Since the 2012 election, a wide-ranging and helpful debate about the direction of conservatism has broken out among conservative commentators seeking to re-brand the movement. Key in this debate is how far conservatism should transform itself into libertarianism. Ben Domenech championed what he calls “populist libertarianism,” echoing Peter Suderman’s generous appraisal of what libertarianism can offer. Ross Douthat gave it a cautious critique, while Pascal-Emmanuel Gorby steered towards a slightly more traditional conservatism. The appeal of libertarianism is that, as political theories go, it is simple, consistent, and easy.
It is also radically unconservative, politically infeasible, and would result in awful public policy. It will never work in the real world—for which we should be grateful, because a pure libertarian state would be a terrible dystopia. But the irony is that because actual conservatives have failed to articulate the ideology of full-blooded, well-rounded, non-libertarian conservatism with any clarity for several decades, libertarians are, effectively, the only advocates left standing for limited government, meaningful checks and balances, and limits to state power. Though I may vote for its candidates, I will never hope for the triumph of libertarianism as an ideology.
I. The Theory of Libertarianism
Libertarianism argues that the role of government is to uphold order, maximize personal liberty, and… pretty much nothing else. Government has no role to play in providing social services like Medicare or Medicaid, fostering economic growth (because the economy grows best when government does not meddle), promoting or even having a social policy. Issues like abortion and marriage are best left to the states or even to civil society.
For example, Senator Barry Goldwater argued in his seminal (though misleadingly-titled) book, Conscience of a Conservative (1960), that politics is “the art of achieving the maximum amount of freedom for individuals that is consistent with the maintenance of social order” (5). The “overriding political challenge” of the times is “to preserve and extend freedom” (6). In the face of the overriding imperative for liberty, any grant of power to the state beyond the barest minimum is tyranny. Goldwater says that any expansion of federal power is “the first principle of totalitarianism” (8).
Similarly, libertarian economist Milton Friedman argued in his 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom that the purpose of government is “to protect our freedom both from the enemies outside our gates and from our fellow-citizen: to preserve law and order, to enforce private contracts, to foster competitive markets.” Anything beyond those minimalist functions “is fraught with danger” (2).
Libertarianism usually advances two arguments in its defense, one moral and one utilitarian. It argues that personal autonomy is the highest good of human life, and thus all other aspects of human social and political organization should be subordinate to liberty. As a fundamental assertion, you can argue neither for nor against this principle. But we can at least observe that no religion in the history of human civilization has ever commanded its adherents to worship their own liberty (no religion, that is, except libertarianism), and no political philosophy aware of the proclivities of human nature has ever dared entrust so much to human freedom. Given this history, we should be at least suspicious of the idea of absolutizing personal autonomy.
The best that can be said is that libertarianism, in its moral defense of personal liberty, is a useful corrective to the assumption that prevailed for the rest of human history: that people are made unequal, and that the rich and strong have more rights than the poor and weak. That idea, which was widely presumed to be true for millennia, is tripe, and libertarianism is right to crusade against it. Libertarians would have you believe that they are the only soldiers courageous enough for this particular crusade; that you must accept their philosophy in toto to guard against tyranny; that no other philosophy has ever effectively checked the power of government. Their claim is more than tripe; it is propaganda. You do not have to be a libertarian to be against monarchy.
The other argument in defense of libertarianism is that it is efficient. We should protect human liberty above all else and minimize the role of government because it leads to the best outcomes for everyone. A laissez-faire market creates the most wealth. Free expression creates a free marketplace of ideas in which the truth will prevail. Market-based solutions are the best way to protect the environment because if people want a clean environment, all they have to do is pay for one. The competition of the private sector drives companies to greater heights of efficiency, productivity, and quality, which is why we should entrust everything from mail delivery to space exploration to them and not to the government.
Against these arguments are the fairly standard counterclaims about market failure, moral hazard, and the tragedy of the commons. Sometimes a marketplace of ideas does not result in truth if evil propaganda is shouted more loudly and frequently, especially by well-armed thugs. A free market for environmental goods is impossible because I cannot buy my own individual slice of clean air. And the efficiency of the private sector is only true when all parties have full, free, perfect information—which they never do unless the owners of information are compelled to disclose it by the government. These arguments boil down to the fairly obvious point (obvious to everyone except libertarians, that is) that sometimes working in groups and vesting power in a central authority is more efficient and productive than working in competition.
