Friday, September 14, 2007

Misunderstanding Libertarianism

Joe of The Evangelical Outpost can't bring himself to support Paul. He's written two pieces about him; the first was a thinly veiled ad hominen attack, but the second offered some much needed clarification. It is to the latter that I now turn:

I wrote that Libertarianism is a utopian ideology and a "rightwing equivalent of Marxism." While I stand by that assertion, it needs some clarification. One key distinction is that Marxist utopias are progressive, they are derived from a forward moving evolutionary process brought about by class conflicts inherent in capitalism. By contrast, the Libertarian utopia of Paul and his supporters (like my friend Jemison) is regressive: The ideal state is derived by devolution, a regression to an earlier point in history in which libertarian political theory was believed to be dominant.

Honestly, I'm not sure what right-wing Marxism would be, but it is certainly not libertarianism. Joe makes two mistakes in this paragraph. First, he assumes that libertarians are utopians. While there are those, Ayn Rand comes to mind, who believe that if only we let the market take over, everything would be hunky-dory, many libertarians would disagree with Rand. I am quite sure that Paul is one of them. Libertarians, myself included, tend to be pessimistic. We have arrived at our conclusions, not because we believe that libertarianism will usher in a paradise, but because we no longer have any faith in government. Men are not angels, indeed, far from it, and they are only to be trusted warily with power. Paul's message is not that his reforms will usher in perfect happiness for mankind; as a Christian, he knows better than to expect heaven on earth. Instead, he advocates a return to limited government because it will be better than the status quo. It is irrational to conclude that every idealist is a utopian. Libertarians tend to be anything but.

His second mistake is his creation of a distinction between regressive and progressive reforms. No such distinction exists. Progress is a relative term. Marxists would cite collectivization as progress on the road to paradise--unlike libertarians, Marxists tend to believe in utopia, at least as I understand them. Libertarians would cite abolition of the IRS as evidence of progress. The term only means to continue in the positive direction with reform; but, just as in physics, one is free to define one's coordinates. It sounds worse to favor regression than it does to favor progress; who could possibly be against the latter? But it's an arbitrary distinction devoid of real meaning. You could call Marxists regressionary--is that a word?--for wishing to return to a form of Plato's--totalitarian--Republic.

[Libertarians] seem to forget that many of the advances of society have come from direct government intervention.

Such as? There may have been a large number of advances brought to us by Government, but I've not seen the evidence. To be fair, I've studied this very little, but if I recall correctly, most of the inventions and technological advances which we now make use of in this country were products of the evil private sector. James Watt wasn't a government employee, now was he? If the government is so wonderful at making "advances", why don't we just turn everything over to Big Brother?

The difference is that conservatism is progressive, relying on incremental changes that are derived from a host of first principles while Pauline libertarianism is regressive, longing to return to a time in history that never existed.

This is just plain wrong. The reason conservatism fails is that it is neither regressive, nor progressive, no matter how one sets up one's coordinate system. Conservatism advocates standing still. We must conserve things as they are because they are good the way they are.
That's one of the reasons I no longer consider myself a conservative. Put plainly, it neither works nor makes sense.

Besides, there is already a nation that has instituted most of the policies libertarians endorse--no taxes, no regulations, no federal law enforcement, no drug laws, etc. It's called Somalia. And, brothers, it ain't no Utopia.

There must be some sort of Responses to Libertarianism book of which I am unaware, because people always bring this up. Libertarianism is NOT anarchy. It is not even completely anti-government. It advocates a decentralization of government power so that the temptation to abuse that power is slight and any attempt at doing so will be ineffective, but it doesn't advocate the abolishment of all government. It is not revolutionary in that sense.

Anyway, I find it amusing how little people understand the l-word, though they fear it so. We are at once told that our ideals can never be achieved and that they are stupid anyway. That about covers it I guess, except that neither objection stands against scrutiny. But Joe is a bible believing Christian. Anyone who believes in the doctrine of Original Sin can't be too far removed from libertarianism.


troutsky said...

It's my understanding that there are legitimate differences of thought within the framework of "libertarian" and that it is this differentation which is causing the confusion. Your insistence on a unified stance ignores these strains (as in socialism) and nuance.I haven't checked out Paul but the local Montana strain of Freedom Party libertarians are whackos. My take in general is that they beg for their measly paycheck from Wal Mart and blame the Government for all their troubles.

Craig J. Bolton said...

This is 99% a very good blog entry.

Trotsky is, of course, right that there are differences in libertarianism [as I thought you had noted in passing], but to refer his reader to the LP any where as an example is much like referring someone to the Animal Liberation Front as an example of diversity in socialism.

The LP is not really libertarian. It is a want-to-be political party for losers. As you seem to indicate, libertarians are not politicians, they are anti-politicians.

A Wiser Man Than I said...

I haven't checked out Paul but the local Montana strain of Freedom Party libertarians are whackos.

There are "wackos" in every party. Don't tell me you haven't run into any kooky Socialists because I know it's not true. We tend to downplay the craziness of those who ally with us, but Ron Paul is evidence that one need not be insane to be a libertarian.

A Wiser Man Than I said...

The LP is not really libertarian. It is a want-to-be political party for losers.

I'm not going to speak ill of the LP since I voted for their candidate in '04. They certainly have positions with which I disagree, but they are much closer than anyone else to following the constitution.

troutsky said...

Im just pointing out the trouble with fuzzy labels. This morning Alan Greenspan called himself a libertarian conservative but so did the guy at the FP fair booth.Does "big government" pose the same issues as Big State? Are they both Big Brother? If everyone partook in "governing" is would require a large structure but it would be one heck of a democracy,and total,indeed . But not in the Platonic or pejorative sense of "totalitarian".

A Wiser Man Than I said...

I don't see Greenspan as a libertarian since he has no problem with the fed; heck, he ran the thing.

Big State is less to be feared than Big Federal Government, because if, say, Montana goes crazy, I can move to Michigan, or what-have-you. Division of power reduces the temptation to corruption.