The ‘Libertarian Moment’ Is Really An Individualist Moment

The ‘Libertarian Moment’ Is Really An Individualist Moment

Our hope remains with those who deploy libertarian means for non-libertarian ends, and with enough experience of love to not wallow in self-obsession.
Peter Lawler
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There has been a lot of talk about “the libertarian moment” in American life. We say that both parties seem to be surrendering their proud points of “statist” distinction. Republicans are backing off on their social conservatism, which has been displayed mostly in allegedly despotic policies of (mostly state) government that’s been under attack from the Supreme Court since the days of Griswold and Roe. And Democrats are backing off on progressivism, defined as a compassionate devotion to bigger and better government in the service of egalitarian “social justice.” There really is a kind of convergence in opposition to government-enforced repressive moralism in curbing personal selfishness. There’s even some shared awareness on the economic front that there’s something “reactionary” about the Democrats’ promise to have the voters’ backs by protecting entitlements, unions, and other safety nets as they are now. True progressivism, so to speak, is about evolving toward enhanced personal autonomy and unfettered techno-progress, which has its home in Silicon Valley. All of life, it seems, bends to the imperatives of the twenty-first century competitive global marketplace.

Unfettered Sex Isn’t Freeing

Claiming this is a libertarian moment, of course, depends on what libertarian means. The unjustly neglected political philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenal distinguished between being “libertarian” and being “securitarian.” Many of today’s young people want to be both. They want to practice safe libertarianism in the unfettered enjoyment of the pleasure of sex. Contraception—now an entitlement guaranteed by an intrusive government mandate—is about detaching sex from the hard realities of birth and death. Better than safe sex, from that view, is the virtual sex available on the screen, which, if the film Her is correct, will soon be personalized through a relationship between a biological man and an Operating System that sounds like Scarlett Johansson (the woman judged to have the world’s most beautiful body). Imagining the body, of course, is safer than actually touching it, as no living body can be made compliant enough to one’s own personal preferences to be completely comfortable.

Imagining the body, of course, is safer than actually touching it, as no living body can be made compliant enough to one’s own personal preferences to be completely comfortable.

The techno-goal is to subordinate erotic longing to rational control, to keep it from risky business or being the source of dangerous liaisons. So sex, from this view, these days in the name of “relational autonomy” is being freed up for individual enjoyment from repressive cultural or relational restraints. From another, it is driven more by securitarian concerns than ever. Libertarians, especially among the young, aren’t so good at seeing the connection between the liberationist “hook-up” culture not only tolerated but affirmed by our colleges and the somewhat justified securitarian concerns about “the culture of rape” that flourishes on our campuses. That connection is, nonetheless, really there: Our campuses are both more libertarian and more securitarian than ever. One astute analyst, my fellow postmodern conservative James Poulos, has called our burgeoning libertarian securitarianism the foundation of a “pink police state,” a claim that has commanded attention through instructive exaggeration. We may be on road, Poulos rightly worries, to the soft and endlessly meddlesome despotism that Alexis de Tocqueville speculated might be the consequence of a democratic choice for egalitarian security over spirited, risk-affirming political liberty.

Libertarian Means for Non-Libertarian Ends

Is the amoral view of sex cherished by Left-libertarian kids genuinely libertarian? Tough question, especially insofar as libertarian economists such as Tyler Cowen celebrate the future to come when free individuals are uprooted from culture for productive activity in the services of games and other enjoyments—such as being a foodie. But other libertarians are about mocking every effort by government to protect individuals from the risks embedded in the “spontaneous order” that is social life. Those libertarians, many of whom are found in the Tea Party, are about deploying libertarian means (or freedom from government) for the more natural relationships that make life worth living. They believe we’re social beings—and not free individuals—by nature; they’re, in that respect, more Burkean or Hayekian or Christian than Lockean or Randian.

Other libertarians are about mocking every effort by government to protect individuals from the risks embedded in the ‘spontaneous order’ that is social life.

