A friend of mine recently confessed that as a conservative, it was “hard to be against big government when you’re living in a big government country where said big government actually works really well.” Indeed, it is hard to fight against something that functions smoothly and provides you with the things you need. Imagine refusing to get into a car with a full tank of gas and a well running engine that would take you where you needed to go just because you had to pay someone else to drive it. Not only would you have to forget using Über, you would have to forget using cabs, buses, trains, planes, etc.
Now, a typical conservative response to this might be that those things should be “privatized,” that is given into the control of non-governmental individuals or groups so that through competition, the market will naturally come up with the most efficient way of providing these services. Perhaps this is true, but as I mentioned in a previous post, our distinction between “public” and “private” is a bit strange (Andrew Strain at First Things goes further into how “private” corporations are in fact not so “private.”)
Alasdair McIntyre, in a recent talk given at Notre Dame, made the distinction between “individual goods” “public goods” and “common goods.” The first is a good that belongs to an individual; a good that only he can use or participate in (e.g. a delicious meal). A “public” good is a good that is shared by individuals but is still experienced by each as an individual good (e.g. a bus ride into work). A common good is one which belongs to a group in common, not just in terms of individual experience. This last category is perhaps a little hard to pin down not least because it is often confused with public goods (as McIntyre explains, public goods are often needed for common goods, which is where the confusion arises). However, simply put, the common good of any given group is its end or purpose, which is an ordered (and thus happy) common life. Although each individual in a group benefits from this ordered life, the ordering itself is something that transcends the individuals and is concerned also with relationship within the group.
Now, the ordering of a given country (its purpose) is through some form of government since the common good is concerned with relationship of individuals to the whole and not just individual goods. If the purpose of a country was just to ensure that all individual needs were met, perhaps no government would be needed. An anarchic social-contract theory of society might suffice. This is not the traditional Catholic view of society, however, and if Catholics are to claim any conservatism, it should be first and foremost a conservatism of Catholic teaching, not any given political movement.
My friend mentioned above, however, is referring to being politically an American conservative, which means being against the intervention of the government into the lives of the citizens. Now, it may be true that a national government should not be directly concerned with making sure every person has a toothbrush (an individual good) but it is certainly in the interest of the common good to maintain certain public goods (which as described above, are in fact shared individual goods). Thus, if we are to live a well-ordered life in a community, we should support public goods by sharing our resources so that everyone is able to share in the common life of the community.
Does this have to happen through government? According to the libertarian Prince of Liechtenstein, Hans-Adam II, no:
The state has to become a service company which competes peacefully, and not a monopoly which gives the customer only the alternative either to accept a bad service at the highest price, or to emigrate.
However, in Liechtenstein, the government is a de facto monopoly because it is able to provide these services well and thus there is no demand for other parties to provide public service. According to Andreas Kohl Martinez at Jacobite Magazine, Liechtenstein is a libertarian paradise: Perfect freedom to opt out of state-run public service through local democracies. It is, however, the case that what “works” is big government, albeit of a tiny nation. Even in a supposedly libertarian scheme, big government isn’t bad per se.
Now, there are issues with how this is framed (because it is dependent on social-contract theory and not a conception of the common good) but it does show that public goods are judged by “what works” and not by the procedure used to attain them. Of course there are procedures that contradict the common good, and modern governments are often terrible at judging true public goods as well. Just because a government is able to provide some service efficiently does not mean that that service is a good thing. In fact, my friend’s nation is well known for corruption and perhaps big government in that country is a bad thing. But it is not bad simply because it provides public services (libertarians commonly decry government services on principle) and through some miracle, the corruption doesn’t seem to have ruined public services. In other words, big government can work.
There is a further argument (from Aristotle and Aquinas) to be made that public goods belong properly to public authority and not to private enterprise. In this view, it is not about “what works” but how to ensure that government does in fact work. But let it suffice for now to say that big government is not just a “liberal” value, but can and should be embraced by conservatives.