Libertarianism has the appeal of a personal organizer, or cargo pants, or a trapper keeper. It is a total organization system for all your ideas, convictions, and beliefs about society and politics. When you put libertarianism on, you have a tidy little place for every little thought and opinion. Even better, you can automatically generate an opinion on any issue by pure deduction with very little knowledge of actual facts. Take the first principle of libertarianism—personal autonomy is the highest good to which all other goods should be subordinated–and you can quickly Tweet about school choice (good), the Affordable Care Act (bad), NSA surveillance (very bad), and Miley Cyrus (who cares as long as she is a rational adult?). There is a pleasant empowerment in the comprehensiveness of libertarianism. Like every all-encompassing ideology, it gives you the ability, with very little thought or knowledge, to explain everything. As much as I hate the writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson, he was on to something when he wrote that “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
II. Libertarianism and History
And libertarianism is certainly the product of little minds. By “little minds” I mean those so enamored with their own ideas that they have shrunk inwards to the point that larger ideas and facts simply float by, unobserved and unexamined. How else to explain the regular and distressing gap between libertarian ideas and reality?
For example, one of the more frustrating aspects of libertarianism is the yawning vacuum that exists where historical awareness should be. Friedman argued that “the great advances of civilization, whether in architecture or painting, in science or literature, in industry or agriculture, have never come from centralized government” (3). This is simply embarrassing. Friedman was an educated man. He was either being maliciously deceptive or was stupefyingly blinded by his own ideology to write such a sentence. It is further embarrassing that many of his followers believe it today.
In fact, princes and kings have always been among the biggest patrons of the arts and literature. In architecture, many of the great wonders of the world, from the Hagia Sophia to the Taj Mahal to Versailles, were built by kings and emperors, not private individuals or corporations. Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel on retainer from Pope Julius II (the head of the Papal States). William Shakespeare’s company was called The King’s Men because his patron was, literally, the King of England. More recently, at least twelve Pulitzer prize-winning books were written by authors supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, including James McPherson’s magisterial history of the civil war, Battle Cry of Freedom.
The biggest scientific endeavors of the last two centuries have been government-funded. The Manhattan Project was overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Apollo Program was designed, funded, managed, and executed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration: The moon landing was the triumph of federal bureaucratic efficiency. The technological foundation of the internet was developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The Human Genome Project was funded by the National Institutes of Health. The Tevatron supercollider, which enabled scientists to conduct experiments in particle physics, was built with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy; the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, which discovered the Higgs Boson in 2013, is funded by twenty governments. Much of the funding for Norman Borlaug’s research (father of the “Green Revolution” in agriculture) came from the Mexican government. Government funding for science and exploration is not new. Congress appropriated funds to support Samuel Morse’s development of the telegraph in 1843. The Lewis and Clark expedition was a U.S. Army reconnaissance operation (Meriwether Lewis, that dashing Byronic hero, was an army captain). Christopher Columbus’ voyage was funded by the King of Spain. Marco Polo’s travels were undertaken at the behest of the Khan of Beijing.
The free market almost certainly would not have led the way towards any of these discoveries because they required massive overhead and incalculable risks with no immediate prospects for returns. I do not deny that private enterprise and individual entrepreneurship have also produced great works of art, science, and civilization; of course they have. But Friedman’s assertion that such achievements have never come from central government is nakedly, willfully false.
III. The Ayn Rand Problem
A lack of historical awareness is not the only illustration of the intellectual littleness of libertarianism. Libertarianism is linked, historically and philosophically, with the work of Ayn Rand, yet another reason that conservatives should give libertarianism a wide berth. Ayn Rand was a mid-twentieth century Russian-American novelist, screenwriter, and self-proclaimed philosopher. She was an ardent anti-communist—though not, as is sometimes assumed, a persecuted exile from her native Russia. She is most widely-known for The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), a pair of philosophical novels or, to put it another way, fables. They are thin, melodramatic, faux epics in which Rand’s protagonists (Howard Roark and John Galt, respectively) parade about thundering forth Rand’s philosophy in self-serious monologues.
Rand’s philosophy (which she called “objectivism” but most people call Randianism, because “objectivism” is vague and nonsensical) is the moral and anthropological companion of libertarian political theory. Rand argued that the highest ethical value is selfishness, or the imperative to pursue one’s own happiness and fulfillment. This ethical egoism looks down on altruism as one of basest vices. Living sacrificially for another is a betrayal of the obligation to live, first and primarily, for oneself. The flip side is equally true: We should never ask and never expect someone else to live for us. Accepting someone else’s help is degrading; offering help to another is insulting. Each individual should strive to achieve what they can on their merits.
