazlitt as I could, especially when rather boring teachers weren’t paying attention; I snuck the libertarian books into my textbooks during classroom lectures.In particular, what is the purpose of economics? What does it teach us about man, his place in the universe, his place in Creation?
Certainly, as the Austrians understand, when one attempts to fit man into a box, an equation, or some other niche, he becomes guilty of the “fatal conceit,” the belief that we know better than another what is best.Ultimately, Friedrich Hayek argued: the “fatal conceit” is the belief that an individual can reshape the world in his own image, overturning centuries of finely-evolved history, morality, and philosophy. In the modern world, I think, one may trace the origins of the “Fatal Conceit” and its resulting widespread destruction of lives to the French Revolution. Edmund Burke, the great Irish-Anglo statesmen and a significant influence on Hayek, described it well: “Have we not produced it ready made and ready armed, mature in its birth, a perfect goddess of wisdom and of war, hammered by our blacksmith midwives out of the brain of Jupiter itself.”[1] In turn, the goddess will devour its creators.

We also learn from the Austrians such as Israel Kirzner, that man is an incredibly creative being.

And, yet, armed with this knowledge, one must ask more questions. What is this creativity for? The man who made the Model-T is creative. So, creative in fact, that Aldous Huxley has his future citizens of his Brave New World make the sign of the “T”. The men who made the gas chambers were creative. The men who made skyscrapers were creative. The men who made the machine guns were creative. The men who made the plastic tabs at the end of our shoe strings were creative. And the men who made the atomic bomb were creative. What kind of creativity do we want? Some, creativity, it seems is moral, some is diabolical.

Freedom for?

And, yet, still more questions arise. What is freedom for? Certainly freedom isn’t an end in itself, is it. It must be a means to something else. Something more concrete; something more humane. Indeed, the true Grace of freedom is not that it allows us to choose—choice certainly being very important, but, again, a means to an end. After all, we must ask, a choice in what: Does anyone really risk life and limb for Nike or Adidas? Did thousands of marines die on Omaha beach for Coke or R.C.? Did the Patriots at Bunker Hill really rush into the fray for British for Meijers or Krogers? Did 14,000 Virginias cross a corn field in Pennsylvania on July 3, 1863 for Target or Wal-Mart?

In the long history of the West, at least 4,000 years old now, liberty has been a precious thing. It has been bought with the gut-wrenching labor of hundreds of generations, grown over centuries, finely honed. Very few in the West have given up his existence for the freedom merely to be free. Freedom, liberty, usually meant the ability, the right, to do what one ought to do, to do what is right. Overtime, seven things came to be associated with right reason and proper order, the true ends of freedom, rightly understood: prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude, faith, hope, and charity. These, hopefully, countered the seven other things: Pride, Envy, Gluttony, Lust, Anger, Greed, and Sloth.

What, then, does liberty allow?

First, it allows us to worship as we choose.

Second, it allows for the protection of property. Labor, the work of man, is the means by which a man uses the gifts that God or nature has given him and each person, uniquely. Aristotle called this one’s teleology, or purpose. We have a moral duty, therefore, as well as a right to pursue our gifts and use them for ourselves as well as for the community.  One may never discover all of his gifts in his short lifetime, but the journey is more important than the goal. Thomas Jefferson understood this well; it is the pursuit of happiness, not happiness itself. And, happiness to American patriots meant moral satisfaction. Not doing what one wants, but doing what is right for the res publica. Edmund Burke took this even further, arguing that men found their real personhood as sub-creators, or artists, made in the image of the Creator.  It is through art that one discovers his morality and goodness, tempering one’s fallen nature. Burke stated it simply: “Art is man’s nature.” Our moral imagination, rather than our passions, should rule. Hayek also dealt extensively with this definition of property, noting that while “each man knows his interests best,” one’s gifts should be used in community, where reason is “tested and corrected by others.” “As individuals,” the great poet T.S. Eliot wrote, “we find that our development depends upon the people whom we meet in the course of our lives. (These people include the authors whose books we read, and characters in works of fiction and history.) The benefit of these meetings is due as much to the differences as to the resemblances; to the conflict, as well as the sympathy, between persons.” To level is to lessen who or what we are meant to be. To level also assumes a duty that is not man’s, but God’s alone. It perverts justice, that which gives each man his due. “We all are part of a great continuity and essence, and ought to rest content if we have done our own petty labor in obedience to what it seems, according to our imperfect lights, the decree of Providence.”