One example of the deployment of libertarian means for non-libertarian ends is the effort to struggle against government and corporate bureaucratic efforts to standardize American education through methodical expertise. Most opponents of the Gates/Obama Common Core, accreditation, certification, and all that want to preserve the genuinely higher or not merely technical or “politically correct” part of American education. That includes, of course, our wide variety of (mostly religious) private primary and secondary schools, home schooling, and, of course, the freedom of our religious college and institutions to define their own missions and ways of achieving them. Government and agencies enabled by government, from this view, are, in the name of “diversity” understood as a corporate/government project to detach people from the personally binding authority of social institutions such as the church.  The pursuit of “diversity” intentionally undermines the genuine moral and religious diversity that has flourished uninhibited in our free country. That’s why we have to clamp down on all programs (such as federally-subsidized loans) that allow the federal government to determine the agenda of higher education, and that’s why, for the good of our churches, we have to get government and the employers (such as the institutional churches) they can mandate out of the insurance business.

But from the point of view of many libertarian economists, “libertarian means for non-libertarian ends” is an incoherent view about the truth about who each of us is. Cowen, for example, celebrates a world in which free and prosperous individuals can enjoy the productions of living cultures without themselves being saddled by the repressive baggage of said cultures. It’s true Cowen has said it would be better if ordinary American workers, especially men, became Mormons, to benefit as reliably productive workers from the intrusive personal discipline that church imposes on its members. He’s not saying, of course, that government should do anything to facilitate the flourishing of that church, but perhaps he wouldn’t be against private employers having some such initiative. But Cowen also chastised the Christian, libertarian, economist, and soon to be Congressman David Brat for referring to the distinguished economist Deidre (formerly Donald) McCloskey as him/her. For Cowen, a people who think and live like free individuals accept the transgendered without reservation or irony. Let’s say the Mormons are very weak on that front.

The Internal Contradiction of Libertarian Individualists

So it’s easy to conclude that it’s Cowen who’s caught in the contradiction: He sees that most people need the discipline of personal, relational authority to live well, but he sees no truthful foundation for thinking of oneself as other than a free individual. Another way of expressing the contradiction is that Cowen really thinks that the members of our productive meritocracy don’t need to be Mormons; they discipline themselves by thinking and acting rigorously according to what they really know about themselves as productive and consuming beings. He’s for Mormonism for the undisciplined, unintelligent, and unenlightened many. There’s no reason at all, from this view, that Mitt Romney should be a Mormon.

The emerging techno-project uses our creative freedom to transform not only nature but human nature in the service of indefinitely long or even quasi-immortal lives.

Another contradiction worth noticing is that is that so many “whole-hog” libertarians seem much more securitarian than, say, those brainy Mormons who want to use libertarian means on behalf of the non-libertarian ends of their highly relational and rather patriarchal church. Consider, for example, libertarian technophilia. Cowen, Brink Lindsey, Donald Boudreaux, and many others emphasize that unfettered technological progress benefits everyone, and those democratic benefits aren’t properly appreciated when liberals or old-fashioned progressives whine about bourgeoning economic inequality. Medical technology, for example, has greatly extended the average lifespan, at least for those prudent enough to live according to what we now know about the various risk factors that imperil one’s very being. And that way of thinking, of course, point in the direction of the emerging techno-project of using our creative freedom to transform not only nature but human nature in the service of indefinitely long or even quasi-immortal lives of particular individuals. Many libertarians, such as the brilliant Peter Thiel, easily morph into being kind of evangelical transhumanists, who find hope in the prospect of the Singularity, of the time soon to come when the free or conscious individual can be located in a much more secure machine than the ephemeral, biological body. The progress of technology serves freedom or the ever-expanding menu of choice, and that includes the security of being pro-choice on death.

What we can call the utopian eugenics of our time inevitably has “statist” implications. If it becomes possible, for example, to upgrade physically and cognitively human embryos through medical technology to make their lives much longer and safer, we really won’t be able to allow people to choose against that upgrade for their children. It, of course, will require separating the sexual act from reproduction; embryos will have to be implanted into natural or artificial wombs. Mormons and Catholics might want to continue to have sex the old-fashioned way and hope and pray for the best. That won’t be allowed. All those dumb and diseased Mormons running around would be a nasty and easily avoidable risk factor for us all. Today, people claim to be pro-choice on abortion for health and safety, but their opponents, say, rightly that there’s a contradiction between choosing for health but against life. Soon enough, maybe, choice will disappear for the same reason, for what will be a genuinely coercive culture of life. When I called this possibility to the attention of the libertarian sort-of transhumanist Ronald Bailey, his response was that, well, no reasonable person would choose not to be enhanced with security in mind.