There is an odd distinction in modern politics: Private vs. Public. The assumption seems to be that if the “government” runs something, it is public, whereas when “private citizens” or groups of “private citizens” run something, it is private. However, “private citizen” is somewhat of an oxymoron, as “citizen” has the connotation of belonging to a political entity (most literally a city) and “government” is run by individuals or groups of individuals. A better understanding of the words “private” and “public” might be that they refer to either private or public interest. But if this is the case, things like education, healthcare, and housing are all “public” by nature, since they all serve to promote a healthier community through the care of its members. In some people’s minds, this means that the government ought to run it as a “public” service, but this is because there is no sense that “private” companies have public obligations. Instead, there is a sense that “private” companies are doing something right when they give to charities or form charitable foundations, but not that they are doing something wrong if they don’t contribute to the health of their communities through “public” works. Thus, we have an untenable situation where the government has total responsibility for public works while trying to incentivise public aid through things like tax breaks. Ultimately, the common good becomes a tug-o-war between competing groups of people, the “government” and “corporations.”
Individualism and liberalism are antithetical to politics (and especially democratic politics) because when the assumption is made that we can live according to our own truth (unless your way of life hurts someone), the only way to accomplish anything is to get people to agree with “your” truth because “other” truths are inherently harmful. Thus, you naturally get a polity that is divided not pragmatically but morally. The other side is *morally* repugnant because that’s the only calculus for rejecting someone else’s position in an individualist world view. Furthermore, this requires the individualist to propose a strict morality that applies to everyone thus contradicting the individualism he espouses. This pitting of individualistic, competing and self-contradictory moralities against one another is corrosive to any community whether it be a city, a state, a nation, or an empire; whether it be a democracy, a republic, or a monarchy. If we dismiss the members of our communities as morally “other” we risk categorizing them as unwanted, unneeded, undesirable. It leads to treating others as sub-human and not deserving of charity whether in word or deed. It leads to a broken understanding of justice both in regards to punishment of criminals and our obligations to those around us.
What we need is to embrace a moral vision of humanity and our world that denies this individualism and regards each person as a moral and rational agent with the innate desire for good and the capacity to cooperate toward a common good. It must be a consistent moral vision that embraces all political action that promotes this common good. This political action takes many forms, but its foundation is care for the spiritual and material growth of the people. The family is where this growth begins and our energy should be focused as a society on promoting healthy families where spiritual and material welfare flourishes. Our schools should be places where this moral vision and where the family is supported in its growth as the kernel of a moral society. Our cities should be planned so that the family and the schools are given all they need to fulfill their purposes.
There are many issues that are close to many people; injustices that must be stopped, confusion that must be addressed. What is the answer? What are we waiting for? Do not hesitate on the way to demonstrate your superiority or to revile your opponents. Do not scoff at those who are less fortunate or at those you perceive as less intelligent. They are in need. You are in need. There in only One who can address every need, but we are made in His image and therefore have that capability written faintly in our hearts. He made us to be helpmates. It is time to take heed of the plight of the members of our society; those who suffer violence at the hand of another, those who experience misfortune through no fault of their own, even those who hurt themselves in apathy, despair, or confusion. We need each other and must not let fear and anger divide us, even when justified. We have a great capacity for evil, but an even greater capacity for good. Let us act on that capacity together and perhaps, by the grace of God, we can make our society great.
In a strict democracy, it’s all a numbers game. The more people who agree with a course of action, the more likely it will happen. The majority rules. The minority has to submit. This is of course assuming it is an absolute majority and not just a majority of the people who can and decide to “cast their vote.” Whatever the case, in a democracy, the more people who like something, the more valuable it is. Might, as they say, makes right.
The modern market wants to be a democracy, but instead of a vote (which in theory costs nothing except a little bit of time), the “majority” is decided by the amount of money behind a certain product or initiative. In the stock market, the more people buy certain stock, the more valuable it is. “See?” we seem to say. “Look at all those people buying up. It must be a good investment/a valuable product/a good thing.”
This happens of course on a local level. If a rich person (or even a middle class person) buys a house in a neighborhood, the neighborhood increases in value. (I mean, if a poor person buys a house in a neighborhood, it doesn’t say anything about the neighborhood since poor people “have no choice.”) Of course, as rich people buy up a neighborhood and increase the property value, poor people can’t afford to buy in the neighborhood. The value of the land and the houses has nothing to do with any intrinsic value of the land and the houses, but with how many people are buying there. The houses and land are the same before and after the sale.
Sure, the rich can afford to improve the house and land in appearance, but property values are based more on whether there are sales being made (and thus money being invested in the neighborhood) than on what the neighborhood looks like. In this way, the neighborhoods where there is more money are more valuable in the modern market mentality.
