David Marcus, The Federalist’s New York correspondent, recently tweeted that he can’t make up his mind about whether he fears “the socialists or the libertarians more.” Robert Tracinski, an author and the editor of The Tracinski Letter, responded, “LOL. God forbid we should…leave you alone.” This was a good Twitter burn, but I suspect that for many people, that is precisely what they fear about libertarianism: that they will be left alone.
They have a point, insofar as libertarianism has become less about a commitment to limited government and more a philosophy of autonomous individualism. The latter is an ideology that undermines the possibility of the former, in large part because it really does leave people alone. Cordially leaving the two gentlemen to settle their dispute, I will attempt to elucidate this point.
Practical Libertarianism Requires Strong Institutions
Astute libertarians (or classical liberals, for those who prefer that label) recognize that political liberty has cultural prerequisites. We are born neither free nor rational, but come into this world dependent and lacking in reason. Care and instruction are necessary for us to attain even some freedom and rationality, along with the virtues needed to exercise them well. As wise Americans proclaimed since the founding of our nation, only a virtuous people is capable of sustaining self-government.
The often-tenuous conservative-libertarian alliance has rested upon this truth, with conservatives recognizing the potential for large, unrestrained government to corrode a healthy culture, and libertarians aware that limited government is dependent upon cultural antecedents that promote and protect the virtues required for self-government. Practical libertarianism requires strong families, churches, and communities, which provide stability, a sense of belonging, and the moral instruction that enables self-government.
Many libertarians appear to have forgotten or never learned this insight, as they now seem eager to condemn cultural conservatism as incompatible with individual autonomy. Such libertarianism is hostile to traditional forms of community, especially the family and church, which it sees as repressive and restrictive.
For example, libertarian advocacy for legalizing drugs and prostitution seems to arise less from the prudential belief that suppressing these vices causes more harm than good than from a philosophical commitment to maximizing individual autonomy. But hard drugs and prostitution are degrading, and they lessen the human capacity for responsible self-government. In these and many other ways, today’s libertarianism allows and even encourages the destruction of the virtues and associations necessary for successful self-government.
Conservatives also recognize that many wrongs must be permitted to avoid worse ills, and we will not abandon liberty to mandate the whole of virtue. But we will not delude ourselves that the public policy of a free nation can be indifferent to the cultivation of the virtues that are required for its citizens to maintain their self-governance. Those of us who value liberty must not only promote virtue in the private sphere, but also wrestle with how government intervention is to promote it and how much intervention is necessary.
How Libertarianism Sabotages Itself
The paradox of libertarianism is that it depends upon cultural capital it cannot replenish. This is why John Locke’s social contract theory begins with independent adults who reason like well-trained British barristers, even though the state of nature could not produce such individuals. Locke was not providing a historical account of how government arose in some distant past, but an image to shape the imaginations of his readers in their understanding of government in the present. The social contract was meant to be taken seriously, but not literally.
The libertarian challenge is not of establishing government via social contract. Rather, it is to cultivate people capable of sustaining self-government, a task that is complicated by libertarianism’s official indifference to family formation, moral instruction, drug use, and other social factors essential to the development of citizens capable of flourishing in a libertarian regime.
Furthermore, because it has no place for economic solidarity, libertarianism sabotages itself economically as well as socially. The doctrinal imperatives of open markets and (often) open borders deny the existence of any national “We the people” who ought to be considered in economic policymaking. Libertarians cheer the “creative destruction” of the global market’s economic devastation of communities and regions. They believe those who cannot compete in the global marketplace must evolve or die — find a new line of work or move elsewhere.
Community Breakdown Leads to Big Government
Thus, libertarianism corrodes family, faith, and community through economic and social pressures. An uprooted, insecure workforce might suit the interests of Wall Street (at least in the short term), but it is poison to a culture that aims to produce people capable of self-government. Economic insecurity depresses family formation and stresses existing families. It destroys communities. The economic effects of libertarianism really are to leave people alone.
This makes them receptive to big government. The crucial insight of Robert Nisbet’s classic book “The Quest for Community” is that individualism and big government are allies in the destruction of intermediate forms of community and authority. Individuals look to big government to liberate them from the bonds of faith, family, and local community, and big government is happy to weaken these rival centers of power and loyalty, thereby expanding its own dominion.
The resulting dissolution of community leaves people even more dependent upon an expansive central government to provide not only services, but also a sense of belonging. As older sources of security, community, and meaning dissolve and decay, government will inevitably expand to take their place.
That socialism would come back into vogue as cultural liberalism and economic globalization are ascendant was to be expected. The weakening of the particular relationships and communities by which we have defined ourselves leaves space for the substitute solidarity of socialism. In the end, the freedom to abandon family, faith, and community is the freedom to be insecure, insignificant, and alone before the Leviathan of government.