Every commentator, from time to time, should put herself through the public humiliation of admitting past mistakes. Here’s one of mine: I used to regard libertarianism as juvenile. In fact, I retained that smug belief for several years even as I worked with intelligent, educated libertarians.
There was some excuse for me, as I will explain below. Still, it was a serious error, and the events of 2016 have helped complete my change of heart toward my libertarian friends. I’m ready to apologize now.
The Sophomoric Yearning for Freedom
Why did I once scorn libertarians? The short answer: I was trained as a philosopher, not a political commentator, and I cared about intellectual history. I spent my intellectually formative years immersed in Aristotle and Aquinas, pondering metaphysics, moral philosophy, and ecclesiology. I loved traditional liturgy and high culture. Politics sat on a back burner until my early thirties.
Working as a teaching assistant for political theory courses, I encountered many a fresh-faced libertarian. It seemed to me that undergraduates naturally self-separated into two teams: communists and libertarians. If you want a quick read on how an undergraduate thinks, just ask him whether he prefers equality or liberty. In most cases, that gives you the basic picture.
I encountered a few older libertarians, but they mostly struck me as run-of-the-mill libertines who preferred to justify their bullying in terms of “freedom” rather than “progress.” No, thanks.
Libertarians are Metaphysical Cheapskates
From the standpoint of an Aristotelian moral philosopher, the appeal seemed obvious enough even if I didn’t sympathize. Undergraduates are drawn to views that seem to combine conceptual simplicity with sweeping explanatory power. Like everyone else, they want to make sense of the world, but they’ve had the misfortune of sprouting in the stony soil of a philosophically impoverished society. Thus, they’re reflexively suspicious of worldviews that involve God, the soul, angels, demons, or anything else they can’t imagine being featured in a Nova documentary. Metaphysically, today’s undergraduates are acolytes of Occam without even realizing it.
Undergraduates like communism and libertarianism for the same reasons they like utilitarianism and the categorical imperative. These theories are expansive in their reach, claiming to explain every aspect of the universe from the Milky Way to marriage. At the same time, they are metaphysically parsimonious. I call these “low buy-in” philosophies. They claim to explain a lot, without asking adherents to commit to many things up front.
Economy notwithstanding, I see low buy-in theories as a poor value. Like cheap appliances, they look neat in the packaging. Once you start trying to use them, it becomes clear that they’re riddled with bugs. When a political or moral view is grounded in just a few conceptually simple premises, the fleshed-out picture never turns out to be either satisfying or plausible. I reject false economy, in philosophy just as in domestic science. Let’s accept that reality is complicated.
My few abortive efforts to read Ayn Rand never got very far. Compared to the ancients and medievals, she seemed utterly plebeian, stomping all over subtle realities in clunky too-large boots. That just sealed my conviction that libertarians were simplistic dunderheads who couldn’t handle the complexity of real life. Granted, they were in good company (most liberals seemed the same to me). I still felt no desire to jump on the boat.
Libertarians in their Element
In the academy, seasoned libertarians are relatively scarce. In my own tenure there, I certainly never encountered any as intelligent as, say, a Richard Epstein. When I first ventured into the political sphere, it quickly became evident that libertarians were far more numerous there. They were a genuinely diverse lot, not fitting all my stereotypes. Some offered astute and fairly subtle social critiques. Some combined Hayekian political ideas with more robust moral views, making for a more interesting blend of influences than I had seen in the academy. I lightened up a little on libertarians.
Even so, I was still inclined to think that most were working with an under-stocked tool kit. They still seemed metaphysically impoverished, in ways that made the subtleties of culture difficult for them to read. At the time of my political initiation (circa 2010), it was easy to abuse libertarians because they were ascendant and very confident. To me, this was somewhat alarming. Did we really want to turn American conservatism over to Randians? They didn’t appreciate the importance of marriage for a healthy culture (social conservatives seemed much savvier in this respect). They were blind to the transcendent elements of human nature, which Catholic Aristotelians discussed relentlessly. They didn’t understand the value of tradition.
I have many (now fond) memories of hammer-and-tongs debates that I conducted with libertarian friends back in the “limited government” moment of the early Obama years.
Have I now repented of my grim assessment of libertarianism? Not entirely. I do still think that most libertarians (serious devotees of Rand, for instance) are metaphysically impoverished to some extent. It doesn’t seem quite as bad when you acknowledge that most modern people have this problem; there’s no particular reason to pick on the libertarians. More importantly though, libertarians bring some important insights to the table, and recent events have forced me to reflect on the deficiencies and blind spots of other players on the political right.
The Ever-Turning Spit
In the introduction to God and Man at Yale, William F. Buckley expresses gratitude for the help of Albert J. Nock, whom he describes as “a fine essayist whose thought turned on a single spit: all the reasons why one should be distrustful of state activity, round, and round, and round again.”
This is a wonderful description of a type I know well. Libertarians do indeed obsess over the negative ramifications of government interference. It can become exasperating, and at one time it seemed to me like a serious limitation. If your life’s overwhelming obsession is getting Uncle Sam off your back, you may find yourself thin on ideas for what to do with that cherished liberty.