So too with any local services. Because we live in a “competition economy,” money is the deciding factor on whether something is worth keeping in the neighborhood. For example, a big-box hardware store can afford to build a new location where there is a locally owned and operated hardware store. It can also afford to sell more at a lower price. This means that although the people in the neighborhood have been happy to go to the other hardware store, it won’t win the competition because it doesn’t have as much money to compete. Furthermore, the people in the neighborhood will pay for the cheaper store and thus will cast their monetary vote for that store.
Those that are “more economically successful“ have a greater influence on the market than those who are “less.” In other words, the rich can do things the poor can’t, even if the poor have a better product. The only way the poorer people can compete is if they can get enough rich people to cast their monetary vote for them.
This obsession with a competitive, consumption-driven, majoritarian market translates nicely into the other realms of political life. The more money that goes into a certain initiative or candidate, the more important and valuable it seems. After all, without the support of money, nothing can get done. However, in a country split by special and individual interests, the richer special groups and individuals will always hold sway regardless of the “right” or “wrong.” Our political and economic system is, in fact, a behemoth of bribery. Political action is bought and sold daily. The federal government can refuse to give states federal funding if they don’t make the correct laws. There is no political will where there is no money.
This is what we get if we insist on the absolute neutral equality of political and economic action. When we allow any industry that can “succeed” and bring in money to the economy, we lose sight of any sense of something’s intrinsic worth. As long as enough people are investing in something, it is good. As long as enough people want a politician or a political platform, no matter how tenuously they want it, we have to accept it. After all, we live by social contract decided by a majority. Agreement is truth.
The problem is, money can buy agreement. Money can buy loyalty. Money can buy support. If only our personal interest is at stake, money can make anything palatable because it allows me to pursue my interest even if at the expense of something that we don’t like. Money is a moral equalizer.
And if that’s not a problem, I’m not sure what is.
One of the accompanying principles of the libertarian philosophy is pluralism. If it is our belief that each individual is free to pursue happiness according to his own perception of the good, it is natural to assert that having a variety of opinions, beliefs, and practices in society is a good, as long as no one is harming anyone else. For now, we shall set aside the question of whether liberalism as a common principle even makes sense and take up the question of whether and in what way pluralism contributes to the common good.
There are, in any act, the principles that support the act and the act itself, the “doing of the thing.” In more common parlance, there is theory and there is practice. This is true in any discipline whether it be architecture, history, or politics. Before building a building, there must be design intent and before there is design intent, there must be principles of design. If these principles of design are faulty, the building will be, in essence, unbuildable, or if buildable structurally unreliable. Before writing the history of something, we must first study that subject and in order to study properly, we must have an idea of what is relevant and what is not, what is within the scope of the subject and what is not. Before we enact laws and policies, we must first know that the laws are good and therefore must have principles of the good in mind.
Thus, there are two kinds of pluralism which we can encounter in the different disciplines: pluralism of principle and pluralism of practice. Let us imagine, for an instant, what the implications of pluralism or the lack thereof would have in these two areas of human action. Is pluralism possible in all aspects of human action? Is it productive? Is its good?
It is certainly possible for there to be multiple principles within a discipline. In architecture, for example, the three classical principles are firmitas, utilitas, and venustas (strength, usefulness, and attractiveness.) However, throughout history there have been architects who have different opinions on the value of each of these principles. Some think that usefulness is the most important; buildings needn’t last as long as they serve some purpose. Others think that strength is the most important; buildings are a perennial statement of some ideal that needn’t have a purpose other than that. Still others think that attractiveness is the most important; buildings are art, primarily.
There are other principles of architecture that spring from these three and there are even a greater number of opinions as the principles become more and more specific. This plurality of opinions exists, but is it productive? While in some sense, a variety of principles can lead to the flourishing of the building culture, an attempt to use many principles in the design of a building can lead to confusion and incoherence in a building. A building cannot be designed, let alone built, if the architect is trying to do too many things at once. It is more productive to have a small set of principles to adhere to so as to produce a clear and buildable structure.
However, as I said, having buildings that are each designed with different principles will not inhibit the architectural profession. Pluralism can, in fact, be productive when the principles are distributed between projects and not forced into competition within a single design. This would seem to indicate that there are some contexts in which a pluralism of principles is productive. It is, as an architect might say, a matter of scale.
