Thursday, January 06, 2005

Libertarians vs. Conservatives, Part Three, or Why I am not a Libertarian

The question Whether one generation of men has a right to bind one another, seems never to have been started either on this or our side of the water. Yet it is a question of such consequences as not only to merit decision, but place also, among the fundamental principles of every government . . . I set out on this ground which I suppose to be self-evident, “that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living;” that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it.- Thomas Jefferson.

Society is indeed a contract. Subordinate contracts of mere occasional interest may be dissolved at pleasure – but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in trade of pepper and coffee, calico, or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties. It is to be looked on with other reverence, because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generation, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and moral natures, each in their appointed place.- Edmund Burke
The Libertarian philosophy is an individualistic one, but by "individualistic" I mean not merely that it emphasizes the pursuit of self-interest - though that is certainly an essential element - but that the individual becomes something of a demi-God. Following no higher authority, no higher strictures, the individual can create their own morality. Though not necessarily Godless, the libertarian philosophy is not guided by a transcendental moral authority.

Jefferson is the philosopher of primary importance in the libertarian system, and the Jeffersonian system is one that seeks to break the individual away from the fetters of tradition. His is ultimately a Rousseauistic credo which, as Roget Nisbet writes, “is the confluence of a radical individualism on the one hand and an uncompromising authoritarianism on the other.” As a result of this radical individualism the individual asserts his independence not from the state, but from society. “The traditional bonds of society, the relationships we generally speak of as social, are the ties that to Rousseau symbolize the chains of existence.”

Nisbet writes about the consequences of this individualistic ethic and its attempt to break away from the past. Instead of making humanity feel more free it has instead lead to a “sense of disenchantment and alienation. The alienation of man from historical moral certitude has been followed by the sense of man’s alienation from fellow man.” The social groups which fulfill man’s sense of belonging have been replaced by an individualist ethos that leaves man completely isolated.
The individual comes to rely less on others for fulfillment and moral nurturing, and also becomes alienated from God. As our own material needs are met, the longing for our higher spiritual needs becomes even more intense. But without a sense of higher purpose, those spiritual needs cannot fully be met. Nisbet concludes, therefore, that “man’s belief in himself has become weakest in the very age when his control of environment is greatest.”

This denial of the importance of tradition creates a community bereft of order. Each human being is sovereign lord and capable of determining his or her own morality. It is a standardless ideology. Irving Babbit notes that the Jeffersonian system diminishes the role of government without "increasing the inner control that must, according to Burke, be in strict ratio to the relaxation of outer control."

The result of this libertarian creed is a heightened appraisal of human nature that is overly populistic and democratic. But the state, according to Babbit, should have a higher self, "appropriately embodied in institutions, that should set bounds to its ordinary self as expressed by the popular will at any particular moment." Of course there are many such checks in our constitutional form of government that temper the will of the majority. Libertarians may theoretically not seek to break down these checks, but so long as they adhere to the Jeffersonian system the result will only be greater centralization as the democratic will becomes too massive to contain.

The great irony is that the libertarian philosophy, taken to its ultimate extreme, becomes just as authoritarian and oppressive as the forces which they fight. Take the above quote by Jefferson about the earth belonging to the living, that the dead have no rights. Each generation starts anew. But such a theory breaks down all orders. Each opinion as valued as the next, each mob ready to overrule the previous one, and the disorganization of such chaos erupts into a frenzied state which must, of consequence, be tamed. Humans are free thus to engage in wild pursuits, but such freedom is fleeting.

There is a greater good, and we must serve it, but we must do it of our own accord. Forced collectivization is not the solution. Thus, while conservatives believe that man must have higher values, the government cannot coerce him. The government's role is indeed limited. Therefore the conservative and libertarian philosophies are not so different. What separates us, more than anything else, is the conservative appreciation for transcedence, for an eternal order that recognizes that man must move beyond the selfish realm to involve himself in the affairs of the community. Such actions require that the individual order him or herself and adhere to traditional norms. As Kirk writes, "A norm . . . is an enduring standard for private and public conduct. It is a canon of human nature. Real progress consists in the movement of mankind toward the understanding of norms, and toward conformity to norms."

We are free to order our lives as we choose fit. Conservatives believe that individuals ought to take special heed, to a degree that libertarians do not, to established customs. After all, we are but dwarves mounted on the shoulders of giants. As smart as we think we are, we owe our ancestors a debt of gratitude. If we follow selfish pursuits too deeply, and if we break too deeply with the past, then we lose the precious freedoms that we hold so dear.

Update: Timothy Sandefur has written several responses to my series on his website (keep scrolling down. Since I have just come accross his response, it will take some time to digest, so I may or may not respond in due time. I do find this comment amusing: "Paul—a man who has demonstrated that he knows practically nothing about Thomas Jefferson." Of course it is possible that I have may have missed something in the over 2,000 pages of written Jefferson text that I have read in the past year, or in the other litterature that I have consumed, but it seems not to have dawned upon Sandefur (and I apologize for the misspellings of his name before, haste makes waste) but that we simply have different interpretations of Jefferson. But more on that later.


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