Thursday, April 18, 2013

Smart arguments against pure libertarianism: the case for ordered liberty

I’m libertarian but minarchist (little government) or ‘weak libertarian’ as Modestinus says. All politics is provisional, unlike Catholic doctrine; according to most American criteria, I happen to be right-wing but Catholics don’t have to be. In fact we’re often not. Well-meant economically left but socially right (but for peace) seems to summarize Catholic social-political opinion through the decades, from the union workers in America’s golden era last century to the social-democrat culturally European clergy such as the reigning Pope, to the views at Cælum et Terra. That said, monarchy, dictatorship (Franco, Sálazar), republic (Switzerland, the old America); to the church it’s all good.

Is freedom an absolute? Ideally people freely choose the truth, we have free will, our doctrine says, but there’s still objective truth, or a mob/majority vote’s not automatically right. (It’s like the church’s view on conscience: we’re free; you can sincerely choose wrong and still be right with God, but ideally your conscience is ‘well-formed’ by knowing objective reality and conforming to it, the classical definition of reason.) So it seems safe to say freedom is a relative good. Ordered liberty 1, pure libertarianism nil.

Yes, individual rights (not white power, black power, gay rights, etc. — no to collectivism left or right as Ron Paul says), but absolute individualism, ‘question authority, man’ (which really means ‘we want your power’), is childish; selfish. (Even from my main news and commentary sources, LRC and RR, this — ‘state, cops, soldiers bad’ — gets tiresome. Ordered liberty’s against the abuses of these, not against them in themselves. I’m thankful an ex-soldier cop, probably a fellow cultural conservative Catholic, is in his squad car at 1 in the morning literally guarding the entry roads into my town.) As Daniel Nichols and Rod Dreher have observed, the story of the past 40 or so years, of the cultural revolution of the Sixties, is ‘do your own thing = every man for himself’. (50 years ago, when ordered liberty was American culture: rather less government and less of a gap between the richest and poorest and more of a chance to move up.)

Mark in Spokane:
  • Why he thinks social conservatives can’t be libertarians. Again, opposing all authority is wrong.
  • Kirk’s approach was definitely non-statist, and in that sense he shared a similar vantage point with most modern libertarians, but Kirk eschewed the label of "libertarian" and considered libertarianism to be an erroneous approach to political order -- one that was ideological at its core, and like all ideologies was an attempt to make up for an abandoned religious perspective on life. It is one of the intellectual problems of our time that any attempt to formulate a non-statist approach to politics is immediately labeled "libertarian." There are a variety of non-statist approaches to political order, libertarianism being only one of them (and not, in the opinion of this humble writer, the best of the lot).
  • I now place less emphasis on “human freedom” and much more on “fidelity to God’s Law” in the course of my postings. Of course there has been a transition, though I want to say it’s a wee bit more subtle than what he gives me credit for. With respect to libertarianism, I always called myself, at most, a “weak libertarian” or, at other times, a “half-hearted libertarian.” In libertarianism I saw some avenues of pragmatic negotiation with a socio-political ordo that had long abandoned the concept of Christendom (if it ever held it). “Religious liberty,” for instance, provided a shield to those believers who wanted to live their Christian lives in peace. But of course “religious liberty” has come under radical assault in the last two years and so I am less enthused about the concept now than I was, say, two to three years ago. Moreover, I am now far less convinced that the libertarian emphasis—in the United States—on state’s rights and federalism has any purchase in the modern administrative state. The Constitution will never again be “rightly understood” to recommend any ordering in this country that in any way, shape, or form resembles the principles of subsidiary that are, to an extent, at the heart of the political teachings of the Catholic Church. This doesn’t mean that I am necessarily giving up the (intellectual and moral) fight for these principles; rather, I no longer see the need to try and “translate” what the Church teaches into a thoroughly modern, thoroughly liberal idiom. There are more opportunities for obscuring the obvious by going in such directions and, I would even say, an inherent danger in misleading oneself to accept principles that are fundamentally at odds with the teachings of the Church. To offer just one example, I do not see how one can adopt the libertarian emphasis on federalism without packing in the libertarian emphasis upon unbridled economic freedom. Even if libertarian economic theory were waterproof (and it isn’t), that type of economic ordering could only work in a “first-best world,” that is, a world that fully embraced a high-octane libertarian theory of economics without qualifiers or caveats. Since that world is unlikely to ever come into existence (for reasons I won’t bother to rehearse here), the safer alternative, the more integral alternative, is to dispatch with utopianism and look at matters through a “second-best perspective.” And no, that is not the same as giving up the fight for the right political order; it’s merely a matter of working through what we have rather than clinging on to false hopes of what could come—particularly hopes that are radically divorced from the mind of the Catholic Church. Regular readers know I believe in economic freedom; there’s no such thing as ‘Catholic science’ so church leftists and church third-wayers are wrong, but anyway.
  • Integralism and theonomy.
Ed West on Margaret Thatcher, from Steve Sailer:
Libertarians think they can get a Victorian-sized state without Victorian attitudes, but they’re deluded. If you really want a small state that doesn’t tell you what to do and gobble up half your income then start going to church, get involved in voluntary activities, tell the vicar or priest to stop droning on about the cuts and climate change and tell him to start shouting about sin and fornication. Repress yourself, you’ll find it’s good for your wallet.
Maybe that was tongue in cheek but good point.


