"By pursuing his own interest [every individual] frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good." ~ Adam Smith
Exclusive to STR
September 17, 2007
Writer Kay S. Hymowitz recently published an article about libertarianism in Commentary, re-printed on the Wall Street Journal's opinion website, entitled 'Freedom Fetishists.' In it, Ms. Hymowitz offers an analysis of 'the cultural contradictions of libertarianism.' The piece is worth responding to because it is typical of conservative critiques of the libertarian position, a critique that, although it has been adequately addressed before, apparently still has its appeal.
Hymowitz begins by acknowledging that, 'More than perhaps any other American political group, libertarians have suffered the blows of caricature.' Unfortunately, rather than correcting that problem, the author intends to make libertarians suffer a bit more.
She continues: 'For many people, the term evokes an image of a scraggly misfit living in the woods with his gun collection, a few marijuana plants, some dogeared Ayn Rand titles, and a battered pickup truck plastered with bumper stickers reading 'Taxes = Theft' and 'FDR Was A Pinko.'' Yes, that pretty accurately describes the last decades of F.A. Hayek's life.
Nor, she argues, is 'the stereotype . . . entirely unfair. Even some of those who proudly call themselves libertarians recognize that their philosophy of personal freedom and minimal government can be a powerful magnet for the unhinged.' As can be a position as a Justice Department attorney in the present administration assigned to come up with excuses for torture and warrantless eavesdropping. And, to be fair, as can be any religion, social cause, or other group with an inspiring agenda. So why single out libertarianism?
As another black mark against libertarianism, she points out: 'Despite Bill Clinton's declaration that 'the era of big government is over,' antistatist ideas like school vouchers and privatized Social Security accounts continue to be greeted with widespread skepticism, while massive new programs like the Medicare prescription-drug benefit continue to win the support of re-election-minded incumbents.'
Yes, libertarianism is not very popular. Nor was the anti-slavery movement in 1800. Ms. Hymowitz ought to know that current popularity is no way to judge a political idea. And she does admit that 'free-market principles now drive the American economy to a degree unimaginable a generation ago . . . . Nor have libertarian victories been limited to the economic arena. Americans are increasingly laissez-faire in their attitudes toward sex, divorce, drugs and gay marriage.'
Hymowitz notes, in discussing Brian Doherty's excellent work, Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, that 'according to many of the thinkers he profiles, liberty is essential to the initiative and self-sufficiency that make ethical behavior possible . . . . Many of the figures described by Mr. Doherty believe that libertarianism is also good for the social fabric.' This point is important, because she seems almost entirely to forget it within a few paragraphs. And she goes on to acknowledge the great improvement in most people's material well-being that has resulted from increases in economic freedom, and that libertarianism 'has undoubtedly made a real contribution to the policy debate in recent years.' So we are not dealing here with someone totally blind to the virtues of libertarianism.
However, her next 'concession' to libertarians will not be as pleasing to many of them as are those just mentioned. She welcomes the fact that 'today's libertarian movement has been open to the sort of internal disagreements that are a sign of a healthy, maturing philosophy. Differences over the Iraq war are a striking example. Historically, libertarians have been programmatically antiwar, in part because of their opposition to coercion in all its forms but also because war increases the power and reach of the state.' The last sentence is rather odd, in that, despite recognizing seemingly well-thought-out reasons for a lover of liberty to advocate peace, she still calls their antiwar stance 'programmatic,' as if they were robots obeying some unexamined command. She praises 'a number of libertarians [who] make the case for more flexible thinking about dealing with the threat of Islamism.' This is an example of the rhetorical trick of slipping an adjective into a seemingly neutral description of a position, so that the reader who misses the ploy is manipulated towards accepting the writer's or speaker's view of that position. Who wouldn't appreciate a stance characterized by 'more flexible thinking,' at least without more closely examining what that entails? But that closer examination reveals that 'more flexible thinking' isn't always praiseworthy. Imagine an analogous argument put forward in the USSR in the 1930s: 'Historically, liberals have been programmatically against mass imprisonment without proper legal proceedings against the accused. But, thankfully, a number of party members make the case for more flexible thinking about dealing with the threat of reactionaries.' This analogy is not meant to equate supporters of the current wars with Stalinists, but only to demonstrate that 'more flexible thinking' is not always praiseworthy, and claiming it as a virtue of one's preferred side in a policy debate is an attempt to sway the undecided without having to engage the substance of the other side's case.
Now, after having displayed her fair-mindedness by conceding that her chosen target is not without its admirable qualities (and I say this with only a twinge of sarcasm, because Hymowitz clearly does appreciate some aspects of libertarianism), she presents her case that, despite its virtues, it does not offer a viable vision of a healthy, flourishing polity. In regards to matters such as 'high crime rates, 'children having children,' teen drug use, [and] rampant divorce,' she argues, '[American social conditions] have not improved nearly as much as one might wish--and it is difficult to separate the reasons for our abiding social disarray from the trends . . . for which libertarians bear a measure of responsibility.'
