Monthly Archives: July 2016

Why I failed to be Libertarian, and why we still need a better way

In recent posts, I’ve been discussing the idea many of my friends and family have–one I truly would like to be able to support–that supporting the Libertarian Party is the best response to the fecklessness of the GOP against both the lunacy of a corrupt, fascistic Reality TV showman’s con game and the brazen lawlessness of the Party of Death. I cannot disagree at all, and do not want to disagree, with their rejection of these false alternatives.

But it is impossible to ignore the fact that the Libertarian Party platform does now, and has as long as I’ve known of the Libertarian Party, specifically call for the legal protection of the slaughter of unborn babies.

I’ve discussed my evolving response to “least-worst” political choice scenarios:

  1. Always advocate the top-shelf good, that is, call for and demand just action on the highest priority issue for which you are able to articulate some proximate just action, some corrective to evil that promotes the common good, in the near term.
  2. When apparently stymied on top-shelf issues, then advocate a temporary and tentative settlement for a “least-worst” if and only if the approach, person, or party you settle for does not advocate against the top-shelf good (or for intrinsic evil).

And I’ve discussed the philosophical appeal of libertarianism, and its fatal flaws, concluding:

Because I believe that humans must be governed according to their natures, I cannot subscribe to the metaphysical nonsense that is adduced to justify Libertarian Party libertarianism.

This leaves me with two points yet to cover: party politics and pragmatism.

  • Libertarianism has appeal as an alternative to typical partisan politics, and in fact positions itself precisely as the refutation to the nonsensical “If you don’t vote for Donkey One you support Elephant Two” zero-sum game.
  • Libertarianism also appeals to our desire for a pragmatic response to a rapid and disastrous slide into fascism in our society, to an ideological and bureaucratic focus on the utterly isolated and atomized individual made naked in every department of life to the unrestricted surveilling and intervening regime.

Party Politics

Most of us are sick of the foolish zero-sum arguments that cynics and zealots use to browbeat us into decisions based on partisan interests that do not reflect our own interest, such as protecting basic human dignity or having authentic opportunities to earn a living from honest work.  “A vote for [better but less “electable” candidate] is a vote for [unacceptable opposition]” or “if you don’t vote for [unacceptable candidate], you’re voting for [unacceptable opposition]” is the kind of crass consequentialism that we ought to reject, not only because it is practically wrong but because it suborns our reason in service of ends unworthy of the name.

Backing the Libertarian Party seems to be–is intentionally positioned to be–a practical way to reject this meretricious rhetoric.  And I agree that this is actually possible, insofar as one is merely registering a protest vote, that is, casting a vote for a candidate that cannot win in order to add one more vote on the record as having been cast against another candidate–in this case, both the donkey and the elephant candidate.  It can matter in some sense that you vote in a national race for the Reform Party, the Green Party, the Constitution Party, or the Libertarian Party, but it is has for many decades been unlikely to affect the outcome of the election (except in rare instances where third-party candidates bled support from those who would usually be part of their coalition, improving the odds that their more profound opposition would win).

Further, backing a viable third party–one that could at least reliably spoil one or another party’s chances–can seem like a durable way to weaken the two-party system, thus substantively and consequentially rejecting the binary logic partisans try to impose.  Most attractively, being part of the smaller and narrower coalition that founds a party does actually offer greater hope that one’s preferred changes can be made.  I certainly see the appeal of that!

We are beset with problems, however, in using this logic to justify actually supporting the Libertarian Party, rather than considering it a protest-vote option precisely insofar as it cannot win.

First, if the Libertarian Party does become a viable party while maintaining its present platform and philosophy, then there would be no obvious difference between the party-politics argument in favor of this objectionable compromise choice and another objectionable compromise choice.  I can and do reject the argument that I have to support whatever the GOP puts forward, merely because a Democrat is going to be worse; but then why ought I support a Libertarian Party candidate that is even worse on a top-shelf issue than a GOP candidate so appalling I will not even consider supporting him?

