Is libertarianism worth a mote of dust? The debate continues.
(Note, 10:40 p.m.: several powerful comments
have been added to this entry.)
Alan Roebuck writes:
Steve Burton at What’s Wrong with the World disagrees with your take on libertarianism. He says
- end of initial entry -
The problem, here, … is Auster’s failure to distinguish between the “laws” of a society and that society’s “common standards.” He seems to assume that the only way for a community to “protect the beliefs and values that define it as a community” is to enforce its common standards by law. Without that assumption, his argument makes little or no sense.
Later, in the comments, Burton says
And I think that it’s a fool’s errand to try to change the mores by changing the laws.
Lydia McGrew then nails Steve on this point
Steve, I think that’s a false dichotomy. Law teaches. If you tell people that something previously illegal is now legal, that has an important psychological effect. For one thing, it makes it much harder to stop. It doesn’t matter whether we would have an “epidemic” of these things. The point is that laws against them are (a) not unjust, (b) give us something definite we can do as just punishment if people engage in them, and (c) are a clear expression of public disapproval in the form of saying that these are things you aren’t allowed to do.
[End of Lydia’s quote]
I think that’s important.
I posted my own comment:
Auster’s overall point, as I understand it, is as follows:
Libertarianism, by definition, is the doctrine that the state must not initiate any force except in defense of the realm or in retaliation against evildoers. But this doctrine, being entirely negative, provides no guidance whatsoever in how society ought to be ordered. And it also at best ignores (and at worst denies) the fact that a group of people inhabiting the same geographical region do not automatically become a society, but some sort of force (understood in the broadest sense) must be employed to form and sustain the order that creates a society.
If that’s what he’s saying, I’m in complete agreement. Libertarians, to the extent that they believe in any sort of ordering principles of society, are not libertarians, but rather members of another tradition. In that sense, libertarianism has nothing to offer other than to remind us of the danger of excessive state power.
An example. Just before the 2008 elections, I had a discussion about California’s Proposition 8 with a member of a traditionalist Reformed church. He said he was going to vote against it, because it was an unwarranted intrusion of the state into the definition of marriage. I replied that the situation was the opposite of what he described: Proposition 8 would use the power of the state to resist the evildoers who wanted to force all of us to act as if we honor a gross perversion of God’s (and naturally-recognizable) law. There is a legitimate question of just how to resist this type of evil, but there can be no doubt that using the power of the state to resist this evil can be the correct thing to do.
And this shows one of the dangers of libertarianism: it can lead us to weaken our opposition to evil that is carried out by the government (at the bidding of private citizens) by making us think that we must not use the apparatus of the state to resist evil.
Joseph C. writes:
I have been following your recent threads on libertarianism with interest. I often agree with libertarians on some economic issues, but I cannot ever come to terms with them on sociopolitical issues, for a simple reason. Traditionalists believe in self-government; conversely, libertarians believe only in self. No matter where a libertarian starts a discussion, he always comes back to the same point: government has no “right” to make anyone behave in any way, either through negative or positive actions.
For that reason, libertarianism is not now and never will be compatible with traditional society. The latter believes that peoples have a right to exist, form institutions and societies that reflect common beliefs, and—yes—to expect those who wish to live among them to abide by such standards.
I have no argument with libertarians that want to be left free of any government intrusion. I just don’t want them to be part of any society I live in, nor do I see them as having anything to contribute to the survival of America as I love(d) it.
Kilroy M. writes:
Burton writes that “it’s not “society,” but individuals that libertarians want to protect.” This illustrates how libertarians can’t see two inches past their nose. Just as the idea of political freedom cannot exist without a cohesive body politic, the “individual” cannot exist without the community in which he defines himself as an individual. Identity is tied in with context. We do not have to look far to witness how people devoid of identity end up behaving.
James N. writes:
I must confess that I was a committed libertarian during my intellectual formation. It seemed attractive that I could do what I wanted, rather than what I ought.
And, to be fair, the upside of doing what you want is immediate, while the downside of not doing what you ought plays out over a long period of time, often, as in my case, many years.
I think the point about laws not being able to correct mores is obviously, even perhaps laughably wrong. Anyone who was born, as I was, when adultery was a crime, when sodomy was a crime, when alienation of affection was a tort, when divorce was nearly impossible knows very well that the decriminalization of all of these things (and the invention of unilateral divorce) has led to an explosion of these things.
How might a community define its communal nature, its communal expectations, without laws? And if those things are not defined, how can we possibly call such a place a community?