  1. Love that last quotation in your post -- and it is Burkean to the core. "Man must be ruled. He can either rule himself or be ruled by others, but he will be ruled." Glad to see you are distancing yourself from the nutters in the libertarian movement. Reading Kirk will do that for you!

    Where is libertarianism correct? When it is non-ideological, when it defends custom and usage against the rapacious hand of the State, when it seeks to preserve the "little platoons" of our society (another Burkean concept) from the social engineers and bureaucrats who constantly seek to tinker and modify those elements of the social order that are properly outside the scope of government.

    When is libertarianism wrong? When it becomes and ideology and embraces things like the "redefinition" of marriage, abortion on demand, the violation of laws designed to preserve public order (especially the drug laws in this regard), when it despises tradition and custom and those institutions that stand outside the State's authority (like the Catholic Church, but not limited to her).

    Anti-war? Depends on the war. Not every war is evil or wrong, although many are. The inability to tell the difference between a just and unjust war is a symptom of libertarianism's idological affliction.

    Anti-State? Depends on what the State is doing. Within its divinely sanctioned role (to preserve order) and its limited powers (under our Constitution), the State (both at the state and federal level) is a good & necessary thing. Outside of its proper scope, the State is a band of robbers (St. Augustine). Again, the inability of libertarianism to distinguish between the State acting properly and the State abusing its power is yet another example of its idological affliction.

    Thanks for linking and quoting me so generously. Much appreciated! And let's keep talking about this stuff -- ordered liberty, the notion of free men in a free state (Lincoln's true principle), is worth talking about!

  2. If I may use a clumsy flow chart, at the federal and state level, I see something like this on any given issue:

    There must not be a rule --> There isn't a rule--> There is a rule --> There must be a rule.

    Libertarians, I think, often straddle the first two positions, depending on the issue. Drugs and marriage are classic examples at the federal level, as left-libertarians tend to be in the "there must not be a rule" camp, which, in effect, is a bizarrely authoritarian flavor of libertarianism.

    On the federal level, I am probably smack in the middle most of the time, in that I mostly think the federal government should build roads, deliver the mail, protect our borders, enforce contracts, and...not much else. At the state level, my politics shift a bit. If a state wants to define marriage a certain way or regulate drugs a certain way, that's their business.

    I typically therefore describe myself as a Federalist, but I basically waffle between minarchy and monarchy. ;)


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