It’s a libertarian meta-moment. Across the political spectrum pundits are asking: is libertarianism on the rise? If so, how long will it last? And is it a good thing?
Some writers, such as David Frum, see the relative prominence of libertarianism in contemporary conservatism as a sign of its intellectual exhaustion and moral decline. In his recent essay on the libertarian moment, Ben Domenech offers a more cheering interpretation , specifically examining libertarianism among Millennials. The Millennial generation is still very much divided in its political outlook, but Domenech expresses a more positive hope: that “we could be on the cusp of an amazing resurgence of the very values that made America exceptional in the first place.” In young Americans who gravitate towards libertarian figures like Rand Paul, Domenech sees glimpses of that yearning for freedom that, in Tocqueville’s view, was once our most defining American trait.
Who is right, Domenech or Frum? Probably both to varying extents, and their insights may be more harmonious than they initially seem. As Domenech observes, both libertarianism and statism have some appeal for young people seeking meaning in an increasingly atomized society. But it’s also worth remembering that the political Left and Right have both over the last decade gone through periods of crushing disappointment, flagging enthusiasm, and identity crisis. This goes a long way towards explaining the Millennial generation’s aversion to mainstream politics.
With few appealing options on the table, Millennials are looking outside standard party politics and embracing more general ideals: on the one hand, a soft, paternalisic statism, and on the other, greater freedom. They’re still working out the details of these, so we shouldn’t necessarily be either surprised or alarmed if they’re somewhat lacking in nuance at this point. As Domenech points out, they have yet to craft their own distinct political narrative. Obviously, it’s in conservatives’ interests to tip the balance in favor of freedom, if we can. But the more crucial battle may be the one waged within conservatism itself.
Both Domenech’s vision and Frum’s have some potential to be realized. The libertarian moment could represent a transitional point at which conservatism collapses into a peevish demand for empty autonomy, followed by the reign of soft (or eventually not so soft?) statism. Or it could represent the spark that is fanned into a vibrant free society, standing once again as a light to the nations. What will make the difference? I would answer that question in two words: traditional morality.
If small-government advocacy is to be successful, it must be combined with energetic and self-conscious efforts at cultural reform. We need young conservatives to understand that liberty is meant to enable virtue, not vice, and that virtue is essential to protecting liberty over the long term.
All libertarians are (at least ostensibly) in favor of political freedom and small government. But libertarianism comes in a variety of flavors. Some libertarians are deeply serious about limited government, but equally zealous for family, faith, civic virtue and traditional values. For others, small-government preferences are a manifestation of a basically nihilistic worldview (in simple terms, government shouldn’t try to promote the good because there isn’t one), and the prioritizing of personal autonomy above all else. These are the libertarian libertines.
Libertarian libertinism channels the jaded, apathetic spirit of a technocratic age. It demands the highest form of fulfillment it can see: the right to do as one pleases as often as possible. Its adherents are disproportionately young, lonely, childless, godless and divorced from communal organizations. At their best, they are indifferent to community and traditional morals. At their worst, they gleefully join forces with Progressives to tear these down.
Virtue-interested libertarians might, indeed, precipitate the “amazing resurgence” of freedom and prosperity that Domenech hopes to see. But the libertines will not, and ultimately, they will undermine their own most cherished objectives.
One irony of libertarian libertinism is that it can easily serve as a vanguard for the growth of the state. Preaching individual autonomy as the supreme good tends to undermine other sorts of commitments (to family, community, or traditional religion). But for most people, those sorts of commitments and organizations are essential sources of order, meaning and support. By destroying the very social fabric that makes small government possible, the libertine spreads dysfunction and opens a vacuum that will eventually be filled, in all likelihood, by government. This is a major catalyst to James Poulos’ pink police state, in which real liberty has been traded for the opportunity to “safely” disregard traditional mores.
Conservatives should not settle for an empty and probably short-lived bid for greater autonomy. Lasting freedom and long-term prosperity should always be our goals. For these to be possible, however, we need more than small government. Our zeal for tearing down bureaucratic oppression must be matched by an ardent commitment to building up the sort of vibrant and virtuous culture that can protect free enterprise and promote human thriving.
The Essential Role of Conventional Morals
There’s a strong case to be made that Frum’s projection is the more plausible. That’s true for one important reason: Millennials aren’t all that enthused about traditional morals. They’re particularly dismissive when it comes to sex. That bodes ill for their potential to build strong families and order their lives in responsible ways.
This is a serious problem. Small government will not succeed unless people have a strong ability to govern their own affairs. That requires a culture that provides people with clear norms and expectations, and replaces the hard and impersonal boundaries of law with the softer forces of social approval and sanction. What we need, in short, are traditional morals. These tried-and-true norms for good behavior were developed precisely for the purpose of ordering human life in the context of families and small communities.
