October 16, 2018


Reclaiming Conservatism from Libertarians (Paul Miller, 10/16/18, Imaginative Conservative)

Against these arguments are the fairly standard counterclaims about market failure, moral hazard, and the tragedy of the commons. Sometimes a marketplace of ideas does not result in truth if evil propaganda is shouted more loudly and frequently, especially by well-armed thugs. A free market for environmental goods is impossible because I cannot buy my own individual slice of clean air. And the efficiency of the private sector is only true when all parties have full, free, perfect information--which they never do unless the owners of information are compelled to disclose it by the government. These arguments boil down to the fairly obvious point (obvious to everyone except libertarians, that is) that sometimes working in groups and vesting power in a central authority is more efficient and productive than working in competition.

Libertarianism has the appeal of a personal organizer, or cargo pants, or a trapper keeper. It is a total organization system for all your ideas, convictions, and beliefs about society and politics. When you put libertarianism on, you have a tidy little place for every little thought and opinion. Even better, you can automatically generate an opinion on any issue by pure deduction with very little knowledge of actual facts. Take the first principle of libertarianism--personal autonomy is the highest good to which all other goods should be subordinated-and you can quickly Tweet about school choice (good), the Affordable Care Act (bad), NSA surveillance (very bad), and Miley Cyrus (who cares as long as she is a rational adult?). There is a pleasant empowerment in the comprehensiveness of libertarianism. Like every all-encompassing ideology, it gives you the ability, with very little thought or knowledge, to explain everything. As much as I hate the writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson, he was on to something when he wrote that "foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

And libertarianism is certainly the product of little minds. By "little minds" I mean those so enamored with their own ideas that they have shrunk inwards to the point that larger ideas and facts simply float by, unobserved and unexamined. How else to explain the regular and distressing gap between libertarian ideas and reality?

For example, one of the more frustrating aspects of libertarianism is the yawning vacuum that exists where historical awareness should be. Friedman argued that "the great advances of civilization, whether in architecture or painting, in science or literature, in industry or agriculture, have never come from centralized government" (3). This is simply embarrassing. Friedman was an educated man. He was either being maliciously deceptive or was stupefyingly blinded by his own ideology to write such a sentence. It is further embarrassing that many of his followers believe it today.

In fact, princes and kings have always been among the biggest patrons of the arts and literature. In architecture, many of the great wonders of the world, from the Hagia Sophia to the Taj Mahal to Versailles, were built by kings and emperors, not private individuals or corporations. Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel on retainer from Pope Julius II (the head of the Papal States). William Shakespeare's company was called The King's Men because his patron was, literally, the King of England. More recently, at least twelve Pulitzer prize-winning books were written by authors supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, including James McPherson's magisterial history of the civil war, Battle Cry of Freedom.

The biggest scientific endeavors of the last two centuries have been government-funded. The Manhattan Project was overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Apollo Program was designed, funded, managed, and executed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration: The moon landing was the triumph of federal bureaucratic efficiency. The technological foundation of the internet was developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The Human Genome Project was funded by the National Institutes of Health. The Tevatron supercollider, which enabled scientists to conduct experiments in particle physics, was built with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy; the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, which discovered the Higgs Boson in 2013, is funded by twenty governments. Much of the funding for Norman Borlaug's research (father of the "Green Revolution" in agriculture) came from the Mexican government. Government funding for science and exploration is not new. Congress appropriated funds to support Samuel Morse's development of the telegraph in 1843. The Lewis and Clark expedition was a U.S. Army reconnaissance operation (Meriwether Lewis, that dashing Byronic hero, was an army captain). Christopher Columbus' voyage was funded by the King of Spain. Marco Polo's travels were undertaken at the behest of the Khan of Beijing.

The free market almost certainly would not have led the way towards any of these discoveries because they required massive overhead and incalculable risks with no immediate prospects for returns. I do not deny that private enterprise and individual entrepreneurship have also produced great works of art, science, and civilization; of course they have. But Friedman's assertion that such achievements have never come from central government is nakedly, willfully false.

A lack of historical awareness is not the only illustration of the intellectual littleness of libertarianism. Libertarianism is linked, historically and philosophically, with the work of Ayn Rand, yet another reason that conservatives should give libertarianism a wide berth. Ayn Rand was a mid-twentieth century Russian-American novelist, screenwriter, and self-proclaimed philosopher. She was an ardent anti-communist--though not, as is sometimes assumed, a persecuted exile from her native Russia. She is most widely-known for The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), a pair of philosophical novels or, to put it another way, fables. They are thin, melodramatic, faux epics in which Rand's protagonists (Howard Roark and John Galt, respectively) parade about thundering forth Rand's philosophy in self-serious monologues.