How is libertarianism complicit with this regrettable situation? It is because 'the libertarian vision of personal morality--described by Mr. Doherty as 'People ought to be free to do whatever the hell they want, mostly, as long as they aren't hurting anyone else'--is not far removed from 'if it feels good, do it,' the cri de coeur of the Aquarians.' It is at this point that Hymowitz, like so many conservative critics of libertarianism before her, rides roughshod over a vital distinction. While the quote from Doherty represents a pop, 'easy-to-digest' encapsulation of the vast and nuanced literature of libertarianism political thought ' and was, no doubt, meant to be no more than that ' it is about a good one sentence summation of that body of work as is possible. And it contains a crucial phrase that Hymowitz of which seemingly fails to understand the importance. Doherty says that 'people ought to be free to do whatever the hell they want' if that action does not violate the rights of others, not that they 'ought to do whatever the hell they want.' The difference between those two propositions is of great import. The libertarian political platform is not about what sort of actions are morally laudable, but only about what sort of actions justify others using force against the actor. And the libertarian answer is that, however immoral, depraved, or self-damaging are an individual's freely chosen activities, society only should interfere with his freedom when he is violating the ability of others to similarly direct their own lives. In all other situations, the attempt to command moral behavior by force produces not virtue but fearful obedience, as pointed out long ago by John Milton in 'Areopagitica,' his stirring defense of freedom of conscience. As an ostensible conservative, Hymowitz ought to be well aware of this venerable milestone of Anglo-Saxon political thought, but she composes her critique of libertarianism as if it entirely has escaped her notice.
In fact, the libertarian political platform erects no obstacles to any form of moral suasion or any efforts to promote virtue that abjure employing force to reform the 'sinner.' In a libertarian polity, individuals would be free to join churches, preach sanctity, voluntarily join groups seeking to reform their members, and even decide to enter programs in which they accept in advance that certain transgressions on their part, such as drinking alcohol or taking drugs, will carry penalties.
Next, our author accuses libertarianism of being 'complicit, too, in the vociferous attack during the 1960s on the bourgeois family . . . . Rothbard struggled with the vexing question of how to square the biological fact of the dependency of the young with the libertarian devotion to freedom. His conclusion was that parents should not be legally bound to feed or educate their children, and children should have an absolute right to leave home at any time.'
In this instance, I personally believe that Hymowitz has hit the mark, and that Rothbard's position was mistaken. But, in any case, it hardly found universal acceptance among libertarians, and citing a single, wayward proposal does little to advance her case.
Nearing the conclusion of her brief against libertarianism, Hymowitz claims that, 'libertarians make a fetish of freedom; it is their totalizing goal.' Now, it is certainly true that to be a libertarian means that one believes that various political arrangements should be judged first and foremost based on their respect for individual autonomy. But that says nothing about one's 'totalizing goal' in life. There is nothing contradictory in, for example, the free-market economist and orthodox rabbi, Israel Kirzner, advocating political libertarianism even while he lives his own life according to the strict guidelines of Orthodox Judaism.
She contends that the libertarian 'freedom fetish' actually undermines itself, because a liberal social order 'depend[s] on the family . . . to produce the sort of people best suited to life in a free-market system.' She ignores the common libertarian answer to this complaint, which is to note that it has been the modern, expansive state that has been the primary enemy of the functional family in our time.
Hymowitz proceeds to offer a broad generalization about the 'libertarian personality': 'Libertarians come in many flavors, of course, but they share certain enthusiasms beyond free-market economics. They are often great consumers of science fiction, with an avid interest in space travel.' I did go through a science-fiction phase in my early twenties, but that was well before I was a libertarian. But were Mises, Hayek, Hazlitt, and Nozick also sci-fi fans? If so, it's news to me.
She continues, 'And they have an almost unlimited enthusiasm for biotechnology . . . .' Well, Ronald Bailey of Reason Magazine certainly does, as well as . . . as well as . . . hmm, frankly, despite being fairly familiar with contemporary, libertarian thinkers, I'm not coming up with any more examples!
For Hymowitz, these extra-political enthusiasms are not merely contingent circumstances following naturally from the fact that people sharing an interest in one subject typically exhibit great diversity in their other interests. Instead, 'taken together, these elements constitute what might be called the libertarian dream--the dream of shaping your own meaning, liberated from family, from the past, from tradition, from biology, and perhaps even from the earth itself.'
Certainly, there are libertarians moved by a vision of life without any constraints, despite the fact that life under such conditions appears similar to a game in which any move whatsoever results in a goal and all the participants always win, in other words, lacking the very elements that make human existence so engaging. But such a fantasy has no inherent connection with the libertarian political program endorsed by many more sober thinkers.
In short, Hymowitz has failed to address the serious arguments for libertarianism, instead dodging them by a combination of misrepresentation and muddying the waters by swirling into them various murky stances sometimes taken by some libertarians, despite their irrelevance to the core of the libertarian idea. This evasion suggests the possibility that she has no persuasive response to the central case for liberty.