It is easy to see how Rand’s political philosophy grows from this anthropology. A political system should simply allow individuals to strive and achieve and do little else. High achievers are the main drivers of civilization. Entrepreneurs, risk-takers, businessmen, inventors, and the like are the heroic, creative geniuses who make society function and thrive. The role of government is, by and large, to get out of their way. Progressive income tax rates, capital gains taxes, inheritance taxes, and environmental and safety regulations are barriers to achievement. By hurting the high achievers, such policies hurt everyone, since we all depend on the few demigods for continued progress. Meanwhile, government programs that help the poor, sick, elderly, or handicapped are degrading, and, worse, by engendering a culture of dependency, social welfare policies might actually prevent one of the poor and downtrodden from pulling himself up by his bootstraps and discovering that he, too, is one of the intellectual and creative elite.
Rand’s work has become popular with conservatives. It offers a veneer of philosophical justification for policies that business groups favor for their bottom line. Representative Paul Ryan, the Republican party’s vice presidential nominee in 2012, told a group in 2005 that “the reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.” (He later repudiated Rand.) Justice Clarence Thomas hosts a screening of the 1949 film version of The Fountainhead for his new clerks each year. Senator Ron Johnson is outspoken in his admiration for Rand’s work.
Ayn Rand’s influence in conservative circles is an embarrassment. Conservatives who routinely denounce the influence of postmodernism in American life should recognize, with only a moment’s thought, that Rand is little more than a populist mouthpiece for Friedrich Nietzsche, the forerunner of conservatives’ favorite philosophical bete noir. It may seem odd to compare Rand, who insisted on the objectivity of truth, with Nietzsche, who insisted on its subjectivity. The similarity lies in their egoism—and Nietzsche’s subjective egoism was at least softer than Rand’s objective one. Absent a traditional, religious moral framework in which to embed her belief in objective truth, it had nowhere to go but towards the individual. That is why Rand and Nietzsche, despite their different paths, ended up at the same mountain, worshiping at the altar of the übermensch.
Conservatives, who made their name championing the equal dignity of all people, should be disquieted by Rand’s celebration of aristocracy. But Rand’s Nietzschean admiration of superior men is not the only flag that should warn off conservatives. Rand was quite clear about her atheism and contempt for Christianity, making her an odd philosophical hero for a movement made up of many devout believers. It is bothersome that Paul Ryan, for example, a publicly devout Roman Catholic, could be so fervent in his admiration of Rand despite the obvious contradictions between the two belief systems. Nor can you simply jettison Rand’s atheism and graft the rest of her thought onto a Christian worldview, as so many of her disciples claim they do. The entire premise of egoism and dislike of altruism is, shall we say, in tension with the ethic of Christianity’s founder.
Some Christian Randians might claim that they are Christians in their private lives and Randians in politics while mumbling something about the separation of church and state. Such a stance plays into the state-sponsored secularism favored by the progressive left; assumes that, theologically speaking, it is unproblematic to essentially stop thinking like a Christian once you start thinking about politics; and accepts, uncritically, explicitly anti-Christian premises as your political foundation—a trifecta of questionable intellectual shortcuts.
IV. Libertarianism and Conservatism
But the most damning thing about Randianism, from a political standpoint, is that it is not conservative. The ultimate reason to reject libertarianism (and Randianism) is that it bears little resemblance to actual, historical conservatism. Some readers may be confused, thinking the two terms are synonymous because they have been used interchangeably in some circles. They are not synonymous. They are, in fact, radically divergent ideologies.
In Russell Kirk’s classic formulation, conservatism respects custom, tradition, and continuity with the past. The libertarian view of the role of government would be a radical break with the past. Conservatives believe strongly in the authority of precedent. Libertarians, who lack precedent for most of their favored policies, are bold to advocate untested, unproven policies. Conservatives are cautious and patient, happy to work for justice and order incrementally, by degrees. Libertarians, with their complete blueprint for the country, are pitchfork radicals ambitious to fight the system as a whole. Conservatives are comfortable with inconsistency, variety, and local solutions. Libertarians have an ideological cookie cutter they want to slap down on every policy issue in every jurisdiction. Conservatives have lower expectations of people and politics because of their understanding of human nature; libertarians betray a naiveté about nature of the world and its inhabitants when they wax utopian in their zeal to remake the world.
Some readers may object, or be confused, because they believe that libertarianism is simply calling for a return to how the United States was governed before the New Deal, or before the progressivism of the early twentieth century. Libertarians are the truest conservatives, according to this view, because they are reaching back to America’s real roots and consulting its oldest precedents.
