Russell Kirk’s prescription of having no major alliances between conservatives and libertarians is wise. Conservatives may stand with libertarians against tyranny and for sensible free market policies, but in the end, I think even accepting the term libertarian is unwise.
Should you be a libertarian? The answer, as with every term, depends on how you define it. Many critics of free market economics think that any skepticism about the ability of the state to manage local, state, or national economies by fixing prices and wages, telling industries what and how much to produce, regulating every aspect of businesses in the name of safety, and limiting trade with other free market actors is (shudder) libertarianism.
“You oppose this 2 trillion-dollar aid package and the demand that there be no COVID deaths before we allow you to serve that cheeseburger? Despicable libertarian!”
If being a believer in free markets—with all the proper caveats—makes one a libertarian, then you should definitely be a libertarian. Friends of mine will call themselves libertarians with this in mind. They think liberty a good word and one that we ought to all embrace as long as we understand that it is liberty under God and the natural moral law. They want to emphasize how much we’ve learned about how decentralized economic and social activity so often works better—not perfectly, mind you!—than do the best laid plans of politicians and social scientists. They want to make sure we understand that the liberty of individuals, families, and associations must be protected from the overweening powers of the state and increasingly the woke corporations who are not interested in liberty.
If the term means someone who is a member of the Libertarian Party or votes for their candidates, the answer is almost always no. While in a local race, a Libertarian would almost certainly be preferable to most candidates aligned with Democrats or other “progressive” parties, on the national stage they never have a chance at victory—commentator Michael Medved often calls them “losertarians”—and they often function to siphon votes away from other conservative candidates. And though they often have a number of good policy positions—presidential candidate Jo Jorgensen was not only good on a number of economic and foreign policy issues but also opposed the tyrannies exercised in the name of COVID—their positions on drug decriminalization and legalization strike me as entirely unwise.
This leads me to a third, consistent and philosophical understanding of libertarian that was delineated by Russell Kirk in his famous 1981 essay, “Libertarians: the Chirping Sectaries.” Therein he described a “tiny minority” of “ideologues who call themselves libertarians” who have a “fanatic attachment to a simple solitary principle—that is, to the notion of personal freedom as the whole end of the civil social order, and indeed of human existence.” In his essay, Dr. Kirk repudiated any notion of an alliance between consistent libertarians and conservatives, despite their common opposition to collectivism, because of how much they differ on the nature of human nature, society, government, and liberty itself.
Conservatives (like Christians) view human nature as fallen while libertarians (like anarchists and Marxists, Kirk observes) view it as benign and good, though damaged by institutions. Conservatives “declare that society is a community of souls, joining the dead, the living, and those yet unborn; and that it coheres through what Aristotle called friendship and Christians call love of neighbor.” They think custom, though not infallible, is necessarily a part of human society and not to be disposed of. Libertarians declare that society is cemented by “self-interest” and look askance at customs. Conservatives view government as ordained by God, yet in need of constraints since it is operated by fallen humans. Libertarians view it as intrinsically “an oppressor.” And conservatives view liberty as essential to human beings, though only finally good when it is used in favor of good and oriented to truth.
Is Kirk fair and accurate in this description? I thought of his essay again recently when I watched a short satirical video called “Libertarian PBS” produced by the libertarian magazine Reason. It took recognizable PBS shows such as “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” “Sesame Street,” “The Great British Bake Off,” and others, and injected libertarian themes. While due allowance needs to be made for the satirical nature, what it showed was still the stark division identified by Dr. Kirk.
Bits that highlighted the problems with qualified immunity, eminent domain, the national debt, and politicians using insider knowledge to get rich amused me. I like Muppet police officers singing about how qualified immunity is “not for you” and “just for me,” but when it came to depicting what libertarians would teach kids, it was disturbing—even allowing for the jokiness.
In one bit Barney the Dinosaur sings, “I love you and you love me, and we all own our own bodies, so marry who you want and do whatever drugs you choose, and when it’s time you can die with dignity by determining your own end-of-life plan.” A character in a travel show lights up a joint and says, “We’re in international waters. That means I can marry a robot and sell a kidney on eBay” On the “Great ‘Murican Baking Show,” a British host tells the ‘Murican, Jack, he must bake a “gay wedding cake.” When Jack refuses, citing his rights, the host kicks him off, calling him a “homophobic, bearded meat gobbler.”
Well, ha ha.
This video matches up with recent articles on the website, which focus on this strange notion of owning one’s own body and doing whatever one wants with it—and especially demonizing those who disagree. One article, “Arkansas Lawmakers Interfere in Trans Teens’ Choices,” by Scott Shackford, criticizes Arkansas lawmakers who have proposed legislation that would ban giving hormone-suppressing drugs, performing “gender reassignment” surgeries, and doing other cosmetic alterations to adolescents. It proposes that if doctors agree that such a “treatment” is necessary, it should be done. And by way of attacking the bill’s co-sponsors, the article notes that she has tried to make abortion more difficult to obtain in Arkansas.
I don’t think Mr. Shackford asked those babies what they want to do with their bodies that they presumably own. As Dr. Kirk observed, “It was recently a plank in the platform of the Libertarian Party that expectant mothers should enjoy a right to abortion on demand; while to the reflecting conservative, the slaughter of innocents is the most despicable of evils.”
Other recent articles assume that showing a strong American trust in big tech and billionaires is a good thing. And many others associate the goals of drug legalization and normalization, as well as those of “sex work,” as goods. I’m familiar with prudential arguments as to why certain vices should not be legally proscribed; indeed, St. Thomas Aquinas has one for prostitution. It is a fallen world, and the limits on what a society and a government can do officially to make it less destructive are limited. But the naivety shown about the power of Big Tech and the enthusiasm for psychotropic drugs and selling one’s body are frightening.
If this is “libertarianism,” and it appears to be for one of its major in-house magazines, I want no part in it and neither should you. Dr. Kirk’s prescription of no major alliances between conservatives and libertarians seems to be a wise thing, even if we can continue to use libertarian research and unite with libertarians on certain narrow issues. Conservatives can stand with libertarians against tyranny and for sensible free market policies. But in the end, I think even accepting the term libertarian is unwise. Too many people hear it and don’t hear “under God and the natural law.” What they hear is the voice of a selfishness that will indeed allow for tyranny when the price is right.
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