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.

Authority pt. 1: two types of authority

The scriptures are rife with examples of people leading and following other people. But they also indicate that each person should follow none but God. Is this not the essence of the first commandment?

To illustrate, chapters 8 and 12 of 1 Samuel reveal that the Israelites’ desire for a human king signified a rejection of and rebellion against God, who is the source and only legitimate possessor of authority. The idolatry of the human monarchy was the root of subsequent trouble and suffering.

And in Matthew 20:25–28, Jesus affirms that authority should not shape people’s interactions. He doesn’t bother with an explanation, but it seems plain to me that all people must share equal status because God created us in his image. There are two basic problems with injecting authority into human relations. First, it creates unequal power dynamics that are arbitrary and contrary to God’s perfect will. Second, it implies idolatry because a human must take a place that rightfully belongs to God.

His rejection of authority is jarring on its own, but Jesus doesn’t stop or even pause there. Instead, he points straight at a radically different and unnatural ideal to guide interpersonal relations: voluntary servanthood.

But I should step back and clarify what I mean by his rejection of authority because some would understandably dispute that authority is rejected here and elsewhere in scripture. First, passages such as Romans 13:1–6, Titus 3:1–2 and 1 Peter 2:13–17 definitely affirm authority in the sense that they instruct us not to rebel against civil government and other forms of institutional authority merely for the sake of making a point. We should seek to live peaceably as far as reasonably possible.

But there are circumstances in which opposing institutional authority is not only acceptable but also necessary, as illustrated in scriptures such as 2 Kings 9, Daniel 3, and Acts 4 among others. Determining when to defy requires the exercise of wisdom and discernment in each case individually rather than the application of any rule or formula to all cases uniformly. That said, I think that it is appropriate to distinguish between two broad types of authority and that the distinction makes the question of when to reject authority less daunting.

On one hand we have constituted authority, which is an obtained status that entails a right to decide matters in a certain scope and to command and expect obedience. I think of this as authority in the pejorative sense, which I will abbreviate as A1. I believe that the Bible acknowledges God alone as the rightful bearer of A1 with regard to humans.

God delegated freely to people a measure of A1 over the natural environment of the earth, but there is no legitimate basis for any human to assert A1 over any other human. A1 among humans is necessarily institutional, hierarchical, and legalistic in nature. Ecclesiastes 5:7–8:

If in a province you see the poor oppressed, right and justice violated, do not be surprised. You will be told that officials are under the supervision of superiors, who are supervised in turn; you will hear talk of “the common good” and the “service of the king.”

On the other hand is immanent authority, which is a capacity to elucidate and to motivate people. I will abbreviate this type of authority as A2.

I believe the Bible signals that God rejects human-to-human A1 and endows certain people with A2. A1 is based on status, A2 on competence. A1 benefits primarily the bearer, A2 the others. I associate A1 with authoritarian leadership, A2 with authoritative leadership.

The 300-year period of the judges in the history of Israel is an example of a nation characterized by an absence of A1 and the presence of A2. As an aside, this is essentially what I mean when I refer to anarchy (αναρχος — anarchos). The word means literally no ruler, but I think of it more specifically as no fixed seats of power that are handed from human to human.

The period of the judges was one in which each person did what was right in his own eyes and followed others not under compulsion, but only voluntarily when a person demonstrated A2. The spirit of God would assign a certain function to a particular individual for a certain time and empower that person to execute the assignment. The label judge, which might be roughly equivalent to apostle in New Testament nomenclature — was applied to people who demonstrated A2 and earned the esteem of cohorts.

The spirit-enabled person had to choose whether to rise to the task, and failure was always possible due to temptation, distraction, opposition, and failure of others in the community to recognize the person’s God-given authority (A2). And this means that the other members of the community had to choose individually whether to follow a particular person to achieve an objective. They had to discern whether a person was a fraud or was really chosen by and filled with the spirit of God for a particular purpose.

Jesus affirmed that one who recognizes and welcomes a prophet, qua prophet, receives a prophet’s reward. This means essentially that each individual is responsible for his or her own actions and relationship with God. There seem to be many people who feel that such an arrangement isolates individuals and leaves them vulnerable. This risk exists, but the arrangement also has the potential to liberate people to relate to each other while maintaining a constant orientation toward God. It allows God to direct and coordinate social interactions. The alternative is for this role to be usurped by humans and their institutions, which are really designed by and for the benefit of spiritual powers, authorities, principalities and dominions.