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. 3: the body of Christ

This is the last installment in a three-part series of posts on authority. See part 1 here and part 2 here.

Disciples of Christ who accept my assertions about A1 vs. A2 and their implications face the question of how to exist as a community if we are not to seek the formal order of hierarchy.

The community of Christians depicted in Acts is analogous to Israel during the period of judges. The community of Christians today is analogous to Israel during its period of monarchy. I won’t get into the controversy of the who, how, and why of this transformation other than to say that many in the community felt it necessary and appropriate to rein in the proliferation of shortcomings that were on display in the network. Priorities had to be set and choices made. A central issue was (and remains) the tension between the desire for maximizing the number of conversions versus maximizing the depth of spiritual maturity in each believer. And there was (and remains) tension between the impulse to live at peace with the state and the society it encompasses versus the inevitable trouble entailed in witnessing for truth among the deceived.

Benjamin Tucker asserts, “Society finds its highest perfection in the union of order with anarchy.”

I believe that God dislikes human relations that are based on A1 — authority in the pejorative sense. I also think that most people dislike A1, at least when they don’t wield it. Further, I believe that God wants the catholic church (not the Roman Catholic Church but everyone that Jesus recognizes as a follower of his) to embody his mysterious non-hierarchical order, which confounds the human intellect. I regard this as part of our mandate as his witnesses in the world. However, I do not believe that he wants us just to destroy hierarchy wholesale.

This leads me to two questions. First, why did the Israelites want to exchange an A2 society for an A1 state? Second, how can we become a network that fulfills God’s will and demonstrates his order?

Israel’s apostasy

There were probably several factors in the Israelites’ desire to have a human king, but I believe that chief among them was that they found it too burdensome and terrifying to relate to God directly. Remember that their conception of God differed from the conception of God that most Christians have today. We could do with a lot more of the fear of the lord that they had. On the other hand, they wanted something that we have, and take largely for granted, and probably can’t really imagine lacking — a mediator.

Moses was reluctant to lead and insisted on having a mediator, Aaron, between him and the rest of the Israelites. Similarly, when God called his people to the summit of Mt. Sinai, they refused to go and insisted on having a mediator, Moses, between them and God.

Moses had a fear of people, and the people had a fear of God. But isn’t a fear of God a good thing (e.g., the beginning of wisdom)? Yes, but we might differentiate between reverent and irreverent varieties of fear of God. The Israelites’ refusal to heed God’s call to meet him at the summit of the mountain is an example of an irreverent fear of God — a refusal to trust him, in this case.

Christ mediator

Christian doctrine holds that Jesus Christ took a form both fully human and fully divine. The significance of this for our purposes here is that we can orient toward God in the form of a human who was subject to all the frailties and temptations that we face as humans. This makes the mediation of Jesus Christ a key that unlocks our ability to include A2 in and exclude A1 from our interactions.

Jesus acts as the human, and therefore less-scary-than-God, mediator that we want between God and us, and he does not ask for a mediator — such as Aaron — between him and us. However, Jesus is not merely a human but is God the Son. So Jesus is our mediator in a sense, yet there is actually no mediator since him who would be mediator is in fact God. Being both divine and human, Jesus is the exclusive source and bearer of A1 authority among humans. This paradox of the God–man who is king leaves us with no excuse for mis-assigning A1 authority to humans.

But his authority is not limited to the A1 type as God. He also displayed unmatched A2 during his ministry in human form on the earth. He brings an astounding, incomprehensible order. It is not the formal order that we are familiar with from the innovations conceived by humans. Our factitious order is a counterfeit of God’s artless, spontaneous order. Jesus is the king of kings, but he doesn’t create a hierarchy that we recognize in the delegation of portions of A1 to subordinates.

Jesus doesn’t just mediate between God and humans as God and human; he also mediates between monarchy and anarchy as the monarchal head of an anarchic community. It is as if a network of kings existed as a community in anarchy — yet with one king at the center of, over, and within all. Many people find this too paradoxical to take seriously. My only reply is that I no longer see truth untouched by paradox. (Here I mean eternal truth rather than merely accurate assessments of temporal reality.)


