Libertarianism’s illusions

I have recently read some interesting blog posts on liberalism and libertarianism. (And as several of those posts mention, the November 2008 conversation at Cato Unbound is worth reading.) I don’t care to address any of those pieces directly. But I feel like mentioning a couple of things about libertarianism that cross my mind periodically.

An article in Reason in November 2008 by Todd Seavey was my first exposure to the suggestion that libertarians in the US exchange their alliance with the conservative movement for an alliance with liberals. There are good reasons for the suggestion, and I have encountered it several times since. But I doubt it can work any better than the alliance with conservatives, which seems not to have served the interests of libertarians at all.

I think that a better suggestion is for libertarians to give up libertarianism. My problem with libertarianism as a political ideology is that it seems incoherent. Many political ideologues either eschew idealism while sticking to utilitarianism or view their ends as both ideal and practical. In contrast, libertarians seem to hold an ideal that they consider impractical; there’s nothing wrong with that. But rather than uphold the ideal while compromising for the practical, they choose to adopt a new ideal that they consider attainable. They try to fudge the gap between idealism and pragmatism.

Specifically, it seems to me that libertarianism is an attempt to fuse liberalism with anarchism and then renounce both. I suspect that most self-identified libertarians hold anarchy (αναρχος — anarchos) as an ideal in their hearts but recognize that anarchy is unattainable. In the context of a well-established and permanent leviathan state, they are sympathetic to the tenets of liberalism, which is utilitarian. (I am talking primarily about classical liberalism, but concessions could be made to social liberalism; I am not referring to any aspect of the neoliberalism of the two-party plutocracy in the US.)

Liberalism, however, excludes skepticism about the fundamental value and legitimacy of the state project. So some people feel torn between anarchy and the liberal state, as between thesis and antithesis. They could choose to accept both, if only with caveats, and some do. But most people are uncomfortable with paradox, so some search for a synthesis to resolve the dialectical tension. Libertarianism is that synthesis.

It might help to define what I mean by libertarianism since it is used in various ways. I’ll use what Karl Hess wrote in “The Death of Politics”:

“Libertarianism is the view that each man is the absolute owner of his life, to use and dispose of as he sees fit: that all man’s social actions should be voluntary, and that respect for every other man’s similar and equal ownership of life and, by extension, the property and fruits of that life, is the ethical basis of a humane and open society. In this view, the only — repeat, only — function of law or government is to provide the sort of self-defense against violence that an individual, if he were powerful enough, would provide for himself.”

“If it were not for the fact that libertarianism freely concedes the right of men voluntarily to form communities or governments on the same ethical basis, libertarianism could be called anarchy.”

And, as Christopher Beam put it in an article about libertarianism that New York Magazine published at the end of December, libertarians seek “minarchy,” i.e., “government responsible for a standing army, local security, and a courts system, and that’s it.”

The idea of minarchy seems based on the artifice that two incongruous elements, anarchy and a liberal state, are reconcilable. And this is worse than the original illusion obscuring the conflict between the ideal and the utilitarian disappear.

Libertarians understandably want to distinguish themselves from statists (i.e., those who believe that the state project is noble). But if minarchy is the goal of libertarianism, any distinction between libertarians and statists is spurious.

Once authority is constituted, even if only to defend against aggression, it cannot but be used to manipulate, coerce, and violate others, including – perhaps especially – those that it purports to defend. And constituted authority is expansive by nature. Only competition from other authorities restrains its expansion. But competing authorities tend to look for and find ways to ally with one another to expand their authority. So the state, once conceived, must expand perpetually. Its subjects cannot restrain it. Power consolidates until it overreaches and makes itself vulnerable to toppling.

Minarchy (i.e., formal government responsible only for a standing army, local security, and a courts system) is a mirage, an apparition. An army, local security forces, and courts will inevitably be used not to defend all members of society equally, but to secure advantages for some at the expense of others. Pretending that minarchy is attainable and sustainable just facilitates that which libertarians, like anarchists, are most adamant about opposing.

I think it is better to embrace, paradoxically, both anarchy and liberalism without pretending that they are compatible. Anarchy is an ideal, and liberalism is utilitarian. Until a plurality of people repudiates the state and espouses anarchy, a liberal (i.e., democratic, constitutional, pluralistic, tolerant, etc.) republic seems to be the least terrible form of modern state.

Some object that the perfect is the enemy of the good. But anarchy, upheld as an ideal, does not have to be an enemy that destroys the liberal state and hurls society into the grip of a totalitarian surveillance-security state. It is possible to maintain an idealist perspective and a utilitarian stance simultaneously. Yes, it is paradoxical, and it is difficult to know which deserves precedence at any particular moment. But this tightrope walk seems best to me.

A combination of philosophical anarchism and pragmatic liberalism seems better than libertarianism at facilitating a defense of liberty and the individual. It opens a space for working meaningfully with classical liberals for a less insane, less oppressive, less invasive, less intolerant, less inequitable organization of society, if that sort of thing appeals to you. Libertarian politics, in refusing to uphold the ideal represented by the dreaded a-word and similarly marginalizing classical liberalism, unwittingly paves a road to authoritarianism.

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3 responses to “Libertarianism’s illusions

    • I don’t know whether Chomsky thinks something along these lines, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that he does. Can you refer me to a particular piece that he has written on the subject? I’m sure that he could articulate the point better than I have here.

  1. “Until people can realize that it is not like the sun rising, that it can be changed, that you don’t have to follow orders, that you don’t have to be beaten, until people can perceive that there is something wrong with that, until that is overcome, you can’t go on. And one of the ways to do that is to try to press reforms within the existing systems of repression, and sooner or later you find that you will have to change them.”

    -From http://www.zcommunications.org/anarchism-interview-by-noam-chomsky

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