Arvhived Essay on Libertarianism vs. Some Conservatives

A Passionate Defense of Libertarianism

 

Tibor R. Machan

 

         Upon arriving on these shores several
decades ago and learning about the unique American political and cultural
tradition from the numerous writers translated into Hungarian, I wanted to find
out just what makes for this uniqueness. I have concluded, after some years of
search and research, that what this culture has put in place, sometimes
deliberately, sometimes willy-nilly, is a philosophy of individual liberty.
Ironically, when I first awoke to serious politics, it was prompted by reading
National Review. Indeed, it was Russell Kirk who wrote there about a certain
undergraduate college in such glowing terms that I decided to enroll. I later
graduated from Claremont Men’s (now McKenna) College in 1965. There I met Bill
Buckley, Martin Diamond, Werner Dannhauser, Harry Jaffa, and many other stars
of the diverse conservative intelligentsia. But shortly after my becoming
acquainted with National Review’s political outlook, I also encountered the
works of Ayn Rand. This was during my first philosophy course at the U.S. Air
Force’s University of Maryland extension at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
And as someone eager to come to grips with the difference between communism,
Western European culture, and the United States’ political heritage, I found
that Rand made better sense than the conservatives.

 

Monumental Injustice

         The main reason was that Ayn Rand had
confidence in the human individual, while conservatives lacked this confidence,
indeed demeaned it. In his famous book The Conservative Mind, Russell Kirk goes
to great lengths to make the point that at heart human beings are all too ready
to be corrupted – they have "a proclivity toward violence and sin."
This original sin thesis simply made no sense to me. To think of infants as
inherently sinful, leaning toward evil rather than having the option to turn
out good or bad was, as far as I could understand it, a monumental injustice.
Subsequent reading in conservative literature – both contemporary and ancient –
confirmed my growing suspicion that the conservatives do not speak for the
unique essence of the American polity. They would like to appropriate it – they
would like to tell us that America’s is a conservative culture, that it follows
Edmund Burke rather than John Locke. Willmoore Kendall tried in vain to
convince us all of this, as have Irving Kristol, Martin Diamond, Walter Bems,
and George Will. This is not unlike the attempts of such democratic socialists
as Michael Harrington to graft their socialist agenda onto the American
experience, saying that they are the true children of the American Revolution.
It is an understandable turf fight – America’s reputation with the ordinary
people of the world is so well established that everyone would like to
associate his or her agenda with its image.

       Recently a young student from Pecs,
Hungary, visited with my family. I explained to her how Hungarians viewed
America back in Budapest during the reign of Stalin and Rakosi. I said we all
looked to America as the bastion of individual liberty, as the culture that
gave the greatest practical expression to the most radical, revolutionary
ideals yet introduced into human political thought: that each person is a moral
sovereign, that each can be good or bad largely as a function of his or her
choice. Books by Mark Twain, Zane Grey, Max Brand, and others with greater or
more humble reputations attested to this image, and we believed them.

       This 21-year-old woman, reared in
Marxist-Leninist elementary, secondary, and undergraduate schools, looked at me
and said, without batting an eye: "But that is exactly what we now think
about the United States of America. And we are stunned to find that American
intellectuals [she is now an exchange student here] have so much resentment
against just this element of their own culture."

 

Marxists Have It Right

         Such American intellectuals include on
the right, George Will and others I have already mentioned, and, on the left,
John Kenneth Galbraith, Robert Heilbroner, and Robert Lekachman. They all find
it impossible to accept that they live in a culture that has distinguished
itself to the world by virtue of its libertarian components – not by virtue of
its emphasis on order, riches, traditionalism, Judeo-Christianity, and other
tangential matters. Indeed, the Marxists have it right: this is the
quintessential bourgeois society, and the world admires it, but they detest it.
Marxists join forces with conservatives on this score. In the publication
University Boolanan we find this thesis openly admitted. One article not long
ago proudly quotes Charles Baudelaire, along with Marx and Engels, denouncing
the bourgeoisie in favor of either some implausible universal
"aristocracy" (as in communism) or the old line, natural
"aristocracy" (as in feudalism). Both these conservatives and the
Marxists yearn for a Iife of pure contemplation, of a fixed and coercive
community, never mind what the various members of the community want.