So how can anyone proceed from current circumstances toward the ideal I have sketched? Devising a plan would require employing means that are contrary to the end. I only propose that we stop subscribing to the false religion of formal order. I see no reason to fight with the hierarchy of Christendom. I merely withdraw my support for it. I tolerate it as well as I can, viewing it as a temporary arrangement that must disintegrate eventually. I recognize its flaws and place no faith or hope in it. But I also trust that God is working through it and is preparing us to exit at the right time as Noah and all exited the ark.

Incidentally, my view of the state is equivalent. I see no good case for promoting large-scale, direct conflict with the state. I simply give it no moral support. I pay taxes and make the other token gestures toward obedience without paying it any respect in my heart. This seems enough for now.

Hope and dissent

“The purpose of words is to convey ideas. When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten. Where can I find a man who has forgotten the words? He is the one I would like to talk to.” — Zhuangzi (庄子)

“Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” — Ludwig Wittgenstein

The words of this blog should be transparent and forgettable — disposable conveyors of durable concepts, paradigms, and paradoxes. I expect to write often about Christianity and sometimes about current events. I may also write occasionally about philosophy, music, science and who knows what else.

In any case, I am not a technician or specialist of any sort, and I hope this blog will have a nomothetic character. The following are the primary ideas and ideals that are likely to be reflected in this blog.

I value freedom and with it truth, neither of which can subsist without the other. In addition to these two things, I will address fear (often in the specific context of the culture and politics of the US, but elsewhere as well) since it seems to have an inverse correlation with freedom and, perhaps to a lesser extent, with truth.

I value equality. Dignity resides within every person, and human relations must be based on that equality.

Partly because of this, I loathe chauvinism in all its forms. Fear and ignorance seem to birth and sustain chauvinism, which stands opposed to truth and freedom. Chauvinism implies and even requires hierarchy, which institutionalizes and legitimizes inequality. Which brings me to my opposition to the modern state.

Anarchy is a touchstone by which I assess affairs of the world and their value. I do not consider anarchy a goal to be obtained or an ideology by which to be guided. So I do not consider myself an anarchist and am not one in any conventional sense of the word. However, I can sympathize to some degree with anarchists and probably share more in common with them than with any other group on the political spectrum — except perhaps libertarians, depending on how you choose to define and distinguish between anarchist and libertarian. My guiding principle in this area is that I have power over no one’s rights and liberties, and no one over mine.

On a tangentially related note, I am interested in the concept of the technological society as explored by Jacques Ellul. I am concerned with the encroachment on the individual implied by the proliferation of technique, and specifically the perpetual expansion of the modern state through the agglomeration of techniques.

Propaganda is one nexus of techniques that particularly interests me, and I will probably write a fair amount about the struggle required of the individual to maintain a personal, spiritual identity against the onslaught of techniques that would reduce him or her to an anonymous automaton in the abyss of mass society. I hope to write occasionally about the myth of progress, which is particularly important to contemporary propaganda.

I am a Christian — or, perhaps more accurately, am trying to become one more fully — and my favorite principle in Christian theology is that of regeneration/renewal (the Greek: παλιγγενεσία — palingenesia).

I want to see justice done and to see mercy granted. The paradox of justice and mercy in Christianity is one that I find particularly difficult to come to terms with.

And paradox is something that I appreciate. Not all paradoxes, but those that seem to contain a glimpse of truth with a capital T. And it seems to me that all truth involves paradox.

Last, I appreciate dissent. The jeremiad in the name of this blog is a reference to my given name and to one of my favorite verses in one of my favorite books of the Bible, Jeremiah 15:10, in which the author identifies himself as a man of strife and dissension. Jeremiah is alternately characterized as a weeping prophet; a prophet of doom, destruction, and judgment; and a plagiarizing prophet (because he quotes many other prophets). These characterizations are apt, but he also sounds a note of hope. Likewise, I seek to express views that are critical of the present world but that also point out reasons for hope, which paves the way to joy — thus the merry in front of jeremiad.

As I opened this entry with two quotes, so I close it with two:

“In order to be prepared to hope in what does not deceive, we must first lose hope in everything that deceives.” — Georges Bernanos

“Truth is meant to save you first, and the comfort comes afterward.” — Georges Bernanos