Debra C. writes:
“And this shows one of the dangers of libertarianism: it can lead us to weaken our opposition to evil that is carried out by the government (at the bidding of private citizens) by making us think that we must not use the apparatus of the state to resist evil.”
It seems, then, that libertarians do not really believe in evil, or at the very least, they reduce evil only to what they fear the state will do coercively. Libertarians actually invite anarchy, don’t they, by demanding that the government remove its hand in promoting an ordered society, with certain expectations as to what constitutes behavior conducive to good order.
So, while libertarianism “can lead us to weaken our opposition to evil that is carried out by the government,” at the same time it promotes/condones behavior that of itself necessitates evil carried out by the government as an ostensible corrective to societal dysfunction. How often in history have we read of countries granting more powers to the government when near-chaos reigned in the land?
People will either learn self-government (self-restraint and the governing of their persons) or they will sacrifice self-government altogether. Libertarianism is bankrupt as a guide to becoming self-governing because it is an Epicurean and hedonistic philosophy disguised as a political doctrine. It supplies an end without the means.
LA writes (11:30 p.m.):
Steve Burton wrote at 4W:
The problem, here … is Auster’s failure to distinguish between the “laws” of a society and that society’s “common standards.” He seems to assume that the only way for a community to “protect the beliefs and values that define it as a community” is to enforce its common standards by law. Without that assumption, his argument makes little or no sense.
I didn’t distinguish between laws and standards simply because I didn’t get around to it. Obviously not all common standards in a society take the form of laws; there are many standards affecting the tone and ethics of a society that do not take the form of laws. But generally, as James N. points out above, the most important standards do take the form of laws, and repealing such laws will have as large an effect on the society as the laws themselves. For example, as we can readily see from the transformation of America and Britain over the last 45 years, there are fundamental differences between a society in which sodomy is a misdemeanor (even if the law almost never enforced), and a society in which it is not.
By the way, isn’t it a riot that the single issue on which the Randians are most passionate (I know this from the many e-mails I receive from Randians which I don’t post because they’re too angry and abusive) is the freedom of homosexuals to engage in homosexual activity—an issue which, obviously, did not exist as the remotest flicker in Ayn Rand’s novels?
Which leads to the question, did Rand write about homosexual rights in her later years?
And here’s another “by the way”: what is What’s Wrong with the World about, after all? It’s supposed to be a traditionalist Christian site, yet it features Steve Burton, a homosexual libertarian, and several of its regular writers believe that America has no right to shoot down an airliner which is about to crash into the U.S. Capitol, if there is even one innocent passenger on the plane who will be killed by the plane being shot down, even though the passenger is imminently doomed anyway.
Other than Lydia McGrew, are there any writers at WWWW who believe in protecting … uh, you know, society?
You ask, “Other than Lydia McGrew, are there any writers at WWWW who believe in protecting … uh, you know, society?” My impression of the thread so far is that the WWWW regulars are pretty much coming down on the traditionalist side of the fence. [LA replies: Thanks for clarification. Also see Lydia McGrew’s comment below for more on this.]
Gerry T. Neal has posted this top-notch comment
in the thread at WWWW, which Kristor has forwarded:
Your comments on Mr. Auster’s 3rd and 4th sentences point to the individualism which is at the heart of libertarianism. You are correct to say that it is “individuals” rather than “society” that libertarians wish to protect.
This, to me, is exactly what is wrong with libertarianism. The term “individual”, from its usage in classical liberalism and modern libertarianism, does not mean “a person within a society distinguishable by that which is peculiar to himself” but rather “a person apart from all societies, identified by that which he has in common with all other persons, i.e., equal natural rights”.
A traditionalist like myself, would say that the “individual” of liberal philosophy does not exist. Persons exist as members of societies, but sovereign individuals do not. Society is prior to the individual person. We see that when we look at society in its most basic unit, the family. Each of us enters the world as a member of a family. We do not join that family as sovereign individuals consenting to a contractual agreement. The family is prior to the person.
While libertarians see themselves as the “enemies of the state”, liberal individualism lends itself to a form of state tyranny. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that the state exists to protect the rights, persons, and property of individuals from others. What happens when there is a conflict between an individual and the authorities within that individual’s family, church, and local community? The answer consistent with liberal individualism is that the state must always intervene to protect the interests of the “individual” from authority of parents, clergy, and community elders.
This is, of course, exactly what the “nanny state” is all about. Contemporary liberalism is not as far removed from classical liberal philosophy as is often believed. It is, I would argue, the natural conclusion of liberalism. Today’s libertarian then, in building his case against the statist liberalism of the day upon the foundation of the individualist liberalism of yesterday, is building upon a foundation that will not hold the structure that he wishes to impose on it.