Third, liberty allows for association. These various institutions of subsidiarity–church, family, voluntary associations, private schools, fraternal and sororal lodges, and mutual aid societies, to name only a few–add a necessary and vital layer between the individual and the government. Burke noted that the French revolutionaries, influenced by Rousseau’s fallacious understanding of individualism, desired to destroy all intermediary institutions, subjecting the individual to direct government rule. The greatest republican proponent and analyst of the independent sector was the French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville. In an oft-quoted passage from Democracy in America, Tocqueville discussed the American propensity to work through intermediary institutions:

Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but other of a thousand different types—religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute. Americans combine to give fêtes, found seminaries, build churches, distribute books, and send missionaries to the antipodes. Hospitals, prisons, and schools take shape in that way. Finally, if they want to proclaim a truth or propagate some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form an association. In every case, as the head of any new undertaking, where in France you would find the government or in England some territorial magnate, in the United States you are sure to find an association.

Tocqueville, as Barbara has reminded us many times so beautifully, was a French Burkean who viewed community and its interaction with the individual as organic. This organic or natural quality of voluntary associations allows them to promote equality, liberty, and civilization. Persons who had “lost the power of carrying through great enterprises by themselves, without the faculty of doing them together, would soon fall back into barbarism.” According to Tocqueville’s logic, a stable American individualism both precipitates and depends upon voluntary unification. As for liberty, Tocqueville contended, the natural formation of voluntary associations allows Americans to do for themselves what governments in Europe might do for their citizenry. America, in this one respect, was superior to Europe. Governments and bureaucracies, Tocqueville claimed, are neither organic nor subtle. They are unable to make nuanced or delicate decisions, as can voluntary associations in which “[f]eelings and ideas are renewed, the heart enlarged.” Governments, try though they might, are incapable of changing the true morals or being of the individual. “Once [government] leaves the sphere of politics to launch out on this new track,” argued Tocqueville, “it will, even without intending this, exercise an intolerable tyranny.” Worse, the control of societal change and growth is a zero-sum game. If the citizenry controls the power to make decisions, the government must be necessarily and proportionately smaller. In a “vicious cycle,” the reverse is also true. “The more government takes the place of associations,” Tocqueville wrote, “the more will individuals lose the idea of forming associations and need the government to come to their help.”  Following de Tocqueville, Russell Kirk also feared the government’s “love” of community, knowing that modern states meant uniformity when they employed the term. “The omnicompetent state may talk the language of community,” he wrote, “but the measures it employs are destructive of those free engagements of love and charity that constitute real community.”