Figuring out how to re-instill respect for conventional morals is hard enough in its own right. Unfortunately, many libertarians (even if not precisely of a libertine cast) are themselves prone to undermining the project, supposedly in the interests of promoting freedom. This temptation can be hard to resist, if small government is your most ardent concern.
The Mirage of the Small-Government Compromise
Surveying the fractured and embattled conservative landscape, libertarians often pose a suggestion: let’s rally around the common ground of limited government. Permit but don’t require. Live and let live. The main reason culture wars have reached such a fever pitch is because the state is too big. If we can limit the size of the state, then people can simply live as they like without settling hotly contested moral questions. Progressives can form their free-love communes and have copious amounts of sterile sex, while conservative Catholics get married and have smaller amounts of procreative sex, and individuals can pay their own expenses and enjoy the fruits of the lives they have chosen.
To be clear, I agree that some level of “live and let live” tolerance will be necessary if the culture wars are ever to give way to an acceptable social order. Both liberal progressives and social conservatives have deeply entrenched worldviews and ways of life, and neither will be rooted out without considerable cultural violence such as no liberty-loving conservative should wish to see. Unconditional surrender is not an appropriate goal in a culture war.
But neutrality won’t work either, at least if we’re thinking about the broader conservative outlook. All conservatives agree that government should be smaller than it is. But the culture also needs to recover its moral bearings if freedom is to have a chance. Social conservatives have long understood this, but it’s a point on which many libertarians need to reflect more deeply.
In the short term, the attraction of lumping conventional morals together with technocratic tyranny (as twin evils which both threaten our personal liberty) can seem almost overwhelming, particularly for those libertarian Republicans who have no strong tie to organized religion. Young people always crave freedom from conventional expectations that seem to cramp their style. Presenting statist overreach as yet another overbearing influence is an easy way of recruiting them to the libertarian camp. Twenty-year-olds readily warm to the message that they can manage without presidents and popes.
In theory, this “rally around small government” compromise can look generous and fair to everyone else too, including liberal progressives and social conservatives. The latter tend not to see it that way. But given the present state of society, shouldn’t religious conservatives be grateful for the chance to be peacefully counter-cultural rather than besieged? Isn’t it enough to live in a world in which they are free to preach their conventional views on morality, and to impart them to their own children? Even libertarians who are generally sympathetic to the importance of culture sometimes write missives that seem to imply social conservatives should see themselves merely as supine voting blocks whose only remaining alternative is to choose their protectors (libertarians or statists).
I can see why, looking at the current cultural drift, that might seem like a realistic appraisal of where we are. But if it is, then Frum is right. The war is lost, the libertarian moment will be no more than a flash in the pan, and we’re only a few inconsequential battles away from being blanketed by the pink police state. Soon you will be completely free to exercise your autonomy through exciting choices like: which kind of porn do you prefer? And shall we have geraniums or zinnias in the window boxes? Oh, sweet breath of liberty!
Let’s Hit ‘Refresh’ On Conventional Morals
I do not believe this grim dystopia is inevitable. Human cultures are remarkably dynamic, and ours has “good bones”; we still have a chance to show young Americans that there are better alternatives than the tired non-solutions of the progressive Left. But we have to understand that the culture wars and the size-of-government wars are connected on a deep level. If we can’t persuade the young to embrace some version of conventional morals, promises of prosperity and greater autonomy will not save our Republic.
I say “some version” because I do think conventional views need to be adapted appropriately to the specific economic and social circumstances of our time. Here social conservatives are also sometimes at fault. They allow themselves to be drawn into reactionary rebuttals of liberal talking points, instead of thinking in a deeper and more serious way about how to tailor traditional wisdom to contemporary circumstances. It takes work to translate older insights about the human condition into practical advice for successful courtship and marriage, childrearing and education, developing sensible gender expectations or building a productive workplace. Some conservatives are deeply invested in the project of helping their compatriots (and especially the young) find better and more virtuous ways to live. But others end up simply repeating tired platitudes that are unlikely to have much cultural impact.
We can do better, and happily, there are many younger conservatives in our time who want to try. The good news is that Millennials, although largely dismissive of conventional morality, have only the vaguest notion of what they are rejecting. A relatively superficial makeover may be enough to make old ideas seem exciting and new. But the project is most likely to succeed if we can seize the libertarian moment by re-committing ourselves to the fusionist compromise. Libertarians and social conservatives do need each other, and not only for the purposes of building a winning coalition. We need each other in order to present a complete and satisfying conservative vision.