         There is no doubt that the term
libertarian is used by many people, some of them with views it would be
impossible to render plausible, let alone sound. The same is true of
conservatives, democrats, liberals, socialists, communists, Christians, Jews,
or advocates of any other doctrine espoused by the mind of human beings. By not
relating any of the actual views of libertarians, it is easy to unleash wild
indictments.

 

Notable Conservative Diatribes

         But due process is not simply the
province of just law. It is also the province of just discourse. In an
indictment, the onus of proof lies with the prosecution. And there is no
adherence to such a principle of due process in some notable conservative
diatribes unleashed against libertarianism.

         Some conservatives attack libertarians
and libertarianism in a most unscholarly, unjust fashion. And some of the same,
sadly, enjoy the utmost respect in conservative circles. When persons who
attack a viewpoint with no mention of whom they are talking about, with no reference
to any of the major works (but only to some popularized, vulgar statement by a
minor figure), with no quotes to show what actually is believed, and with
polemics heaped upon vitriol and venom, they simply cannot be dealt with in a
conscientious fashion, respectfully. There can be no honest attempt to discuss
such treatments of even the most ludicrous views. It is better, then, to be
constructive in one’s discussion. There is much to be said about
libertarianism, and we might learn something from saying even a little bit that
is informative rather than trying to cope with unjustly disdainful and hostile
smears.

 

A Political Doctrine

        First of all, libertarianism is a
political doctrine – a position on what the central legal standards of a political
community ought to be for human beings. This doctrine has been defended from a
variety of philosophical sources, from as long ago as the writings of
Alcibiades to as recently as the works of Ayn Rand, David Friedman, Murray
Rothbard, Robert Nozick, Eric Mack, John Hospers, Fred D. Miller, Jr., and
others, including myself. This is no different from the situation in which
other political doctrines find themselves. Communism, socialism, republicanism,
democracy, theocracy, and all the rest enjoy the good or bad fortune – usually
a combination of both – of mixed support. Libertarianism can be defended from
the philosophical/ethical stance of, for example, utilitarianism, Kantianism,
Aristotelianism, Lockeanism, intuitionism, positivism, or evolutionism. All
these philosophical/ethical stances vie for a chance to guard the liberty of
the individual, giving a great variety of reasons why the protection of this
liberty is of great worth, importance, or practical usefulness. I happen to be
one of those libertarians – that is, one of those persons who upholds the
natural right to individual life, liberty, and property as the prime value of a
human community as such – who thinks that the moral nature of human life
requires that men and women be fully protected in society in their chance to
face up to their responsibility to make the innumerable choices about their
lives. I happen to think that this objective, to protect what Robert Nozick
calls the "moral space" of every individual, is best served by the
libertarian polity. I also think that much else that is of value to human life
and culture would be well served – never, of course, guaranteed – if this
objective were attained.

 

Individual Moral Sovereignty

         In other words, my reason for being a
libertarian is that there is an ontological fact that libertarianism expresses
in the political realm, namely, the fact of the moral nature of a human being.
We are all the kind of beings for whom action is a matter of choice. And our
actions can be good or evil. Our central task is to strive to do good – which
is to say, to realize our human nature as fully as possible in the
circumstances of our lives. And only a free society – one that protects and
maintains the institutions fostering individual moral sovereignty (such as the
law that spells out the right to private property for the age in which we live)
– can hope to secure this objective. I do not speak for all libertarians.
Others think that a healthy dosage of moral skepticism justifies the paramount
place individual liberty ought to have in a human community – Milton Friedman
and F.A. Hayek seem to agree on this matter, as do many who defend libertarian
ideas from an economic perspective. Some think that the general welfare – a
utilitarian objective – is best served if men and women are fully protected in
their liberty. Others find it intuitively obvious that human beings ought to
enjoy full freedom. Yet others see that the Christian virtues cannot be fully
exercised unless human beings are free – I believe Frank S. Meyer held this
view. (This is why he was friend to both Murray Rothbard and Bill Buckley.) I
would argue, of course, that the defense of liberty, as I conceive of it, is
sound, while the other approaches lack something important, namely, tying the right
to liberty to a firm ontology of morals. I would also argue that, from the
perspective that I hold, the government of a good human community would indeed
have what might best be construed as a Lockean libertarian form. It would be a
natural feature of a good human community, not some necessary evil. But it
would be confined to doing the job of securing the protection and preservation
of the basic, natural rights of individual human beings. Accordingly, such a
government would have a strictly limited scope, though not necessarily a
limited size: the task of securing bona fide justice can be a demanding one for
a large community, so size is not the issue.