Now, whether a pluralism of principles is good is another question entirely, unless you hold a utilitarian viewpoint, in which case, we will get back to productivity and the matter of scale.
In order for a pluralism of principles to be good, each principle must be good in and of itself as well as good in relation to the other principles at play. Once again, we find an overarching principle of the “good” to be necessary for any discussion of pluralism. If we are going to embrace any sort of pluralism, we have to know which kind to choose.
For example, a dietary pluralism is good insofar as it furthers the health of the body and mind. Eating a variety of foods is good, but it has to do proportion and priority. If ice cream is given priority, it is not a healthy pluralism. (Now, if you only eat ice cream, that’s not pluralism, but it’s still unhealthy.) Even “poisons” can be consumed in small doses, as in homeopathy, for good health. However, to eat toxins and food equally is to embrace an unhealthy pluralism of diet.
The same can be said of political or social pluralism. We must not give every social principle equal weight, nor indeed can we entertain every social principle at all. There are some social principles that are harmful to society and there are some that are directly contradictory to other social principles such that they cannot be held simultaneously within the same group of people without causing division. Social principles have practical implications and this division in principle will always lead to division in practice.
As I have said, it is a matter of scale. The more general a principle, the harder it is for pluralism without strife. As principles become particularized, it is easier for a society to hold them side-by-side and even use them in cooperation with each other. Having a multiplicity of perspectives on a particular situation can help realize its full implication, and often there are more than one possible course of action to address the situation. The other side of this coin is that the less particular a situation is, the more general the principles need to be and thus pluralism has less of a place. However, any sort of judgement about what action to take will always appeal to a principle that is outside the pluralism of perspectives.
There is an inherent hierarchy of ideas when talking about justice in society. Some principles are more universal than others; some can be used in concert with others while some are contradictory. Without a common sense of justice, pluralism will result in the discord of opposing principles and ultimately will result in an unjust society. Consensus is praised when it comes to practical social questions, and indeed, in order to accomplish anything, agreement must be reached. Ultimately, however, consensus in universal principles is what will ensure justice.
In discussing the Libertarian philosophy, a few things have becomes clear. First, liberty is not absolute. Not only are we unable to do certain things (a natural limit to freedom), we also insist that there are things we may not do (an imposed limit on our freedom.) Second, this imposed limit on our freedom must be based on a universal code of justice. It is impossible to resolve conflicts or promote cooperation between individuals and groups without accountability to some common conception of the good. Third, the principles that determine this common good must appeal to a common authority. If there is no common authority accepted by all, there is very little chance of cooperation and conflict and partisanship is almost inevitable.
This is all very well and good, but where are we going to find this “universal code of justice,” these “principles,” this “common authority?”
In order to implement any sort of code of justice that is common to all, we must first have an understanding of human nature. We must also have an understanding of what justice means. We must then be able to articulate our understanding into principles to be implemented as a binding and universal code from which we can determine appropriate use of our will. By whose authority, then, do we understand human nature and justice?
We could appeal to democratic authority. In other words, we can determine the answers to these questions by means of a simple vote. Whatever a majority of the voters holds to be true shall be considered true. There are a couple of issues with this. Although the minority may agree to enact policy based on the principles of the majority, there is no guarantee against abuse. The majority opinion could in fact reflect the interest or good of that particular majority of people or of all the individuals in the majority, but it is impossible to say that it also reflects the interest or good of all. In order to show that it does reflect the interest and good of all and is not just an imposition of majority opinion, the majority would have to appeal to an authority beyond just the majority will. It is also clear that in no body of knowledge is democracy used to determine the truth of something. Biologists do not take a poll to determine what the makeup of our blood is. Historians do not ask at the nearest pub who won the Battle of Waterloo.
If the sciences depend on expert opinion to determine the validity of a claim, should we not look to the experts to help us understand human nature and justice? But who are these experts? The understanding of human nature and justice has traditionally been the purview of the philosophers. Even if we believe that the “hard” sciences can tell us all we can know about human nature, that in itself is an act of philosophy and thus we have become philosophers. Not good philosophers, but philosophers nonetheless.
