Saturday, January 22, 2011

Libertarianism as the Negation of Ideology

A conservative blog for peace reminds us that "libertarianism is not an ideology but simply a means; maximise liberty, with only the no-harm principle as its limit, and there would be more prosperity overall and everybody from hardcore social liberals to ‘picket-fence conservatives’ could get along" — From RR.

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Blogger Mark in Spokane said...

Russell Kirk would disagree, as I note over in post today on my own blog.

4:05 PM  
OpenID tabuno said...

something Hitler could say too. as in "national-socialism is not an ideology: it's a means to an end in the given set of circumstances"

4:58 PM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

I changed the title of this post to give it a Kirkian echo. After all, if one of the tenets of Kirkian conservatism is particularism, then what better means to we have to achieving that goal than libertarianism? Let San Francisco be San Francisco and let Salt Lake City be Salt Lake City.

Libertarianism can be an ideology, as with Ayn Rand, but it need not be, as with Ron Paul. What better means do we have of reducing the size and scope of the federal government to a human scale?

5:47 PM  
Blogger Mark in Spokane said...

The answer is not libertarianism, which is an ideology born out of the shearing of liberalism during the 20th century into statist and non-statist wings, but rather the older and wiser principles of federalism and subsidiarity. Let Utah be Utah and San Francisco be San Francisco is wise federalism -- but it does not require libertarianism for federalism to work. Indeed, the dissolution of social order that is inherent in a libertarian approach will eventually necessitate a much larger government to keep the piece and pick up the pieces.

Federalism and subsidiarity are also completely compatible with Church social teaching. Subsidiarity is itself one of the three main pillars of Catholic social teaching. Libertarianism, however, is not so compatible due to its conflict with the other two pillars: solidarity and the idea that the government must pursue the common good.

Kirk understood this, as have most Catholic writers on the right. Buchanan certainly understand this -- he is far from being libertarian. Not being a libertarian doesn't mean embracing big government, though. It's not like we only have two options -- big government or the libertarian illusion. Kirk's work sets out the sane alternate to both paths of madness.

1:55 AM  
Blogger Mark in Spokane said...

This is, btw, one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Federalist approach by Washington, Adams, Hamilton, Fisher Ames and others during our early Republic. They weren't radically opposed to government, nor did they harbor an essentially utopian view of agrarian slaveocracy like Madison and Jefferson. Instead, they had a balanced and conservative view of the role of the federal government, seeking to find the gold mean between too much government and too little.

Within the Old Republican movement at the same time, there was a very similar approach, drawing the balance of federal and state authority differently, but refusing to adopt a hostility to all government authority. Instead, writers like St. George Tucker, John Randolph of Roanoke and later John C. Calhoun argued for a balance between personal liberty (not license) and government power at both the federal and state level.

This is why the exemplars of conservatism in the early American Republic were identified by Kirk to be John Adams, John Randolph of Roanoke and John C. Calhoun.

The only one of the founders who could conceivably classified as libertarian is Thomas Paine, and he was, frankly, more than a bit of a nut. Jefferson sounded like a libertarian, but he didn't believe a word of his own propaganda, and as soon as he got power he extended his authority beyond the wildest dreams of even a strong proponent of executive power like Hamilton.

9:03 AM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...


You had me with the first comment, but lost me a bit with the second. I guess it was the mention of Hamilton, whom I see you are now acknowledging him as "erratic." Good points about Paine and Jefferson in the end.

I guess I'm just an Upstate New York Melancton Smith, George Clinton, Federal Farmer man.

8:30 PM  
Blogger Mark in Spokane said...

Well, the first comment is built around Catholic social teaching, so it is inherently more coherent than my second comment, which is built on American political history which is significantly less coherent, both in its theory and its practice!

What I was trying to get at is that libertarianism isn't part of the well-spring of our political traditions in the West. Libertarians often try to argue that it is, but it simply isn't. It isn't compatible with either the Catholic approach to public policy issues (which build on the Bible and natural law), or the approach embraced by the American Founders (which is built, depending on the Founder, on the Bible, on natural law, on Enlightenment principles, on classical political theory, etc.). It is only with the one Founder who was something of a novum, Thomas Paine, that a libertarian approach may be discerned (which is why he was a favorite of both Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan), but Paine was an outlier and, as I pointed out, more than bit unstable.

My comment about Hamilton was based on the fact that after the election of 1800, as the Federalist movement collapsed, he became increasing angry. The death of his son was pivotal here. He began to become more reactionary and pessimistic about the American experiment. As a result, his public policy positions, particularly in regard to American foreign policy, became more erratic. However, on the domestic front, he was completely vindicated, as the Jeffersonian Republicans realized that all of Hamilton's economic programs were in fact necessary for the existence of the Union.

3:19 AM  
Blogger love the girls said...

Federalism was a complete blunder, and is in large part the cause of the mess we are in today. We're living in that libertarian utopia because of the federal government.

We're virtually living in that libertarian utopia right now. That's the problem.

Modern development, modern mass media and mass culture, Urban Renewal, and the federal government, along with the underlying Protestant ethos have all managed in unison to create that libertarian utopia which could not be further from human scale, further from any rational understanding of subsidiarity, and further from the natural bonding of families.

1:41 PM  
Blogger love the girls said...

btw, arguing that federalism and the current federal government are not the same is a waste of breath, the one lead to the other as night follows day.

1:57 PM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

Our Man in Spokane's concession that "the first comment is built around Catholic social teaching, so it is inherently more coherent than my second comment, which is built on American political history which is significantly less coherent, both in its theory and its practice," speaks volumes.

It has me agreeing with love the girls "that federalism and the current federal government... lead [one] to the other as night follows day," at least if we take "federalism" to mean the federalism of the Federalists, and not that of the Anti-Federalists. who were more federalist than the Federalists.

This leads us back to the "libertarianism" as a means. If I were a citizen of Austria-Hungary, Gabriel García Moreno's Ecuador, or Éamon de Valera's Ireland, I might think differently.

For modern-day America, our best hope is "republican government, by libertarian means, towards conservative ends."

6:27 PM  
Blogger Mark in Spokane said...

Except that libertarian means will never lead to either republican government or conservative ends. I have a post up on my blog today about this, but libertarianism is build on a "moral" reasoning that undermines the very idea of virtue or morality, and such an idea is necessary for both republicanism and conservatism to flourish.

At the end of the day, libertarianism is just another ideology in a long line of ideologies promising the liberation of man by shackling him to a system of abstract dogma and rationalization.

The Federalists understood human nature far better than the modern libertarian. And they understood the idea of connection, of limitation -- of both the state and the individual's desires -- that lies at the heart of the delicate balance necessary for liberty to thrive. In this, the Federalists and Burke were joined at the hip. The modern libertarians, not so much.

3:26 AM  

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