In our new social paradigm, moral confusion abounds. Two popular ideologies—Marxism and Libertarianism—attempt to address this confusion. However, neither accounts for the fundamentally social nature of the human person: the way shared values conceive culture and art, how the primacy of belief binds communities together, or that we are born knowing we were created to love.
There is a series of definitions that Libertarians and Marxists share. One of the most important concepts that these self-professed ideological opponents agree upon is that of the individual. For both groups, the axis upon which political life revolves is the uniquely self-owned human being.
Where both groups promptly diverge is on definitions of property. For the Marxist, property is the battle ground on which the collective proletariat must overthrow the ownership class. However, in Libertarian cosmology, the great and sovereign lord of creation willed the first man into existence and then promptly bestowed upon him what was rightfully his—property.
From there, spontaneous order happened and the cosmos was satisfied. Spontaneous order, for those lacking the proper knowledge of Libertarian definitions, is what happens when self-interested individuals peacefully—and without threat of punishment—trade goods. For the Libertarian, this is the foundation of any society that truly values the rational decision-making of the property-owning individual.
Practicing the meta-ethics of the rule abiding Kindergartener, “you don’t hurt anybody and you don’t take their stuff,” the Libertarian society has a fundamentally utopian character that is simultaneously naïve of human nature and overly reliant on an abundance of rational and productive individuals.
In its proper context, I like the idea of spontaneous order. I think it offers one-single dimension in the underpinnings of the formation of society, and I certainly believe it’s a far superior anthropology to the Marxist concept of all-out-class-war. But the Libertarian feature of the individual as the fundamental building block of society is the bug of spontaneous order that the Marxist at least had the sense to take into account.
Society is, by definition, the community of people living in a particular country or region and having shared customs, laws, and organizations. In other words, there is no society of individuals. That is called collectivism, which is the practice or principle of giving a group priority over each individual in it. Ultimately a Libertarian society is a contradiction in terms.
This is why Marxism and Libertarianism, as comprehensive anthropologies, both fail. Where the Marxist accounts for a deracinated vision of society, the Libertarian simply imbibes the soma of disembodied human islands whose only shared value is one series of economic transactions after another. Neither ideology attempts to account for the fundamentally social nature of the human person, the way shared values conceive culture and art, how the primacy of belief binds communities together, nor that we are born knowing we were created to love. In each case, the factors which make us fundamentally human are short-circuited by these severely flattened-out visions of the good.
In our era of breakdown, we find the Marxist is viewed more favorably by younger generations than the Libertarian. This seems to be for fairly obvious reasons. The Greatest Generation and their progeny—the Baby Boomers, each undoubtedly embodied rugged individualism, were still blessed with strong families, strong communities, and strong national pieties. Society functioned as a very corporeal experience.
A generation later, the utopian individualist crossed paths with the utopian Technologist and unleashed upon the West a scourge of decadent loneliness. The Marxist attempts to address the quagmire of loneliness through collective political struggle while the Libertarian doubles down on the confluence of factors that ultimately isolated everyone.
In our new social paradigm (far from what constitutes society), moral confusion abounds. Only in such an arrangement do we find the most fundamental, and pro-society building, institution of all decimated to a tax-deductible, fruitless, and isolating agreement. Of course, I am referring to the institution of marriage. It practically ended the hunter-gatherer era and ushered in what we now call civilization. By staking a claim on what was his—wife, children, and property—man established the most primal social arrangement.
What proceeded from the first settlements of families can be satisfactorily aided—though only partially contextualized—by the concept of spontaneous order. A nexus of primal social encounter, upon which the center were the temples and later churches, led to burgeoning societies. Town squares grew around them and provided families much needed social staples, local economies, culture, and art.
For the pre-modern human being the obvious foundation of society was rightfully understood as the family. No man is an island is how the saying goes. We are created for love and encounter, but before the abstract individual existed, the father, mother, son, daughter, sister, and brother formed the pre-political structures on which society exists. This is its proper foundation, and only from here is collectivism avoided. There is no such thing as a Marxist society, and less so can there be a Libertarian one—there can only exist a collective where the individual is situated as the fundamental building block of any social arrangement.
In reaction to the anti-property and anti-class sentiments of the Marxists, classical liberals have committed themselves to the flawed political sentiments of the individual and wedded it with an economical vision of man that holds up fine as long as it is understood as merely one of many important dimensions. Libertarianism was born out of this reactionary moment, but it was instantly doomed to either fail or wreak havoc on humanity due precisely to its anthropology. In our public discourse today, it seems to be simultaneously accomplishing both.
Republished with gracious permission from The Everyman (January 2020).
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The featured image is “Fish Market” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.