We must then depend on philosophers to study and explain human nature and justice and what the principles on which on our communities should be built. Our Founding Fathers in America depended on philosophers. In fact, politics is always formed by philosophy of one kind or another. In every society, there are the “experts” or the “wise” which are given respect and often reverence for their obligation to provide the society with the principles by which it is governed.
Even philosophers, however, disagree on human nature. Not all philosophers are equal in either understanding or articulation. We have some philosophers believing that religious practice is essential to human nature regardless of whether the accompanying religious belief is true or not. We have others who believe that religious practice is a contingent aspect of human nature the conditions for which have long passed. Still others believe that it is necessary to understand the nature of the divine reality in order to understand human nature.
Which is true? How can we know who is the greatest of philosophers? By what standard or authority are we to judge them? Is there something beyond the philosophers to which they are held accountable? Is there an ultimate authority that is authoritative on its own merits? If not, is it possible to have a universal code of justice? Is it possible to have principles of the common good? If there is no ultimate authority, some sort of unassailable rationality on which the authority of the philosophers is based doesn’t that leave us with only our own reason and will on which to depend? Still, we have already found that the libertarian, relativist philosophy (which also depends on philosophers for its articulation) is insufficient to meet the needs demanded by justice and human nature.
Until very recently, all, or most, philosophers believed in some sort of unassailable rationality that underpins reality and most saw this rationality as a being, whether personal or impersonal. The philosophers who do not believe in a rationality which pervades reality are those who believe that nothing has meaning and everything is absurd. It is a despairing philosophy and not very helpful in the practical considerations of politics and society.
Ultimately, then, this Rationality is the authority by which we must judge the philosophers and thus judge our principles and policies. We must give assent to the philosophers who give the most compelling account of this Rationality. Where will this lead us? Who can say, but not all of us are able to study reality to the depth that the expert does. We must, ultimately, believe something someone else says. We can not work out all answers ourselves; we have neither the time nor the single-mindedness to pursue the questions. We must trust those who have dedicated their lives to understanding this Rationality. If we do not, we stand on very shaky ground.
One of the most popular criticisms of the current American political climate is that it is too partisan; no one seems to be able to agree on anything. In my post on Economic Independence, I pointed out that the two sides of the argument both held that the economic freedom of America from foreign influence was a goal worth pursuing. It was, in short, a shared value from which they could argue to a particular course of action. They were able to have a proper debate with rigourous rhetoric on both sides because there was a common understanding of economy and the common good.
Today there is none of that. Today, there is not even agreement on the value of America, let alone its economy. The Founding Fathers were adamantly against partisan politics, but in fact this is what their liberalism has wrought. There is no possibility of debate on issues of the common good and human nature as long as the libertarian philosophy is assumed.
Let me explain. The libertarian philosophy claims that the individual is free to pursue happiness unencumbered by the interference of others. Strong libertarians deny any obligation an individual has to any group of people apart from what he has agreed to in order to pursue his own good. Right away there is a tension between the idea of a common or shared good that belongs to everyone and the idea of the individual good. But of course, the libertarian might say, as long as a group is in agreement, all members should be able to be free to pursue their own good. And this is where it gets tricky. All individual goods being met is not the same as a shared good, and in order for any sort of meaningful debate to take place, there has to be a good in mind that is shared between all parties.
For example, if two men find a cow walking aimlessly down the road, they might ask “What should we do with this cow?” Right away, there is the shared assumption that they should do something with the cow. Some men who encountered the cow might think otherwise. Their shared assumption might be that they shouldn’t do anything with the cow. However, if one of the men thinks one way and one thinks the other way, it is impossible to hold the debate “What should be done with the cow” until both parties are agree that something should be done.
If a nation asks “How should we define marriage for the 21st century?” and there are some who believe that we shouldn’t define marriage for the 21st century any differently than we have before and some who believe that it is imperative that a new definition be made, there is no common goal, no common value, therefore no proper debate. The first debate, “Should we redefine marriage at all?” must be had before any sort of debate about the nature of such a redefinition.
But of course, that debate is impossible without first having shared values about what is good for the community, what is good for children, what is good for those who are married etc. Those debates, furthermore, presuppose that there is some way of definitively knowing the answer to these, which implies the need for an authority. Ultimately, then, none of these debates can occur properly if there is not agreement on the authority to which the people can appeal.