 

Defense Against Foreign Aggressors

         Similarly, as to foreign
entanglements, a government along libertarian lines would concern itself with
the defense of its citizens’ rights from foreign aggressors. It would prepare
itself for any possible attack or incursion, just as the police of such a
community, at the various levels of government, would prepare to cope with
domestic aggression. And as such, government would be doing what it ought to do
naturally for the community that it is supposed to serve with its unique
professional expertise.

         Now some libertarians call themselves
anarchists. Yet they are not anarchists in the sense that they deny a natural
place for law in the community. They merely wish to distinguish themselves from
the tradition of statism wherein government has a paternal rather than
professional position in the community. Murray Rothbard’s anarchism is entirely
mischaracterized if assessed as a position advocating the destruction of the
institutions of law and justice. Indeed, Dr. Rothbard has always favored such
institutions, simply under a different name. I disagree with some of his ideas,
but that is not the issue. Rothbardians, are a serious branch of an important
school of political thought.

 

Libelous Charges

          As to the alleged libertinism of
libertarians, let me say that the prosecution has made no case for this
libelous charge. There are no arguments at all, merely allegations, innuendoes,
and insinuations. But just in case some find that charges by certain eminent
conservative figures must somehow carry conviction – never mind that no case is
made to back those charges – let us address the issue for a moment.

          The doctrine that freedom – or rather
the right to individual liberty – is the central political value in a human
community can, of course, serve some disingenuous, discreditable, even evil purpose.
Take for example, the doctrine of our Constitution that comes perhaps closest
to the libertarian ideal, the First Amendment’s unequivocal endorsement of the
right to free speech and freedom of worship. Now there is no doubt that, when
men and women are protected in the liberty to speak or write or worship, they
can speak, write, or worship badly, wrongly, erroneously. As John Milton said,
If every action which is good in man at ripe years were to be under pittance,
prescription, and compulsion, what were virtue but a name, what praise could be
then due to well doing, what gramercy to lie sober, just or continent?

 

Much that is Evil Must Remain
Protected

         One libertarian revises this by
changing “every" to "any," and leaves for public administration
only those concerns that involve all citizens as citizens – not as parents,
friends, consumers, producers, artists, and scientists. In light of this, of
course, the libertarian recognizes that within his policy much that is evil
will have to remain protected from suppression – just as the defender of free
speech and worship realizes that the yellow journalism found in many tabloids
and the televangelism practice of some corrupt preachers is due protection. Any
political movement that proclaims itself in favor of liberty will attract a
great variety of human beings, sometimes, indeed, the wretched of the earth –
as the U.S. did when it became known that its system of government was the most
protective of individual liberty on the globe. If certain conservatives do not
understand why some libertarians are "peculiar people," they confess
by this a lack of understanding and a shallow knowledge of American history.
Why indeed did America attract such peculiar people throughout its history –
and why does it still? Why do European elites still look askance at American
culture – with its Gong Shows, hog calling contests, ghostologists, collectors
of Edsels, Vanna Whites, and indeed some of its more eccentric conservative
luminaries? Because they find us peculiar. Our presidents can be rather quaint
– with wives who fancy astrology, with a penchant for driving through the
countryside at 95 miles per hour, with a hobby that calls at every port for 18
holes of golf.