Fourth, liberty prevents statism and, subsequently, mass murder. And, the state has been the most violent institution in the history of the world. Unlike Mr. Owen’s relatively benign New Harmony, socialism in the twentieth century slaughtered nearly 200 million persons. Inspired by the excesses of the French Revolutionaries, the twentieth-century ideologues began their assault on the modern world with the destruction wrought by the first world war, and the consequences have been terrifying.  One scholar put it bluntly: “the French Revolution was the overture to the “Age of the G,” of guillotines, gaols, gallows, the Gestapo, gas chambers, and gulags. The guillotine marks the first step toward a mechanical-technological mass extermination, toward genocide.” In regime after regime in the twentieth-century, ideologues repeated and multiplied the tragedies of the French Revolution: the Soviet Union and Mexico in 1917 (where the governor of Tabasco renamed his children, “Lenin, Lucifer, and Satan”), Italy in the 1920s, Germany, Austria, Portugal, and Poland in the 1930s, the rest of eastern Europe in the final year of World War II, China and Korea the late 1940s, Vietnam and Cambodia by 1975, and numerous others in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Traditional understandings of character and virtue resulted in arrest, torture, the gulag, the firing squad, or the gas chamber. Throughout four of the seven continents, the killings fields could be found everywhere in the twentieth century. Indeed, of the seven continents, only North America (excluding Mexico), Australia, and Antarctica remained safe, the latter being the safest! In terms of the loss of human life, the world has never seen anything like the consequences of this ideological takeover. “As some departed beneath the sod,” Solzhenitsyn wrote, “the machine kept bringing the replacements.”  Indeed, the ideological regimes incessantly demanded the blood sacrifices from the very beginning. Sound estimates are that ideological regimes—communist, national socialist, fascist, and all others—murdered almost 205 million of their own men, women, and children in the twentieth century. The ideologues destroyed each of these person through the holocaust camps, the forced labor of Gulags, forced famines, in the interrogation chambers, and lined up in fields and across bridges, machine guns ripping into their flesh, releasing their souls into eternity. Numerous other ideological regimes—in Nationalist China, Japan, Turkey, Pakistan, Yugoslavia, North Korea, Mexico, and Indonesia—murdered millions as well. 

Finally, the End

But, finally, a few more uncomfortable questions; questions we should ask ourselves. First, the free market attacks the conformity imposed by the government, but is rule by the corporations much better? Many corporations would rather not look at us as human persons, but only as consumers. Would they like to control us with advertising and marketing blitzes? Certainly, very few corporations believe in the free market. Instead, they desires subsidies, zoning laws, tariff protection, tax breaks, government contracts, and every goody the nation-state will give them. There is such a thing as regulatory capture. And, definitely, we know that corporations invade our privacy at almost every turn: from their collection of information on us to the telemarketer invading our families at dinner time.

Freedom doesn’t mean we must love businessmen, as some advocates of the free market seem to think. After all, I enjoy reading about that great propagandist for business in the colonial age, Benjamin Franklin, even if he spent his evenings in Paris in less than beautiful ways; but I really like John Adams, who spent painful years away from his beloved wife so that he could convince foreign powers to recognize the U.S. as an autonomous republic.

I really like Andrew Carnegie, that great rags to riches story, who taught Gilded Age America to make some fine steel; but I really respect Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, the professor of rhetoric at Bowdoin College, who took a sabbatical against the strict instructions of his college. Had it not been for the courage of Chamberlain and his 300 men from Maine, armed only with a few rounds of ammunition, steel blades at the tips of their Springfield Rifles, and lots of courage, an invading army might have easily burned down Philadelphia or even New York in the few two weeks of July 1863.

After all, I really think Henry Ford did a lot with his Model T, but I think the world of bull fighter and poet Roy Campbell, who saved hundreds of Spanish priests and nuns, from the hands of Communist revolutionary thugs in 1937.

After all, I typed this talk on MS Word 2011 for Mac and have Bill Gates and Steve Jobs to thank, but I still respect Wall Street Financier Tom Burnett as the better human. Tom and several others took down a plane in clear Pennsylvania skies preventing Islamic terrorists from using it as a weapon against civilian targets, ten years ago this September 11th. We don’t know everything that transpired, but we do know that his last words to wife, given over his cell phone. “We all going to die, but three of us are going to do something about it. I love you honey.” Is there a better modern expression of the Revolutionary slogan, “don’t tread on me.”

I will conclude with the words of Wilhelm Roepke, a Swiss economist who sheltered Ludwig Von Mises from the Nazis. “The measure of the economy is man,” and, he continued, the “measure of man is his relationship to God.”

Liberty is indeed a precious and rare gift: but it’s purpose is not to promote avarice. . . liberty is for charity; liberty is for the good, the true, and the beautiful.

Could the right unify around this?

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email