The forms of the argument available to pressure me into adopting a party-politics rationale for supporting a potentially successful Libertarian Party are pretty much identical to the forms of argument required for pressuring me into voting for a donkey or elephant:  “Don’t be a single-issue voter” or “Politics is the art of compromise” or “art of the possible” or “Vote for results, not to express your wishes” and so on and so forth.

Every one of these arguments ends up proving too much:  should I vote for a terrible candidate who is untrustworthy but has made significant public concessions on the top-shelf issue because “Politics is the art of compromise,” or a candidate who is utterly abhorrent on numerous issues but likely to at least be a competent fascist and unpopular enough to attack because I “Vote results”?  Or should I vote for a candidate exceedingly unlikely to win, who has a long history of being reliably and emphatically wrong on the top-shelf issue, because…uh…”Don’t be a single-issue voter”?

So far, every reason I can adduce for attempting to ignore the utterly unconscionable elements, and the philosophically incoherent elements, of the Libertarian Party platform has always been a better reason to keep pushing forward those elements within the GOP that can and have made effective changes, while also shoving back at worthless fellows like Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, and maintaining my freedom to criticize the GOP when it’s wrong.  And under current circumstances I have been regularly calling for the defenestration of GOP leadership, so a fortiori what will I do with the current and longstanding Libertarian Party leadership?

We seem to be left with a Catch-22:  While the Libertarian Party remains ineffective, any argument against “protest” or “symbolic” or “identity-group” voting, made in terms of consequential political compromise, seems to favor leveraging sympathetic elements of a viable party rather than hoping to simultaneously change and boost an ineffective party that is wrong on top-shelf issues; and should the Libertarian Party become viable, its being emphatically wrong on the top-shelf issue would make it unconscionable to support it.

So there is one way to make the case to me for allegiance to the Libertarian Party on party-politics grounds:  Convince the Libertarian Party to become consistently and emphatically opposed to the slaughter of unborn babies (and to bring other elements of its platform in line with the logic of such convictions).

Otherwise, what do I gain by modifying my standoffish relationship with both GOP and Libertarian leadership, and my open opposition to the Party of Death?

Pragmatics

Finally–and most briefly, because by now I have said enough on the subject that it will be hard not to repeat myself in this section–we come to the possibility of deliberately using the Libertarian Party to achieve movement on one policy or another, in hopes that Libertarian success in that policy item will make it more possible to use some other strategy to advocate for our top-shelf policy item, later.

OK, I understand the logic of this.  I understand it well, because it is precisely the logic that scores of politically-active folks have used in supporting various candidates from the Party of Death and the Elephant Patrol for decades, now.

How has that been working out?

More to the point, what exactly is it about Libertarian Party candidates that make it likely that they can achieve viability as a party without exactly the same sorts of preoccupation with power, deal-making, and in-group behavior that most of my LP-leaning friends object to in the “Beltway elites”?

I mean, we have just seen a sizeable minority of the elephant-leaning electorate choose the trust-fund baby of a slumlord, a politician whose gravest political concern has always been to appear to be “one of them,” to be a big deal and to be seen hanging out with people who can prove he’s a big deal, in order to protest againt “Beltway elites”!

(I forgo correcting the barbarous usage of “elites” here.)

We are looking at the same dilemma as I just described with regard to party politics, from another angle, here.  We can justify this second-intention strategy only if the useful elements of the Libertarian Party platform missing from the other party’s platforms or priorities–which are, ipso facto, elements those parties do not believe are desireable or politically useful to them–are more likely to be realized than the objectionable elements–which are, again by the very fact that we might turn away from the other parties on their account, elements those parties do believe are desireable or politically useful to them.  Furthermore, even if the useful elements are more likely to be realized than the objectionable elements, we have to believe that they can be realized without self-defeating compromises, such as making the element we intend finally to oppose an actually affirmed part of the platform and a way the public can recognize and approve the Libertarian “brand.”

In other words, supporting the Libertarian Party now so that we can oppose abortion later is morally and logically no different than supporting the Party of Death now so that we can be in a position to restrict abortion later, or supporting a GOP committed to a candidate who is utterly unreliable on abortion so that we can hope to actually enforce campaign promises against a candidate who has been forced upon us in the first place.  In fact, it is pragmatically–strictly in terms of the likelihood of the stratagem achieving its end–worse than supporting the GOP (though in every imaginable sense still better than supporting the Party of Death).

In other words, the moral argument against supporting the GOP’s Trumpery candidate, or a party leadership that tries to compel us to support him, is strong enough to overcome the pragmatic case for supporting the GOP on the subject–and a fortiori it is overwhelmingly strong against the pragmatic case for a second-intention strategy in supporting the Libertarian Party.

So, if you think–as I do!–that there are many libertarian principles that are either true, or “best in show” among conscionable but flawed American political arguments, and you think (as I do not, at present) that the Libertarian Party can be reshaped so that I ought to support it, then your work is cut out for you.

What you should do?  Change the Libertarian Party so it can be worthy of support.

What you should not do?  Advocate that we support the Libertarian Party, as it is, in hopes it will change.

We’ve been down that road for a long time, already, friends.  If you didn’t like it the last time, why not choose a different rationale for political engagement, this time?

Continuing, not Quitting

Over at Hang Together blog, Greg Forster has a good summary response to recent discouraging political changes (and do read the Jonah Goldberg he links, too!):

The past that made us who we are and our aspirations to unrealized possibilities; devotion to eternal principles and devotion to tangible, historic realities; these things are perennially attractive.

[…]

My guess is that something will happen now that will be neither a repudiation nor a continuation of conservatism as such, but something in between. Jonah Goldberg has been talking about a new Liberty League modeled on the organization that gave anti-statists a home outside the parties during the high tide of American statism. (This is long but I could not stop reading it.) But would that be simply a place to keep the conservative flame lit in exile, or a place to forge a new expression of old ideas and commitments that would not be what we have called “conservatism” but would incorporate some of its elements?

Another model we might look to is Vaclav Havel’s Civic Forum. When the moment of crisis arrived, the Czech dissidents formed an umbrella organization that welcomed any and all opponents of the Stalinist regime, whatever their ideological commitments. Havel provided an expression of shared moral foundations broad enough to show that they all had something in common. The coalition held the nation together during the crisis – held it together in opposition to the Stalinist regime. After the crisis passed, it promptly fell apart and two-party democracy arose in its place – as one would expect to happen, and even welcome. I think we are probably entering a period of history that will bear more in common with Czechoslovakia in 1989 than America in 1934.

I do not resign from conservatism. But my priority is not conserving conservatism. My priority is building moral consensus so that Americans who love what is good, true and beautiful can find a way to hang together. For if we do not hang together, we will surely hang separately.

(source: I Resign. What Comes Next? – Hang Together)

Why I failed to be Libertarian, and why I regret to say you should, too.

I defy any red-blooded American of my generation and upbringing not to experience a thrill when reading these words:

And, in all sincerity, can anything more than the absence of plunder be required of the law? Can the law — which necessarily requires the use of force — rationally be used for anything except protecting the rights of everyone? I defy anyone to extend it beyond this purpose without perverting it and, consequently, turning might against right. This is the most fatal and most illogical social perversion that can possibly be imagined. It must be admitted that the true solution — so long searched for in the area of social relationships — is contained in these simple words: Law is organized justice.

Now this must be said: When justice is organized by law — that is, by force — this excludes the idea of using law (force) to organize any human activity whatever, whether it be labor, charity, agriculture, commerce, industry, education, art, or religion. The organizing by law of any one of these would inevitably destroy the essential organization — justice. For truly, how can we imagine force being used against the liberty of citizens without it also being used against justice, and thus acting against its proper purpose?

(source: The Law, by Frederic Bastiat)

I re-read The Law at least three times between the ages of 16 and 21–and probably more than half-a-dozen times.  In this it outranks Locke’s Second Treatise, which I read either two or three times; the First Treatise, which I read only once; the extensive discussion of praxeology in von Mises’ Human Action, the work that was the pinnacle of my early inquiry into political economics (and that occasioned my last profound struggle with doubt in the existence of God).  I think Hayek is an essential modern thinker.  Milton and Rose Friedman were probably the strongest influence on my interpretations of contemporary political economy through the middle ’90s (along with William E. Simon).  I followed the Cato Institute in arguing that even “Who will build the roads?” was not necessarily a call for government intervention (which, actually, I really do think remains arguable).