Rand's philosophy (which she called "objectivism" but most people call Randianism, because "objectivism" is vague and nonsensical) is the moral and anthropological companion of libertarian political theory. Rand argued that the highest ethical value is selfishness, or the imperative to pursue one's own happiness and fulfillment. This ethical egoism looks down on altruism as one of basest vices. Living sacrificially for another is a betrayal of the obligation to live, first and primarily, for oneself. The flip side is equally true: We should never ask and never expect someone else to live for us. Accepting someone else's help is degrading; offering help to another is insulting. Each individual should strive to achieve what they can on their merits.

It is easy to see how Rand's political philosophy grows from this anthropology. A political system should simply allow individuals to strive and achieve and do little else. High achievers are the main drivers of civilization. Entrepreneurs, risk-takers, businessmen, inventors, and the like are the heroic, creative geniuses who make society function and thrive. The role of government is, by and large, to get out of their way. Progressive income tax rates, capital gains taxes, inheritance taxes, and environmental and safety regulations are barriers to achievement. By hurting the high achievers, such policies hurt everyone, since we all depend on the few demigods for continued progress. Meanwhile, government programs that help the poor, sick, elderly, or handicapped are degrading, and, worse, by engendering a culture of dependency, social welfare policies might actually prevent one of the poor and downtrodden from pulling himself up by his bootstraps and discovering that he, too, is one of the intellectual and creative elite.

Rand's work has become popular with conservatives. It offers a veneer of philosophical justification for policies that business groups favor for their bottom line. Representative Paul Ryan, the Republican party's vice presidential nominee in 2012, told a group in 2005 that "the reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand." (He later repudiated Rand.) Justice Clarence Thomas hosts a screening of the 1949 film version of The Fountainhead for his new clerks each year. Senator Ron Johnson is outspoken in his admiration for Rand's work.

Ayn Rand's influence in conservative circles is an embarrassment. Conservatives who routinely denounce the influence of postmodernism in American life should recognize, with only a moment's thought, that Rand is little more than a populist mouthpiece for Friedrich Nietzsche, the forerunner of conservatives' favorite philosophical bete noir. It may seem odd to compare Rand, who insisted on the objectivity of truth, with Nietzsche, who insisted on its subjectivity. The similarity lies in their egoism--and Nietzsche's subjective egoism was at least softer than Rand's objective one. Absent a traditional, religious moral framework in which to embed her belief in objective truth, it had nowhere to go but towards the individual. That is why Rand and Nietzsche, despite their different paths, ended up at the same mountain, worshiping at the altar of the übermensch.

Conservatives, who made their name championing the equal dignity of all people, should be disquieted by Rand's celebration of aristocracy. But Rand's Nietzschean admiration of superior men is not the only flag that should warn off conservatives. Rand was quite clear about her atheism and contempt for Christianity, making her an odd philosophical hero for a movement made up of many devout believers. It is bothersome that Paul Ryan, for example, a publicly devout Roman Catholic, could be so fervent in his admiration of Rand despite the obvious contradictions between the two belief systems. Nor can you simply jettison Rand's atheism and graft the rest of her thought onto a Christian worldview, as so many of her disciples claim they do. The entire premise of egoism and dislike of altruism is, shall we say, in tension with the ethic of Christianity's founder.

Some Christian Randians might claim that they are Christians in their private lives and Randians in politics while mumbling something about the separation of church and state. Such a stance plays into the state-sponsored secularism favored by the progressive left; assumes that, theologically speaking, it is unproblematic to essentially stop thinking like a Christian once you start thinking about politics; and accepts, uncritically, explicitly anti-Christian premises as your political foundation--a trifecta of questionable intellectual shortcuts.

But the most damning thing about Randianism, from a political standpoint, is that it is not conservative. The ultimate reason to reject libertarianism (and Randianism) is that it bears little resemblance to actual, historical conservatism. Some readers may be confused, thinking the two terms are synonymous because they have been used interchangeably in some circles. They are not synonymous. They are, in fact, radically divergent ideologies.

Russell Kirk's classic formulation, conservatism respects custom, tradition, and continuity with the past. The libertarian view of the role of government would be a radical break with the past. Conservatives believe strongly in the authority of precedent. Libertarians, who lack precedent for most of their favored policies, are bold to advocate untested, unproven policies. Conservatives are cautious and patient, happy to work for justice and order incrementally, by degrees. Libertarians, with their complete blueprint for the country, are pitchfork radicals ambitious to fight the system as a whole. Conservatives are comfortable with inconsistency, variety, and local solutions. Libertarians have an ideological cookie cutter they want to slap down on every policy issue in every jurisdiction. Conservatives have lower expectations of people and politics because of their understanding of human nature; libertarians betray a naiveté about nature of the world and its inhabitants when they wax utopian in their zeal to remake the world.

Libertarianism is something that healthy boys grow out of.

Posted by at October 16, 2018 4:22 AM