Individualism, is a very shallow and simplistic way of looking at something which is by nature intricate and complex—society. Society consists of a web of interlocking ties that connect its members to each other—blood ties, ties of common faith, ties of common experience, etc.
The debate about “mores” v. “laws” was very interesting. It reminded me again of the difference between authority and power. The constitution of society, grants authority, i.e. the right to command, to certain positions at every level of social organization. Parents possess authority within the home, clergy within the church, local government within the community, employers within the workplace, and the national government over the entire country. Power is force used to either uphold legitimate authority or to overthrow and usurp legitimate authority.
As a rule, parental authority is maintained with the least amount of force, government authority by the largest. Today, we have the problem of a popular culture which is subversive of parental and clerical authority. The collapse of authority on these levels, provides an excuse for the state to use more power to prevent society from collapsing into chaos. This is the very “tyranny” and “totalitarianism” which anti-authoritarian libertarians profess to detest. It is the inevitable result of the collapse of authority.
How did the libertarians and Objectivists get away with their transparent fraud for all these decades? Both groups claimed to have the superior and true philosophy for the guidance and organization of society. But both groups, at the most fundamental level, deny the existence of society in any meaningful sense of the word. That’s why I call them transparent frauds. How did they get away with this? Why were the transparent frauds not exposed decades ago?
Neal really had me with this:
Persons exist as members of societies, but sovereign individuals do not. Society is prior to the individual person. We see that when we look at society in its most basic unit, the family. Each of us enters the world as a member of a family. We do not join that family as sovereign individuals consenting to a contractual agreement. The family is prior to the person.
That’s really good. The whole focus on the individual at the expense of the matrix in which alone he can have any existence qua social unit is pure gnosticism.
Bob A. writes:
Your anti-libertarian posts are being discussed here.
Bill Danielson’s commentary on Kristor’s and your arguments get to the heart of the matter. You are attacking straw men.
I’ll try to read it tomorrow.
Lydia McGrew writes:
Just for the record, Steve Burton is as far as I know the only full-bore libertarian at W4, though I (like many conservatives) sometimes am taken to be a libertarian when I am discussing subjects like health care or when I am opposing Crunchy Conservative attacks on the free market. In answer to your question about my colleagues, Ed Feser is a very articulate ex-libertarian who has written a great deal on the subject, much of it before he came to W4. Ed is particularly good on ideological libertarianism of the sort that you were discussing in your recent post. Here is a post of his at W4 on problems with libertarianism. Jeff Culbreath is very outspoken in his opposition to libertarianism. Here is one in which he highlights a particularly appalling quotation by Murray Rothbard about parental abandonment of children and praises a book with which I would probably find much to disagree by a Catholic author (Ferrara) who rejects libertarianism and even free-market capitalism root and branch. In a sense, Steve is actually rather isolated in his libertarianism, and he and I may not even be in a majority in defense of what is ordinarily called “fiscal conservatism.”
Stewart W. writes:
All politics is local. One of the most interesting discussions to have with a libertarian involves not the high-minded concepts of society, and individual autonomy, and the protection of lives, health, personal freedom, and private property. If you want to get to the heart of it, discuss grubby little local zoning laws.
Posted by Lawrence Auster at November 22, 2010 05:03 PM | Send
Over the last decade, I served on our local “community council,” whose purpose was to evaluate conditional uses of property within the zoning laws, and to make recommendations to the county representing the opinion of the residents. Without a doubt, the most controversial proposal that came along during my time on the council was a so-called “monster homes” ordinance, which proposed to restrict the size and grandiosity of new homes that could be built or remodeled in our 50 plus year old area. As you might imagine, liberals came down firmly on the side of the restrictions, conservatives wanted to leave the old zoning ordinance alone, and the (few) libertarians wanted the current zoning ordinance scrapped or further loosened. While somewhat sympathetic to the libertarian view, I took, and upheld, the conservative position, and in the end the county wrote a new ordinance that leaned toward the liberal position.
During this entire year-long debate, I realized that this issue went to the heart of the libertarian/collectivist discussion. What is the proper, principled libertarian view of zoning laws? Should a private property owner be allowed to build whatever he wants on his residential, suburban property? What if he wants to run a business? What if he wants to open a 24-hour liquor store, or a brothel? What if his true passion in life is to run a small hog-rendering plant? None of these operations, per se, will directly threaten my life, health, freedom, or private property, so all of these should be perfectly acceptable to the true libertarian, right?
I would be very interested in understanding the libertarian position on zoning laws.