And if I didn’t really extend “Mark from Michigan” much credit, even as a teenager in the early ’90s, I was sufficiently inclined to be vigilant about threats to the liberties of Americans that friends of mine were passing me his “briefings” on the “black helicopters” with conspiratorial whispers.  (I was just joking to my wife how easy it would be to take some snaps of some 727s being repainted at our local airport and start a conspiracy theory about “black airliners” and some sort of resettlement plan or other.  Circa 1992, a couple grainy, photocopied photos would pass for “evidence” pretty easily.)

So I’m really serious when I say that I wanted badly to be libertarian, and that in many respects my default frame of reference for interpreting American politics is still libertarian–for better and for worse–and that it’s not an accident that, when pressed, I described myself as “civil libertarian” during the decade or so when my only professed politics were a satirical “Vote for me when I run for Emperor” and an avoidance of entanglement with government that came near to Quietism.

(If you can check on Facebook, I currently have “Feudalism” for my political views.)

And I do not like ill-aimed attacks on various things under the name “libertarian,” including some actual libertarian and Libertarian-Party ideals, from Catholic thinkers who often seem to have a confused understanding of the relationship between Catholic social teaching, American political liberalism, Fabian socialism, and real political economy.  Some of the points in these critiques are good, and I have some sympathy with many of the ideas loosely grouped under the heading “Distributism”; but the Distributist Review has a terrible habit of just using “libertarian” as its bete noir in a misguided effort to define Distributism as a functioning American political movement.

But as I said in a recent post, I find it impossible to support the Libertarian Party–even at my most professedly libertarian, even in years when I have chosen to vote for the Taxpayer’s Party or Constitution Party to register dissatisfaction with the donkeys and elephants.  In that post, I did my best to explain the principles I’ve evolved for dealing with political decisions, principles which lead me to conclude that I cannot vote for the Libertarian Party’s current leaders and platform:

  1. Always advocate the top-shelf good, that is, call for and demand just action on the highest priority issue for which you are able to articulate some proximate just action, some corrective to evil that promotes the common good, in the near term.
  2. When apparently stymied on top-shelf issues, then advocate a temporary and tentative settlement for a “least-worst” if and only if the approach, person, or party you settle for does not advocate against the top-shelf good (or for intrinsic evil).

And given that approach, it is simply not possible for me to imagine supporting, in good conscience, a Libertarian Party that directly backs the legal protection of the slaughter of unborn innocent children.

But let me get down into specifics a little bit.  I can imagine three basic reasons to actually support the Libertarian Party, rather than merely use them as a vehicle to register a protest (something I can imagine doing precisely insofar as they are unlikely to win, and my protest unlikely to be registered as durable support).

  1. Libertarianism has very real philosophical appeal, as I noted above, because it enunciates a clear vision of the limitations natural law imposes on the use of force by those with political power or authority, something that modern absolutists and modern totalitarians–the polarity of statism–consistently fail to take seriously.
  2. Libertarianism has appeal as an alternative to typical partisan politics, and in fact positions itself precisely as the refutation to the nonsensical “If you don’t vote for Donkey One you support Elephant Two” zero-sum game.
  3. Libertarianism also appeals to our desire for a pragmatic response to a rapid and disastrous slide into fascism into our society, to an ideological and bureaucratic focus on the utterly isolated and atomized individual made naked in every department of life to the unrestricted surveilling and intervening regime.

So let me take a look at all three of these appeals.  Again, I feel each of these strongly, myself–but when I weigh it out, the answer never comes up in favor of the Libertarian Party.

Philosophical

This could get deep, but let’s keep it simple.  The Libertarian Party is one claimant to the heritage of “classical liberalism,” which leads to passages that make my heart sing, like this one:

The prescribed role of government is to protect the rights of every individual including the right to life, liberty and property. Criminal laws should be limited in their application to violations of the rights of others through force or fraud, or to deliberate actions that place others involuntarily at significant risk of harm. Therefore, we favor the repeal of all laws creating “crimes” without victims, such as the use of drugs for medicinal or recreational purposes. We support restitution to the victim to the fullest degree possible at the expense of the criminal or the negligent wrongdoer. The constitutional rights of the criminally accused, including due process, a speedy trial, legal counsel, trial by jury, and the legal presumption of innocence until proven guilty, must be preserved.

(source: Platform | Libertarian Party)

(I omit the jury-nullification plank, because that’s an issue with too many layers of back-and-forth.)

The challenge, of course, is that every claim of “force or fraud,” and every judgment of what “application” is appropriate or necessary, and every claim about what are the “rights of every individual,” and every attempt to enumerate in constitution or statute what is entailed by “life, liberty[,] and property,” rests on some understanding of these essential realities:  what is “property”?  what is the distinction between “fraud” and “privilege”?

That is why efforts to delineate a consistent libertarianism always end up renegotiating the metaphysical boundaries of an ideological commitment to an anti-metaphysical stance:

the libertarian will usually reply: “Well, I believe in a limited government, the government being limited to the defense of the person or property or the individual against invasion by force or fraud.” I have tried to show in my article, “The Real Aggressor” in the April 1954 Faith and Freedom that this leaves the conservative helpless before the argument “necessary for defense,” when it is used for gigantic measures of statism and bloodshed. There are other consequences equally or more grave. The statist can pursue the matter further: “If you grant that it is legitimate for people to band together and allow the State to coerce individuals to pay taxes for a certain service — “defense” — why is it not equally moral and legitimate for people to join in a similar way and allow the State the right to provide other services — such as post offices, “welfare,” steel, power, etc.? If a State supported by a majority can morally do one, why not morally do the others?” I confess that I see no answer to this question. If it is proper and legitimate to coerce an unwilling Henry Thoreau into paying taxes for his own “protection” to a coercive state monopoly, I see no reason why it should not be equally proper to force him to pay the State for any other services, whether they be groceries, charity, newspapers, or steel. We are left to conclude that the pure libertarian must advocate a society where an individual may voluntarily support none or any police or judicial agency that he deems to be efficient and worthy of his custom.

(source: Are Libertarians “Anarchists”? | Mises Institute)

One always needs to find the boundary, or the grounding; for the very limiting principles that make libertarian thought truly itself need justifying in order to actually limit anything. And so we find broad claims like this in the Libertarian Party platform:

Individuals should be free to make choices for themselves and must accept responsibility for the consequences of the choices they make…No individual, group, or government may initiate force against any other individual, group, or government….  Individuals own their bodies and have rights over them that other individuals, groups, and governments may not violate. Individuals have the freedom and responsibility to decide what they knowingly and voluntarily consume, and what risks they accept to their own health, finances, safety, or life….  We oppose government actions which either aid or attack any religion.

(source: Platform | Libertarian Party, emphasis added)

Now, I’ll mention without nit-picking the confusion over whether “individuals” already “have the freedom” or “should be free,” one that speaks to a deeper question of the relation of “freedom” in fact, “liberty” at law, and the proper nature of freedom.  But in the passage from the platform above, I’ve emphasized the serious philosophical incoherence at the heart of Libertarian Party expressions of libertarian political philosophy:  the notion that “individuals” are somehow proper subjects of law apart from “their bodies,” such that “their bodies” can be regarded as objects they “own,” is a metaphysical belief about the nature of human creatures, the nature of property, and the foundations of justice–and it is one that simply cannot be true.  In fact, the idea that a human creature’s proper subjectivity is radically distinct from bodily existence is a constant threat to the possibility of a binding natural law that addresses humans as they actually are.

All human creatures are embodied before they become capable of responsibly exercising their freedom, and live their whole lives in relationships, in varying degrees of dependency, which condition their freedom; no responsible law or standard of justice can possibly address humans as though they existed in a state of radical or unbridled subjectivity, or as though the human body was a negotiable economic instrument.

In fact, this denigration of the body to a merely instrumental role in human existence, and the concomitant treatment of a disembodied will as the proper subject of the laws, reverses the Lockean derivation of property rights from which it–especially the peculiarly American treatment of private property–nominally descends.  Rather than “property” being a necessary condition for each human creature’s freedom to live securely in society with other free creatures, and hence a moral imperative intrinsically related to each one’s basic needs and flourishing in society, “property” becomes a hypothetically natural and absolute responsiveness of the real to each individual’s subjective inclination.

If one contemplates the situation, it will be seen that the slave relationship is wholly improper for it presumes to transfer the control of one living man into the hands of a second living man. The condition is contrary to nature and can only be maintained if both play their specific assigned roles. The slave must act as though he did not control himself, as though, indeed, the slave-master did control him. The slave-master must act as though he really could and did control the slave. But the slave always controls himself, even though he may do so in harmony with his owner’s wishes. It is simply impossible for the owner to exert control.

By no process of the mind can the owner of the slave cause the slave to flex a single muscle. The only process open to the slave owner is to impose force or the threat of force. If obedience is obtained, it is because the slave elects to do as he is told. But he must be the actor in respect to his own energy. His owner cannot generate or control the slave’s energy. A condition of slavery must be classified as one instance of incorrect ownership. In this condition, a man seeks to control another man as though he were a property and not a man.

(source: Self-Ownership | Mises Institute)

But this reasoning simply will not do; it does not help us to distinguish one real condition from another, but simply declares that one real condition differs from another real condition–“real” insofar as they express intelligible relations of intelligible bodies that condition intentional behaviors of human creatures–in that one is a fiction because it cannot express the purely hypothetical unfettered subjectivity of each individual.  In fact, however, nothing can:  to deny that a slave has really lost freedom, and that the justice or injustice of that loss is a proper subject of inquiry, is to respond to social conditions like the Christian Scientist or Scientologist responds to physical or mental conditons; it is to attempt to live in denial.

Taken to an unhealthy extreme, the libertarian position ends up with slogans like “taxation is theft” which can justify any government action only as a pragmatic “lesser evil” that assumes an ultimate nihilism in which the regime can never be anything but the best deal negotiated among conflicting interests, each using force or threat of force to achieve their ends.  It is not hard to trace the relationship between “taxation is theft” and Proudhon’s “property is theft,” even when a sincere effort to distinguish the two is made.

Must we then convince ourselves, and each other, that the only authentic regime is a proceduralized Bellum omnium contra omnes, in which every individual is regarded by the regime as a social atom bound to other social atoms by the weak force of contracts enforceable only insofar as they implicate only the potential concerns of a social atom that have been made intelligible to the regime?  If so, then I am at a loss to see how libertarianism differs except in its moment on the trajectory of practical politics from the Romanticism that gives us Progressivism and American liberalism–these are, after all, logically indistinguishable offshoots of the Enlightenment reasoning that gave us not only the best of Locke but also the worst of Comte….

Because I believe that humans must be governed according to their natures, I cannot subscribe to the metaphysical nonsense that is adduced to justify Libertarian Party libertarianism.

I will continue with parts 2 and 3–the appeal of the Libertarian Party as an alternative to donkeys and elephants in our party politics, and the pragmatic use of libertarian policies by those not philosophically aligned with them, in another post soon.

Poetry hath comforts

For he does think, although I’m oft in doubt
If I can tell exactly what about.
Ah yes! his little foot and ancle trim,
’Tis there the seat of reason lies in him;
A wise philosopher would shake his head, ­
He then, of course, must shake his foot instead.
At me in vengeance shall that foot be shaken —
Another proof of thought, I’m not mistaken —
Because to his cat’s eyes I hold a glass
And let him see himself a proper ass?

(source: Edgar Allan Poe “Oh, Tempora! Oh, Mores!”)

Yes, who among us could not use a little dose of historical perspective, just now?

vita brevis

“Hear my prayer, O Lord,
and give ear to my cry;
hold not thy peace at my tears!

For I am thy passing guest,
a sojourner, like all my fathers.

Look away from me, that I may know gladness,
before I depart and be no more!”

(source: Psalm 39 RSVCE)

Here’s one I still like best in an older version, with a more craggy beauty:

Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear unto my cry; hold not thy peace at my tears: for I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were.

O spare me, that I may recover strength, before I go hence, and be no more.

(source: Psalm 39 KJV)