The libertarian authority, ultimately, is the self. Unless one side is willing to take the other side as an authority, while the libertarian philosophy holds sway, there can be no productive debate. This might explain why Catholics, who traditionally were against the libertarian philosophy, have come to accept its authority for the sake of avoiding constant conflict.
It seems, however, that finally libertarianism has reached its natural end: endless conflict. No longer are people willing to cede authority to anyone else, for to do so would be illiberal. Instead, we have an obsession in this country with “defining ourselves” and anything which conflicts with our self-definition is to be defeated at all costs. The new dogma is that everyone must accept everyone else as their own authority about the meaning of their life.
Here’s the catch. Not everyone believes in this dogma.
Because not everyone believes in this dogma and the authority which proclaims it, there can be no shared principles and values from which to have a debate. We are forced to either agree to work from someone else’s principles or we are doomed to perpetual stalemate.
If we look at the political climate these days, is this not what we see? It is clear that not everyone agrees on policy decisions, but this is primarily because they do not agree on what our goals should be. They can not agree on what our goals should be because they do not have a shared vision of the nature humanity, individually and communally. They do not have a shared vision of the nature of humanity because they have different authorities, ultimately themselves, on which to base this vision.
Ultimately, the libertarian philosophy can only lead to partisanship, and bitter at that. Any dissent is seen as illiberal or even more an actual attack on the rights of people to define their own meaning. Thus, we have legislation enacted because of the loudest or most popular opinion without actually thinking about said legislation. The government has become merely an arbiter of rights, deciding which person must bow to the other’s authority.This means that the authority granted to one person over the other is granted by an authority outside either of them, showing once again the self-contradiction of the libertarian philosophy.
One of the early debates about the governing and growth of America was how best to promote and protect economic independence. Surprisingly, both major viewpoints involved direct government action whether in the form of tariffs, subsidies, or other incentives. It was so important to the Founding Fathers that we not depend on imports or lending from other nations but instead produce our own goods and provide our own labor. To both Hamilton and Jefferson, this is what constituted a free economy, one that was independent of foreign pressure.
How our ideas of a free economy have changed! Instead of seeing it as a network of mutually beneficial (and nationally beneficial) industries that must be preserved in order to maintain a healthy and free civic order, we now see it as a system of allowing any economic unit the freedom to do with its money what it wishes, no matter the effect on the civic or moral realm. A free market philosophy tells us that industries go where the greatest profit can be found and that restriction on trade results in less economic movement and therefore less economic growth.
If I recall correctly, the health of a national economy is not how measured by how many economic connections a nation has made globally but GDP, Gross Domestic Product. I am no economist, but it seems to me that the more our production and services are outsourced via a “free” market the worse our economy becomes. As our economy worsens and we depend more and more on foreign credit and imports, the less free America becomes.
This is of course only relevant if we believe that a nation is more than just an agreement by individuals to coexist for the benefit of each. If the freedom of corporations and individuals to make money in whatever manner they wish is more important to us than the general economic and civic health of our cities and nation, then we should indeed embrace a free market philosophy.
I argue instead that ensuring the general political welfare, including economy, of our cities and families is a more important consideration than the ability of certain economic actors to do with their money whatever they will. We are not men with rights but no obligations. We can not ensure the rights of the people without acknowledging that we as individuals and as a society have an obligation toward them. A political and economic philosophy that denies this is unsustainable, for we can not receive that which is not first given and if we ought to receive something, then someone ought to give it.
A truly independent economy is one that is self-supported and self-sustaining through the regular exchange of goods according to the goals and needs of a community. If we examine this more closely, however, we will see that although we call it an independent economy relative to other communities or outside forces, there are two ways in which all economies are necessarily dependent.
One, not all communities have the resources to provide for all the needs of its members. An exchange between communities then becomes necessary. This is the basis of trade, namely that one person or group has something that another needs or wants. This establishes an interdependent economy and it can take many forms depending on the resources of the various communities. Sometimes it results in the assimilation of one community into the other to more effectively serve the needs of the members.
And secondly, within a community, this interdependency is more pronounced. In a family, each member must cooperate in order to make the household run well and for interactions with other families to be peaceful and cooperative. Each family, each group, and each individual in a community must cooperate in order for the safety of the members and so that the common goals and needs of the members are met.
This cooperation, which is both easier and more effective on a local level, is what makes an economy self-supported and self-sustaining. The freedom that a community experiences when it is self-supported and self-sustaining is the basis for civic order, but it not an autonomous freedom nor is it a freedom absolutely. In order for an action or initiative to be both truly human and effective, it must be ordered. Ordering requires authority and accountability. In other words it requires a plan, someone to communicate the plan, and an agreement to work according to the plan. Our freedom, then, must always submits to some authority and in all human activity, an authority inevitably arises.
And this is why the Founding Fathers weren’t economic libertarians. They knew that if our goal was economic independence, there had to be a plan and thus some authority to which to submit. Of course the nature of that authority, its scope, is the next question and one which divided the Founding Fathers.
When discussing liberty, we are bound to encounter that strange strand of political thought often called “libertarianism.” It is usually associated with the political right and the distrust of taxation and other government intervention into the economic realm. In reality, America has fostered an almost universal libertarian spirit and if we want to talk about wings of politics, both left and right have breathed it in.
Libertarianism could be thought of as “soft individualism.” It is not strict Randian Objectivism that exults in the pure expression of the individual will with no restrictions. Libertarians like to talk about rights and harm. As long as we are not harming someone else, we have a right to act in our interest; a sort of mutually agreed individualism that depends on social consensus.
But of course this where things get sticky because no one actually sees this through. Objectivism is a more consistent philosophy and thus much easier to oppose. Libertarianism, tainted as it is by the natural human tendency to believe in a universal moral/ethical code, is never pure. To be uncharacteristically pragmatic, pure libertarianism, pace Locke, just can’t work. We can not each have only our own interest in mind; we can’t each have our own morality or else there is no morality. Humans have an innate instinct for justice and without a universal code of conduct, there would be no justice, no accountability. Perhaps to a hardened objectivist, this is just something we have to accept. There is no crime if each person is supposed to follow his own will. In the end, the strong will survive and the weak will be overcome. Finally humanity will achieve perfection through strength.
Of course to most people besides eugenicists like Ayn Rand, Margaret Sanger, and Adolf Hitler, this view is abhorent; no less to libertarians. In order to avoid the objectivist mistake, libertarians decide to make distinctions: There are some areas in which a moral code is appropriate in order to make human society more humane. However, the other areas are to be left alone so that we can properly go about expressing our God-given liberty.
On the right, a moral code is imposed in the area of sexuality. The thinking is that as long people obey the rules about sex, all other things, especially economic considerations, will work themselves out. On the left, a moral code is imposed in the area of finance. Not all uses of money are equal and the government must regulate business so as to avoid corruption. However, we must let people have their liberty in the area of sexuality. At least these are the perceptions and they explain why there is such bitter partisanship in American politics.
These are the perceptions, but not the realities. As the inconsistencies of both “sides” are revealed to their adherents, they are soon abandoned to the universal American creed: consent. As long as two or more people who are legally able to consent consent to an activity, the activity is acceptable. With this creed comes convoluted and ever-changing rules about what indicates consent and who is legally able to consent. This libertarianism requires a universal code governing it so that we don’t slip into abusive individualism where coercion and might make right.
This is the great inconsistency in libertarian thinking. If we try to act as individuals for our own interests and seeking after happiness without interference, we will soon encounter people whether in opposition to our pursuits or else as potential cooperators for a mutual interest. The fact that we must deal with other humans means that we need a system of justice and accountability if we do not wish to go down the path of pure individualism. Thus, we get the strange and unsettling conflict at universities between freedom of personal expression and…freedom of personal expression. This culture of conflict is, in fact, unsustainable. One or the other “freedom” will be squashed in deference to the other, but instead of one side squashing the other, it is an authority, whether the government or the administration of a university, that must be utilized to enforce justice.
We can not escape from the fact that human justice is ultimately social and communal in nature. It demands that we care not just about ourselves but about how the actions of the members of the community affect the community and everyone in it. When we try to fight against this by embracing some sort of libertarian justice, we find ourselves unable to follow through.
Yet instead of turning toward a consistent moral justice that treats each human as a moral agent with social obligations and an eternal and spiritual purpose or toward pure individualism, we instead decide to wallow in our confusion and inconsistency. We think it will foster equality and freedom, but in fact it is deepening the divide between us and can only lead to violence and tyranny.