Still, when a mind relentlessly works on a particular set of questions, it may unearth some useful things. Many libertarians (Milton Friedman, for instance) are genuinely brilliant at working through the potential negative ramifications of government involvement in human life. That is itself a kind of cultural savvy, which my Aristotelian mind initially underappreciated.
There is certainly more to human life than repelling the advances of aggressive government. Still, in modern times, the growth of Leviathan does in fact pose a very significant threat to human thriving. Technology has made it far more possible for a small number of people to exercise invasive control over enormous populations. In ancient times, even tyrants had to accept that there were limits to how much control they could exercise. Technology—particularly advances in communication, transportation, surveillance, medicine, and weaponry—has opened vast new vistas before the eyes of the power-hungry. It isn’t paranoid to be concerned about the attendant risks.
Libertarianism can easily seem provincial to someone like my former self, who views it in the context of all of Western thought. (Why is the role of government such an all-important question? Don’t you ever think about anything else?) In a sense it is provincial, but a timely provincialism can be a healthy thing. In the present moment, it may be quite rational to fixate somewhat on the perils of government overreach. It’s a serious problem—and a complicated one. It’s good that we have a set of people who are giving it their sustained attention.
Actual on-the-ground libertarians may sometimes reinforce the impression of being “simpletons,” because they often assume that the questions that don’t interest them (about culture, ethics, the well-lived life, etc.) are far simpler and more obvious than the ones that do. Let’s be honest, though. Nearly everybody does this to some extent. I was doing the same thing myself in my pre-political years, dismissing libertarianism mostly because it had little of interest to say about the questions that then interested me personally (concerning metaphysics and moral philosophy). It’s generally best not to dismiss a theory until you appreciate what it does explain well.
If your primary object is to deepen your understanding of the human condition, I don’t recommend turning to Rand, Hayek, or Smith. That’s not to say, though, that these theorists’ contributions aren’t valuable. The political right can still certainly benefit from the perspectives of people steeped in their work.
Be Thankful for Libertarian Watchdogs
As a conservative who is deeply skeptical of Trumpian populism, I experienced 2016 as something of a ghoulish joke. Again and again, I would tell myself that this or that group of people wouldn’t be susceptible to the “charms” of Donald J. Trump. It wasn’t surprising to see shills like Ann Coulter or Sean Hannity racing after the latest right-leaning fad, but surely (I reasoned) the serious conservatives would resist. All right, well, the social conservatives would resist. All right, well, the intellectuals would resist. All right, well, the Catholic intellectuals would resist.
Some did. Still, the “Trumpian skeptic” room just kept getting emptier, and emptier, and still emptier. In the end, there was only one group of fellow travelers who reliably proved impervious to the Trumpian allure. They were my old friends, the libertarian atheists. What’s that old adage about making God laugh by telling him your plans? It certainly felt like someone must be laughing at me by the end of 2016.
Obviously, I am generalizing; I still know a great many anti-Trump religious conservatives. I also do not wish to imply that all people who supported Trump, even in a limited way, should be seen as sellouts or opportunists. I understand why some reluctantly voted for Trump, despite grave concerns about his character. Nonetheless, it did really seem that a great many people whom I once viewed as “like-minded” (religious conservatives and intellectuals of a broadly Aristotelian bent) were, in a sense, seduced by Trump. It was excruciating to watch. Most people started tentatively with a “lesser evils” argument, but soon their justifications and even mannerisms made clear that they had given him, not just their votes, but also an alarming measure of loyalty, trust, and even love. Of course, many people had very legitimate concerns about the judiciary, the left’s cultural aggression, and so forth. None of that can fully explain the enthusiasm, which drew people into a complicity that went far beyond what pragmatic concerns alone could justify. The traditionalists felt the tug of Trump’s cultural nostalgia. Also, of course, they hated the political left.
It felt as though religious conservatives were susceptible to this seduction in a way that more committed libertarians were not. Fixated as I was on the deficiencies of my small government friends, I failed to appreciate that all subgroups have their blind spots. Libertarians may miss certain cultural nuances that traditionalists are able to see, but the reverse is also true. Traditionalists are more susceptible to nostalgia, and sometimes overly hostile to changes that may, taken in context, be appropriate and good. It’s very difficult to sift a healthy traditionalism from a grasping and reactionary nostalgia, and sometimes we get the balance wrong.
Perhaps most importantly, though, traditionalists can be inattentive to the threat posed by governmental overreach. More than libertarians, they have an appreciation of authority and cultural solidarity, and those can indeed be good things. One consequence, though, is that many traditionalists like to feel that the state is “on their side”. If that condition seems to be met, they may not ask the necessary, probing questions. At times like this, we need our libertarian friends to help keep us on the straight and narrow.
No culture is perfect, and every political theory has its shortcomings. Libertarianism is the same. In this moment of political transition, though, we should be grateful for minds that turn endlessly on the government-skeptical spit. They may not have all the depth and breadth of the philosophia perennis, but the insights they do have are important. We ignore them at our peril.
Rachel Lu teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas.