[This is the First Part of My Essay on Libertarianism. Future Parts to Come]
There are many who praise Liberty as the last best hope of humanity against tyranny, and I believe the come to this conclusion for the most part from a good faith point of view. They want to see justice done, and many genuinely believe that liberty is the way to achieve it for the greater human family. But the philosophy that sprang up around the concept of Liberty has lost touch with the original intent and meaning of the concept, and has joined the fetid ranks of self-justifying and essentially moronic political ideologies. To embrace absolute liberty is to embrace the animal fear that motivates the most disgusting and reprehensible pain we often inflict upon our fellow human beings. To believe in the truth, let alone the viability or possibility, of complete subjective liberty is a sign that one has lost their trust in and respect for the Social Contract. This fear leads to a sort of reaction in personal politics that amounts to an assault on the idea that there is anyone who can be trusted to keep the fear and the fearsome things in the world at bay. That is except for oneself. The abomination of fear based personal politics, as expressed through current libertarian thought, can be understood as a misunderstanding of the meaning of liberty as it relates to the Social Contract governing society and the betterment and general welfare of the same and the mechanisms and laws that allow for this.
What do I mean by the Social Contract? Well in this context at least I mean that unwritten societal agreement forged over time by the people of the world as a hedge against the privations and perversions that come about through the fear that is inherent in many people. This is the Social Contract of Rousseau and Fichte, the understanding that to guarantee, or at least to vouchsafe the possibility of, the right of peoples to live in security and freedom relative to those whom they exist with in society. The society then creates a form of government that best represents the best interests of the people as expressed by the people, but where “the general will is the transcendent incarnation of the citizens’ common interest that exists in abstraction from what any of them actually wants”1. This serves to free the people from the tyranny of the man possessed of pure liberty in a state of nature, and also is a hedge against the possibility of inhumane despotism at the hands of those who reject society at large. It is essentially impossible to protect the liberty (in the form of property, possessions, personal safety and ambition) of millions of individuals in a state of nature that rejects the very idea of societal rules and laws. Freedom is the ideal of the Social Contract, and liberty is only considered an intrinsic good insofar as it is used to progress the society and the welfare and needs of the individual or individuals within that society.
It is useful now to illustrate the difference between the terms “liberty” and “freedom”, at least within the context of of the Social Contract. Liberty is closer to the state of nature that man is in as an animal, the unfettered license of an animal to do whatever it needs to do to survive against threats to its existence, even if those threats are merely perceived. Essentially liberty at its least adulterated (the form most often celebrated by modern, libertarians) is the state of living as oneself without reference to others needs or desires. If you are to survive and survive within the confines of pure liberty, one must be sure that the needs of oneself outweigh all others’ needs and desires. It is the act of ultimate selfishness in the most basic sense: the prioritizing of the self as the only ideal and the only potential for good.
The libertarian believes that all moral good must come from the individual and her personal acts and decisions. Anything else is an artificial form of good that is imposed from haughty fools in an ivory tower built to honor societal goodwill. Liberty can really only be seen as a “positive” ideal within the context of the aim being pursued: the liberty to commit crime is indeed a liberty, and it can be quite beneficial to the individual, but obviously the act of committing a crime goes against the liberty of others to continue to possess their own lives and possessions. And within the state of nature that must exist in order for full liberty to be achieved, every act must lead to crimes against others because in the end only one individuals’ conception of liberty can be fully realized. In contrast, the Social Contract is constructed with the goal of freedom through striving for, and yes enforcing, the greatest possible equality between its participants. This is anathema to the libertarian. Equality, fairness, fraternity, these are words that go against the idea that the individual is the best, indeed the only true, arbiter of ethical and moral action. In conversations with libertarians I have often heard the bromide that it goes without saying that liberty should only extend as far as it can before infringes upon the liberty of others. But therein lies the real problem: who decides what is and infringement? What are the consequences of this violation of another’s personal liberty? Once you concede that liberty must have some natural limits in order for humanity to any semblance of order and justice, you essentially concede that there must be some form of system, some sort of contract, put into place to handle the disputing claims of liberty between individuals. There are of course, within this context, arguments that can be made for a more or less loose societal and governmental arraignment, but the overall thesis of Social Contract theory is upheld by the fact of the unaccountability of one individual to another. Save for some sort of justice minded and omniscient arbiter, there is no way for two (or more) individuals to come to an agreement over what is a legitimate, and yes fair, expression of liberty in relation to one another.
Thus it is easy to see how some philosophers have posited that true uninhibited liberty, the liberty of animal potential, can and must come from an intelligent deity with no limits on its own liberty, albeit on a metaphysical scale. It is easy enough to imagine unlimited liberty in human affairs being an inherent good when the god worshiped and theology maintained demands that this good be set forth as law. No liberated act can be bad by definition if the god who, in his unlimited liberty, created us in his image, and any conflict of interests can be posthumously arbitrated by the mere fact of one individual (or group of individuals) triumphing over another. But such questions of metaphysics are for another essay. As to freedom, well freedom on the other hand is essentially human, and by extension communal, in nature. What cannot be guaranteed by pure liberty for every person can be promised, albeit in a necessarily abridged form, through freedom for all people. What we must have as a society is the freedom to be happy and safe, and for freedom to occur there must be conditions met and laws set down. For the betterment of all is worth ten times over the enjoyment or the comfort of one in his liberty. To be free is to be safe and secure and in possession of the potential for pure liberty, but with the reason and common sense to decline to exercise that animal attribute of nature.
According to Fichte in his analysis of the Moral Right in law, we must recognize in others the freedom to act and to posit themselves as an individual, and they must pay us the same courtesy. Only through this mutual understanding can these individuals, and by extension all individuals, create a system, or a society, that limits the freedom of the one so as to recognize the freedom of the other and vice versa: The greatest amount of freedom possible for the individual while still preserving the viability and the safety and welfare of the Society. This is the essence of the Social Contract, which modern political libertarianism violates by its very nature. The libertarian mindset comes from the erroneous assumption that total liberty equals total freedom and happiness. It is something of a tautology in practice however. Those most at liberty to practice complete liberty are often the ones most favored and most lionized by systems that restrict or undermine the liberty of those with less potential to exercise their own liberty.
Take for example the tax system of the United States. It is enshrined in our law that it is somehow worth more for society for the rich and the powerful to go under taxed when the income in question is derived from investments or other forms of market derived capital. The income derived from physical, intellectual, and service labor is taxed at the lowest level the same as the highest level of income derived from manipulating capital in the financial markets. In some cases the tax on earned income can be twice that of the tax on investment, or pure capital, income. Libertarians will tell you that this is fair because it is only through the “risk” taken by the rich and powerful Capitalist that anyone has any chance at making any income worth taxing. Thus the “job creators”, as they are called, are exercising the purest form of liberty in their pursuit of moving about, manipulating, hiding, and building capital. For how can someone truly be a “liberated” person with potential if the shackles of fairness and humanity are placed upon the,.
Regardless of whether or not the tax system as it stands is at all justifiable or even wise (I have my doubts, to say the least), the fact remains that the bias of the system is towards those who Libertarians see as exhibiting the greatest degree of liberty through their financial muscle and skill at manipulating Capital. If you can get away with something in a market place, then you should by virtue of the fact that it is possible. For a libertarian, Liberty is, in and of itself, the greatest of all virtues: fairness is a myth for those who cannot, or will not, recognize their own potential for absolute liberty. If laws, governments, and ethics were debated only insofar as their reach and their content, if the only point of conflict was in the differences between adherents of a Strong Social Contract and a weak one, then I would not be wasting my time with this essay. Sadly the differences are much deeper, and the libertarian viewpoint is much more irrational and intransigent.
This leads me to what I consider the root of the problem with modern American Libertarianism. As Jeffery Sachs deftly put it, politico-economic libertarianism is “the self-justification of powerful social groups that wish to deny society’s responsibility to weaker and poorer members of society”. In other words, libertarians are not content to leave well enough alone. There is either complete liberty or there is total tyranny. There is no middle ground. Modern libertarianism seems to be taking most of its cues from the economic theories of Mises and Hayek, and the ethical and political philosophy of Ayn Rand. A general dissection and discussion of Austrian Economics is beyond the scope of this essay, and is also essentially useless because Austrian Economics is more of an infallible economic theology then an economic theory, but I will touch on Rand and her impact on modern American libertarian ideas and yearnings.
Known by most Americans for her enormous and nearly unreadable novels if for a anything, Ayn Rand would find herself influencing the American libertarian movement more than any other thinker or politician. Rand herself was the classic émigré who found her dreams fulfilled in America… That is if her dreams involved becoming the most infamous philosopher of the 20th century. She was also a profoundly disturbed individual, as evidenced by her cruelty to her followers, scores of failed relationships, and overall personal unpleasantness. Just try to watch an interview with the woman without wanting to punch her in the face 5 minutes in. Of course none of these things would matter in the least (Thomas Jefferson is no less of a brilliant philosopher for having bedded human beings whom he owned) if the philosophy she created were not as odious as her personality. Hers was a philosophy of unapologetic and unwavering self-interest, and a near rabid hatred for the social instinct of human beings. Hers was the philosophy that so many pompous Christians used as an example of the “evils” of atheists: a philosophy of pure individual will and greed that dictated that the only good that can be hoped for in the world comes from one person running roughshod over the rights and needs of another. In her note books Rand defined the “good” as “that which one acts to gain and/or keep”. Within the context of her philosophy “good” is anything that individual can achieve or take through exercising total Liberty. It is obvious the kind of temptation this provides to those politicians, businessmen and policy makers who already have a predisposition towards libertarianism.
Libertarian politicians such as Ron Paul, Rand Paul, and Paul Ryan find much to admire in her philosophy, not least of which is a justification for their own self-interested view of the world: the view of the privileged and powerful minority. All three politicians are white male Christian cultural conservatives, a small but elite demographic. They have in no way had to face the type of hardship or unbalanced conditions facing most of the world. Rand’s philosophy essentially gives them a free pass: they are where they are because of who they are, and how the exercised their own individual will and liberty, and for it to be otherwise would be not only impolitic but indeed anti-human. Theirs is a philosophy of A Priori self-satisfaction. If others have not reached the heights they have achieved it is either because of lack of ability or inherent quality, or because their liberty has not yet been properly, for lack of a better term, liberated. You see how this is essentially a closed logical loop: if the philosophy fails it is actually a confirmation of the philosophy, and if it succeeds that success has been inevitable and never in doubt.
It is easy to be a Libertarian when one has already achieved or can easily achieve the goals set down as necessary for being a “success” in modern society: wealth through capital acquisition, comfort in a system designed by your kind for the betterment of your kind, power over the lives of others, and the ability to spread your philosophy.
[END PART I]
1* Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rousseau/#IdeGenWil
2* Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy