A recent New York magazine article has raised a bit of a ruckus on the right. In his long article on libertarianism, Christopher Beam appears both fascinated and puzzled by the odd phenomenon under his microscope. Anyone at all familiar with libertarianism will recognize that his characterization of the movement and the philosophy behind it is something of a caricature, but there is a serious critique to be found in his article.
That critique is seriously wrong, as it happens, and understanding just where Beam goes wrong could go a long way toward helping libertarians, conservatives, classical liberals, and others on the right better understand the foundations of our thought and the opportunities for a mass movement it may afford. Too often we tend to argue as vigorously over our differences with one another as we do with those whose big-government policies are the real adversary. What we share, however, is the foundation for a truly American mass political movement.
Beam, for his part, understands that the movement has developed a strong following among more than just fringe types in recent months:
There’s never been a better time to be a libertarian than now. The right is still railing against interventionist policies like TARP, the stimulus package, and health-care reform. Citizens of all political stripes recoil against the nanny state, which is nannier than ever, passing anti-smoking laws, banning trans fats, posting calorie counts, prohibiting flavored cigarettes, cracking down on Four Loko, and considering a soda tax in New York. All that, plus some TSA agent wants to handle your baggage.
Libertarianism has adherents on the left, too—they just organize around different issues. Whereas righty libertarians stew over taxes and bailouts, lefty libertarians despise de facto suspensions of habeas corpus, surveillance, and restrictions on whom you can marry. It’s not surprising that the biggest victories of the right and the left in the last weeks of this lame-duck session of Congress were about stripping down government—tax cuts and releasing the shackles of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
That’s a good observation — if one puts aside the part that calls the retention of current tax rates a tax cut. But it reveals a misunderstanding about the nature of the liberty sought by libertarians and others on the right: We believe in negative liberty, not positive liberty. Negative liberty is freedom from coercion by other people, whereas positive liberty is freedom from social structures and other limitations of one’s station in life. Positive liberty is ironically a pretext for big and oppressive government.
This is a critical difference, and it is the key, I think, to answering the many quibbles and accusations of inconsistency Beam brings up in his article. “Righty libertarians” “stew” not only over taxes and bailouts but also de facto suspensions of habeas corpus, surveillance, and such things. So, in fact, do social conservatives, for that matter.
But when Beam includes same-sex marriage and the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” as a libertarian policy, he is eliding the critical difference between negative and positive liberties. Yes, one can well argue that the government has no right to intervene in the private sexual activities of consenting adults, etc.; that’s negative liberty, and inherent to libertarian thought. But to argue that a person has a right to be openly homosexual in the military or to use the government to force hotel owners and insurance companies to treat them as married is to venture into positive-liberty premises. It’s an argument that social structures must be knocked down so that a particular person or type of person can fulfill their desires. That’s not the same by any means.
Now, of course, one could easily say that “don’t ask, don’t tell” should be removed for a variety of reasons and that social approbation of same-sex marriage is a very good thing. But encoding such things in the law is not an inherently libertarian position unless one defines libertarianism as having strong elements of positive liberty. And the devotion to positive liberty is central to Beam’s disagreement with libertarianism, as he reveals in making the case for government action in general:
There are reasons our current society evolved out of a libertarian document like the Constitution. The Federal Reserve was created after the panic of 1907 to help the government reduce economic uncertainty. The Civil Rights Act was necessary because “states’ rights” had become a cover for unconstitutional practices. The welfare system evolved because private charity didn’t suffice. Challenges to the libertopian vision yield two responses: One is that an economy free from regulation will grow so quickly that it will lift everyone out of poverty. The second is that if somehow a poor person is still poor, charity will take care of them. If there is not enough charity, their families will take care of them. If they have no families to take care of them — well, we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.
Of course, we’ll never get there. And that’s the point. Libertarians can espouse minarchy all they want, since they’ll never have to prove it works.
The examples Beam gives here are all highly arguable statements of causality, but if anything they are excellent illustrations of why the quest for positive liberty is disastrous. The Fed has failed to “reduce economic uncertainty,” the expansive nonpolitical aspects of the Civil Rights Act are indeed an example of incredibly intrusive government, even if we approve of some or all of the results, and the welfare system didn’t end poverty, as the progressives are invariably fond of reminding us during Republican presidential administrations.
As Beam’s own examples show, negative-liberty libertarian arguments against big government are both philosophically consistent and result in effective policies.
Thus it is a caricature, and a false one, for Beam to suggest that the default point for libertarianism is to have no role for the state. On the contrary, the beauty of negative liberty principles is that they effectively prescribe the limits of the state, as Beam eloquently acknowledges in discussing the ideas of the nation’s founders:
Libertarianism gets caricatured as the weird, Magic-card-collecting, twelve-sided-die-wielding outcast of American political philosophy. Yet there’s no idea more fundamental to our country’s history. Every political group claims the Founders as its own, but libertarians have more purchase than most. The American Revolution was a libertarian movement, rejecting overweening government power. The Constitution was a libertarian document that limited the role of the state to society’s most basic needs, like a legislature to pass laws, a court system to interpret them, and a military to protect them. (Though some Founders, like John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, wanted to centralize power.) All the government-run trappings that came after — the Fed, highways, public schools, a $1.5 trillion-a-year entitlement system — were arguably departures from our country’s hard libertarian core.
In addition, Beam is quite right in his observations about how poorly the Republican Party and many intellectual figures represent the values of classical liberalism — the belief in principles of negative liberty:
Republicans speak the language of libertarianism. They talk about shrinking government and cutting the deficit. But when one of them turns words into action, he gets shunned. . . . That’s how conservative politics is played — talk shrinkage, do growth. Even right-wing godhead Ronald Reagan expanded the federal government, bailed out Social Security, and signed off on tax hikes. Bush 43 was only the latest in a long line of Republican spenders.
But just as the weaknesses of some religious figures not only don’t refute the doctrines of Christianity — but in fact can be seen as confirming the need for the very things the religion stands for — so, too, do the failings of Republicans and their intellectuals provide evidence confirming the libertarian/classical liberal position: Government used for positive ends tends to produce rotten unintended consequences. So let’s stick to what government is equipped to do: negative liberty.
That leaves plenty of room for discussion and disagreement about practical consequences and whether a particular policy satisfies the desired goal of fostering negative liberty, but it gives us a standard by which to judge. That’s precisely what our nation’s founders intended.
In all, I appreciate Beam’s article above all for an unintended consequence: It highlights what makes the libertarian/classical liberal position so important, relevant, and appealing — today more than ever.