libertarian

One of our slogans is libertarian means for non-libertarian ends. That one works especially well in education. A big danger to the moral and intellectual diversity that graces our country’s mixture of public and private education—especially higher education—is increasingly intrusive bureaucratic government and quasi-governmental entities, such as accrediting agencies. In this category of homogenizing intruders we have to put various foundations and their experts that partner with government and educational administrators to achieve their technocratic goals. So pushing government back serves the distinctive missions of institutions that are about educating whole free and relational persons. Insofar as libertarians think about ends, they understand the person as an unencumbered person with subjective preferences, and so what some call higher education they regard as a hobby or a lifestyle choice. Postmodern conservatives think about ends (or who we are) before choosing means. We have a more “positive” view of liberty, although not one that involves big government.

In general, the two main enemies to higher education in America are political correctness and technology (or techno-vocationalism), and we can see these two obsessions coming together in both D.C. and Silicon Valley and in the D.C.–Silicon Valley complex that dominates the Democrats’ educational establishment and some of the Republican one. We can’t blame Governor Scott Walker (or many of his fellow Republican governors) for succumbing to political correctness, but we do call them naïve when they believe that administratively scripted techno-vocationalism is its antidote.

In education, pushing back political correctness and techno-obsessiveness means pushing back the regulatory power of government. And when it comes to education, especially higher education, our slogan is: It’s about more than justice and technology. Technology, as Solzhenitsyn explains, ought to be understood as a gift given to us as an intricate trial of our free will. Technological “innovation” by itself typically describes an increase in power that might be used for good or evil. In a narrow technological framework, innovation is progress. But it is far from necessarily accompanied by moral or intellectual progress. And it can be affirmed as good only if we can subordinate the techno “how” to a humanly worthy “why.” At this point, I could go on to talk about the relational costs and benefits of “the screen,” and then wonder whether, at this point, the costs haven’t far outweighed the benefits. And then go on to blame our misguided understanding of education, which hasn’t been about using the screen with the appropriate ironic moderation.

Libertarian means for libertarian ends also works when it comes to the threat that intrusive, politically correct government poses to religious freedom, to the freedom of churches (meaning religious institutions in general) to define their educational and evangelical missions for themselves.

But libertarian means for non-libertarian ends can be misunderstood. We understand free and relational beings to be, among other things, citizens. And self-government is the deliberation of citizens. That means that the “souls” of American government are the various levels of legislatures—from the village council to Congress. Even the Declaration of Independence was a legislative compromise. And in most issues of public policy, the compromise that is the result of genuine deliberation is superior to some judicial or bureaucratic “resolution” according to high principle. It’s superior, for one reason, because it honors the truth that free citizens can reasonably disagree, and because it allows the deliberation to continue even after the necessary decision has been made. It also allows for change we can really believe in, because it has been chosen by the people. Thinking here begins with abortion and marriage.

When I say work for libertarian means for non-libertarian ends, I almost always mean encouraging the legislative choice for less-intrusive government based on the whole truth about each of us. It’s citizens also seeing themselves as creatures, friends, parents, children, free thinkers, entrepreneurs, and so forth—as more than citizens but citizens too.

I hardly ever mean “judicial activism.” Government by judiciary, as much as government by bureaucracy, reduces citizens to subjects, and both are about eliminating or fearfully taming all the “intermediary institutions” that stand between the person and “the state.” Only a fool would count on the Court to protect our religious or intellectual liberty these days. It’s up to free citizens to protect the various dimensions of human liberty, and judicial review and even the “checks and balances” in general are to be understood as “auxiliary precautions” that serve the right of the people to govern themselves mainly through their elected representatives.

So we postmodern conservatives oppose what Richard Reinsch calls “the natural-rights nationalism” that some libertarian legal theorists celebrate as being engineered by the judiciary. Because we’re for genuine “civic engagement,” we’re for federalism and localism as the means given us by our Framers to arouse civic spirit and civic responsibility in as many Americans as possible.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. © February 2015 by National Review, Inc. Reprinted by permission.

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