Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Our libertarian center?

In this week’s TAE Online column, I use the Hudson Institute panel discussion to follow up on Peter Lawler’s oft-repeated suggestion that too many of us are basically libertarian, with consequences well worth deprecating.

Discussions - 11 Comments

Well, I agree on the emergence of the soft libertarian consensus. But I don’t see the difference between a foundationalist and a nonfoundationalist libertarianism. Lots more Democrats or card carrying members of the ACLU than JWC suggests seem to see the indefinite expansion of the idea of individual rights as a working out of founding Lockeanism, or conquest of nature and custom on behalf of individualism freedom. All conquest of nature and prejudice with the light of science arguments are, truth to tell, ambiguously foundationalist. Whatever you might think of Kennedy’s famous LAWRENCE opinion, it’s not antifoundationalist, or merely rooted in someone’s private fantasy about liberty. As McClay pointed out at the symposium, Democrats like Kerry and Gore think of themselves as defenders of reason and science and the idea of the freely choosing individual. As Steve Thomas has complained, reason, for example, suggests that laws against gay marriage are an unreasonable constraint on the rights of gay individuals. And Randy Barnett, for example, gives a natural-rights argument for his promiscuous libertarianism that would produce unprecedented judicial activism.

Issues like abortion and same-sex marriage force us not just to embrace nature but to think about what we mean by nature--and natural ends, as symposium participants such as Robby George said. When we say our foundation is "natural right," we don’t speak that clearly. Is "natural right" the same as "natural rights"? The latter view doesn’t obviously lead us to natural ends, but only means to free ourselves from natural domination.

I pretty much agree with what Peter has said. Jim Ceaser pins his non-foundationalism on the left, but equally he has a bone to pick with good-natured libertarians. He thinks conservatism can resist that strain because of a dominant Strassian vaccine: more interesting than plausible, I think. Here, Peter’s question comes in - the distinction between classical natural right and modern natural rights. (Ceaser knowingly conflates them.) Peter, in contrast, implies that natural rights are not hopeless, but they need help. It could be the case that the most interesting differences between traditional liberals and conservatives have to do with the preferred sources of the help that natural rights thinking needs. Another way of saying the same thing: the "soft libertarian consensus" troubled Bloom in "The Closing..." Liberals were too easily annoyed: they thought, mistakenly, that Bloom’s scorn was all directed at them.

Good point on Bloom.
Mansfield came up with the phrase "creeping libertarianism." McWilliams took it from him. So there
is an anti-libertarian line of thought that "transcends" the Demo-Rep divide.

Peter, I suppose we also agree that libertarianism is not the worst thing in the world, as long as it remains capable of being roused and mobilized, and (of course) not necessarily through public policy. Tocqueville’s kindred "individualism" is deeply American and thus worrisome, a standing temptation in our common life, as we know. We can agree that we ought to be more to one another than self-selected members of various audiences, and more than sovereign shoppers or taxpayers-in-revolt (pace Grover Norquist). They are not enough for human flourishing.

Libertarianism--or the theory of the independent individual--culminates in individualism--or apathetic withdrawal.
But that doesn’t mean it’s the worst thing in the world; it’s an abstract or partial view of the truth about human liberty. As Frank F. pointed out at the Hudson symposium, classical liberal economics has largely carried the day, and that’s mostly a good thing for the economy. But it does reduce all human choice to mere preference--applying the "sovereign shopper" model to all areas of life--including, of course, "sexual preference."

I have strong doubts about that last "of course" in Peter’s last posting. The gay men and women whom I know do not seem to have arrived at their sexual identities or inclinations the way they arrived at a preference for an ice cream flavor. It seems to have been more like a discovery - some early, some later, and frequently accompanied by torment. On what ground do you assert the contrary? I also know cases where people overrode their inclinations, or at least some of them, because they wanted children, faithful marriages, and family life. Are we to recognize only the second choice? If so, say more than "of course,"

P.S. That word "culminates" seems to be part of some unstated genealogy or unstated Hegelian narrative. Which "theory of the independent individual" do you have in mind?

On the "culminate," more later, although I accept the criticism that there’s a difference between the logical and the historical working out of an idea. I’m no Hegelian.

On the "of course," of course Steve is right. Nobody experiences sex as a mere preference, and you can’t help falling in love etc. etc. So anyone who uses the phrase "sexual preference" as if it corresponded to some human reality is a fool. That means there are lots of foolish economists, libertarians, politically correct professors etc. Usually when economists and libertarians say preference, we should say opinion, inclination, or moral choice, and of course choice can override inclination etc. So we can praise and blame what other people call mere preferences. To say sex is nothing but a preference, of course, is really to say just do what you’re inclined to do, what feels good. But of course I didn’t mean to say that real gay people are incapable of self-control on behalf of non-sexual purposes etc.

Peter, your clarifying post to Steve nicely exemplified the constant need for "language-critique," of the sort that Bloom did in the middle section of Closing ("values," "culture," "rights"). Or Manent’s critique of Weber’s sociological terms and categories in The City of Man. Social science abstractions must be constantly monitored and frequently resisted! Read Peguy (or, as you’d say: read Percy).

Joe, I don’t agree that the American public is settling into some kind of soft libertarianism. I see that kind of squishy anti-foundationalism as a disease of the affluent (just as ’polite’ liberalism is) -- most human beings NEED ’metanarratives’. If people stop embracing religion or (alternatively) some brand of political "salvation," populism and tribalism will be the American fall-back. Libertarianism (and liberalism) will inherit exactly nothing.

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