Kids With Security Issues

Surely we have to conclude that lots of libertarians, from today’s pampered young to the high theorists of economics and Silicon Valley, have security issues that keep them from embracing unreservedly the freedom given to each of us by God and/or nature as beings born to know, love, and die. Because the Mormons (for example) are so confident that the security of their personal beings is not in their own hands, they have what it takes to be firmer libertarians for more practical purposes. They’re not about to surrender authentic sexual freedom with the unprecedented maximization of health and safety in mind.

There’s no foundation for thinking that anything trumps the imperative of keeping the people alive right now as secure and as free as possible.

Too many libertarians are indifferent to the effects technological progress has on our relational lives. Indefinite longevity surely would destroy the relationships between generations, continue exponentially our creepy trend toward a world without children, and make lifelong marriage just about impossible. But it still, on behalf of the individual, can seem to be a choice worth making.

Our hyper-technophiles also celebrate the screen on all our smart devices as quite the democratic achievement. Virtually all Americans get to see the same virtual stuff—from great texts to great games to great porn—on the screen. I’ll leave it to you to add all the obvious costs the screen has had to our personal lives, to our ability to be together in love in the present and to be serenely alone with our thoughts in our disconnected rooms. Those who use libertarian means for non-libertarian ends, of course, are becoming increasingly adept in judiciously employing the screen by subordinating the techno-“how” to humanly worthy, deeply relational “whys.”

What we sometimes called libertarianism might better be called non-foundationalism. There’s no foundation for thinking that anything trumps the imperative of keeping the people alive right now as secure and as free as possible. The trouble with foundations—such as God or Nature or History or ideology or nation—is that they get people killed for no good reason. So today we just say that everyone has “human rights,” and nobody has to or should try to explain why.

It’s All About Me

Libertarianism so understood might better be called “individualism.” Individualism, Tocqueville explains, is the mistaken judgment that love and hate are both more trouble than their worth and turn each of us into suckers. So my relationships with others should be carefully calculated, based as much as possible on contract and consent. I go wrong when I think of myself as part of a whole greater than myself—as a citizen or a creature or even a member of a family. All such thinking is “collectivism,” which diverts me from the truth that the individual—me—is the bottom line. Liberty, in this view, is a kind of intellectual liberty that separates clear thinking from relational deception. It’s a kind of liberty that easily makes the individual obsessed with the contingency of his being, and, Tocqueville predicts, all too ready to surrender liberty for the security of “soft despotism.”

Individualism is the mistaken judgment that love and hate are both more trouble than their worth and turn each of us into suckers.

All the confusion we have with trying to figure out why our libertarian convergence is so selective when it comes from libertarian principle dissolves when we think of individualism as the self-understanding on the march in our time. Maybe one piece of good news is that the selective statism of most of our young isn’t to be confused with socialism. Socialism is a kind of civic devotion to a national or international community progressing in egalitarian solidarity through the cooperative efforts of government. Nobody these days can believe that people once died for socialism or Communism, and for our young the point of statism is to spare the individual from self-sacrifice or personal discomfort. Hardly anyone these days thinks of himself as ennobled by being part of the whole called History moving toward an earthly paradise. No individual will allow himself or herself to be regarded as mere “History fodder.” In the absence of any faith in God and History, I’m stuck with myself. And nothing is more securitarian than the thought that when I disappear, being itself is extinguished.

Another piece of good news is that our young aren’t fascists, either, thinking of themselves as part of some racial or national whole. They don’t even think of themselves as citizens ready, if need be, to be citizen soldiers. We can conclude by wondering whether even libertarian or securitarian concerns can be addressed adequately in the absence of citizenship, to say nothing about those connected with genuine self-government. Our hope remains with those who counterculturally work to deploy libertarian means for non-libertarian ends, with those with enough experience of personal love (and, yes, often hate) not to make the misjudgment of individualism or wallow in self-obsession. These days especially, citizenship depends on the prior experience of being a creature, being a “localist,” and being embedded in a fairly loving and functional family.

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