 

Open to Life as It Is

           Indeed, America is peculiar just the
way libertarianism is: it is open to human life as it is, even when it may be
clear enough to many that there is a better way to be. So long as borders are
maintained between persons, they are not prevented from being peculiar, even
libertine, albeit outside of politics libertarians can and do contribute to
remedying such matters. But just as libertarians have banked on the overall
advantage of a free people, so has America largely demonstrated this idea,
thought not with the determination the libertarian would insist upon.
Furthermore, certain widely circulated conservative writings, with some
sporadic comments on the topic, are indeed wrong about the conception of human
nature that prevails among libertarians: they do not think human beings are
automatically good. But neither do they think that Adam’s or anyone else’s fall
in the past necessarily taints the rest of humanity. Human beings are born
guiltless, yes, and they can become good or bad or something in between. There
are no guarantees. Comparing libertarians to communists is, indeed, a personal
insult to me, having risked my life at an early age to escape communism to head
for a free country. Indeed, if we are to discuss that topic at all, I agree
with Stephen Tonsor who argued not long ago that collectivism has conservative
origins. I trace it all the way back to Plato and thus find solace in
Aristotle, who was far more of an individualist, for his time, than was his
teacher.

         Some conservatives dislike
libertarians because they actually dislike philosophy as such. Note that there
are virtually no conservative philosophers, and understandably so. Many notable
conservatives find philosophizing a sign of humanistic arrogance. They distrust
the individual human mind. They think it is an affront to God or Society or the
impersonal wisdom of History to think up answers to questions that plague us.
They find it annoying that some libertarians, who are considered closet
"rationalists" by conservatives, dare to embark on understanding and
coping with reality.

         Yet what do conservatives offer as an
alternative? Tradition. But what is tradition? It is the accumulated – tried
and accepted – thought produced by our fellow human beings in the past. So if
they had the temerity to think up ideas that we ought to respect, why may we
not do the same?

 

Libertarianism Deserves Respect

         There is no time here to deal with all
the issues some conservatives might allude to in belittling libertarians. Some
resort to the most uncivilized approach to dealing with libertarian adversaries
– calling them peculiar, libertine, doctrinaire, humorless, self-righteous,
badly schooled, and dull. But there are others who pay more heed to substance –
indeed, judging by some of the publications at the Intercollegiate Studies
Institute, there are many who leave name calling to drunks at the carnival and
to the cruder Marxist ideologues. (If one is interested in a reasonably good
collection of exchanges on conservatism and libertarianism, see George Carey,
ed., Freedom and Vulue. 7he ConservativelLibertarian Debate [Lanham, MD:
University Press of America, 1984]. For my discussion of conservatism vs.
libertarianism, which has been conveniently ignored in a recent conservative
lambaste of libertarianism, see Modem Age, Winters 1980 and 1982.)

          Libertarianism is a political
doctrine, as is socialism. It tries, at its best, to answer the political
questions of human beings, questions raised in the effort to organize community
life for a purposive, moral being. I think libertarianism thus deserves respect
even from adversaries. I am sorry that conservatism is given voice in some
important circles to those who find very distasteful what is perhaps most
worthy of conserving in the American political legacy, the principle of the
right to individual sovereignty. I am sorry mainly as a citizen, who chose this
culture primarily because of its libertarian elements. I also disapprove, of
course, on the philosophical grounds alluded to above.

———————

Tibor R. Machan is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at
Auburn University and holds the R. C. Hoiles Chair in Business Ethics and Free
Enterprise at Chapman University, Orange, CA. 
He was a co-founder of Reason magazine and the Reason Foundation.  In 1988 he spoke at The Heritage Foundation,
on May 23, responding to Russell Kirk’s lecture, "A Dispassionate
Assessment of Libertarianism," published as Heritage Lecture No. IM. ISSN
0272-WS. 01988 by The Heritage Foundation.

 

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