This is either disingenuous or ignorant. As I argued above, the United States government has always been involved in supporting the arts, sciences, and humanities. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America was not a libertarian paradise. Alexander Hamilton was the first champion of a strong, active, limited government to foster economic growth through federalized fiscal policy. Henry Clay and his Whig Party made a major contribution to American development in the early nineteenth century through the policy of “internal improvements”—building roads, canals, telegraph and railroad lines, something Dwight Eisenhower would continue a century later with the interstate highway system. The Republican Congress of 1862 passed the Morrill Land Grant Act, which gave land to states under the mandate that they be used to established agricultural colleges—the foundation of America’s unrivaled system of higher education. Conservative Republicans were the first civil rights advocates in America, from the abolitionists of the 1830s to the reconstructionists of the 1870s. Republican Congressmen passed the Civil Rights Bills of 1866, 1875, 1957, and 1964. They understood that equality under law is a fundamentally conservative ideal, and government had a duty to enforce it even against popular prejudices. Republican President Theodore Roosevelt almost single-handedly invented the idea of environmental conservation (which is as literally conservative as you can get) in his drive to preserve wilderness and wildlife for future generations.
These examples—investment in infrastructure, advocacy for civil rights for persecuted groups, investment in science and technology, and preservation of the environment—are conservative policies that require an active, capable, energetic government. Most of them required taxes to pay for them and bureaucracies to administer them. Nineteenth-century America was many things, and its government was certainly smaller than today’s, but it was not libertarian. Conservatives have long recognized that government can play a small, limited role in “promoting the general welfare.”
Conservative luminaries like Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk would be aghast at the idea of trying to impose an ideological blueprint on society alien to its history and culture. True conservatism has often, and rightly, warned against the idea of trying to shape society with the power of the state. Libertarianism would radically reshape society by removing government from it. Libertarianism goes against centuries of tradition about what “government” means. The effort to govern along libertarian lines would amount to a radical experiment in social engineering. No society on earth, let alone the United States, has ever been governed along purely libertarian lines. Governments have always involved themselves in economic life, including, in America’s case, in the promotion of capitalism. They have always had social policies to promote one model or another of national culture. And representative governments have been building social safety nets since the mid-nineteenth century. Libertarianism is not a return to the past.
IV. Political Suicide
Finally, libertarianism is politically suicidal. The American voters know that government can occasionally achieve good things, which is why libertarianism has a long and distinguished history of humiliating electoral losses. The most libertarian Republican presidential candidate in American history was Barry Goldwater, whose landslide loss in 1964 remains one of the most decisive in history: Goldwater lost the electoral vote 486 to 52, having won only six states. The margin of victory in the popular vote—nearly 23 percent—is the fifth largest in American history. A Libertarian Party has run presidential candidates in every election since 1972. Its all-time best performance was in 1980, when it won 1.06 percent of the vote. Ralph Nader and Ross Perot did much better in their day; even among third-parties, libertarianism hardly competes. The electoral success of conservatism still depends on social conservatives, whose agenda is inimical to libertarianism.
Reforming conservatism is an important effort, but libertarianism is a dead-end. In its extreme forms, it is simplistic, rigid, and ideologically naïve. It rests on a view of human nature—that we are best understood as autonomous individuals defending our rights against others rather than responsible members of families and communities—that is unrealistic and even damaging. Libertarianism has an unhelpful association with the juvenile and destructive philosophy of Ayn Rand, which every self-respecting conservative should denounce. The heart of conservatism is self-government that is limited, accountable, devolved, and effective. We can get there without the help of libertarianism.
Unfortunately, the conservative movement has largely failed to produce an articulate, winsome, and competent spokesman for its ideals for many years. If the trend continues, libertarians may have their day after all. As the most outspoken and consistent champions of limited government, libertarians are earning the respect and even loyalty of many Americans who are mistrustful of liberalism and who yet see no viable alternative conservative philosophy. The virtue of America’s political paralysis is that it constrains individual policymakers and limits the impact one ideology can have. While libertarians are philosophically misguided and would pass awful public policy if given unchecked power, the reality is that they will never have unchecked power in the United States. A libertarian president would either pass his time in office maintaining the purity of his ideology and accomplishing nothing, or he would make compromises and cut deals with conservatives and moderates in Congress to pass policy that would probably turn out to be quite good.
I will never vote for a Rand Paul in a primary election, but if the next election comes down to a libertarian and a liberal progressive, I will hold my nose and do my duty. But do not expect the libertarian to win.
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