The Eternal Adolescence of the Libertarian Mind

There is a time in a young man’s life when Reason, the pure, demanding goddess, awakens, shining in her dawn with all the certainty of early faith.

As he matures, other voices arise to balance Reason’s demands, lest she drive him to inhuman lengths of rationalization. Reason should not be a master; she is a servant who does her best work in the cause of Truth and Love.

Not long ago, when I was a young teenager, I became a Calvinist through participating in online forums, which I think is also where most young libertarians are minted. The guiding principle of Calvinism is God’s total sovereignty over all that is and everything that happens. Libertarianism’s hardly less absolute doctrine is the utter sovereignty of the individual over himself, and the injustice of all forms of compulsion.

Looking back, I have been able to moderate my Calvinism, even to the point of admitting the reality of human free agency. In the same way, most young libertarians mature as they gain experience with other people and the world they live in. Opinions mellow rather than changing entirely.

But some never grow up.

This week, Catholic libertarian journalist Tim Carney wrote an endorsement of Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli, pointing out the Attorney General’s consistent stance on personal and economic freedom issues, even to the point of opposing big business interests who collude with the government, opposing busybody laws like smoking bans, suing the Feds over the unaffordable healthcare bill, and being guardedly open to legalizing marijuana.

Predictably, Internet libertarians tried to hack Carney to pieces. They claim the candidate is dangerous on “social issues.”

Image: outline of a cannabis leaf
The Libertarian Sacrament

These libertarians have all the depth of teenage potheads, and are almost as feeble-minded. They are remarkably gullible. They are always credulously repeating left-wing slanders against conservatives who supposedly want to “ban” contraception, as if that were even a remote political possibility. They are unserious and dishonest.

As Carney points out, libertarians seem content to throw away tangible political goods for imaginary hypothetical gains. Robert Sarvis will never get enough votes to give Virginia libertarians a strong third-party influence; meanwhile, in effectively voting for Terry McAuliffe, libertarians will serve themselves a nice big dose of the cronyism, taxes, and corruption they hate.

Lying, cheating, and slandering are the well-known tools of today’s Left, which has no principles besides a desire to consolidate all powers in a war against good. Libertarianism, though, is based on principles, and one of these is the principle of prudence. The fractious, self-destructive libertarian attitude is especially unbecoming.

If Libertarians wish to gain more political influence and respect, they are doing it wrong. Libertarian hero Ron Paul had the right idea. By staying in the Republican Party, he slowly developed a libertarian grassroots GOP base in Virginia, as we saw in the 2011 Republican presidential primary, where he gathered a significant minority of the vote. I voted for him myself.

This is the reason the Tea Party or the Christian Right is so scary to the Left: They have strategically decided to work within the Republican establishment to nudge the party in a certain direction. They pick fights and make a stink about the issues, but they also usually play ball and deliver the votes. With patience and realism, libertarians too could be winners in this game.

But the libertarian imagination is in a state of arrested development, occupying a merely imaginary world, unable to embrace the personal realities of society and politics.

It is true that the two-party system is flawed and corrupt. But to separate from a party does nothing but nullify any influence you might have had within it. I admire, in theory, the multi-party parliamentary systems of Europe, with their coalition governments formed through alliances of larger parties with smaller, issue-based voting blocs. Greens, Socialists, and far-right groups are not entirely shut out of the political process, as they more or less are in the U.S. But our situation is different. Until we rewrite our constitution, wishing we could be a European republic is a waste of time.

Another difference with American splinter groups is that they tend to be in the thrall of sexual ideology to a degree that their Continental counterparts are not. A French socialist can be strongly pro-family, oppose abortion and marriage revisionism without being ostracized. In America, it is practically impossible to have any kind of respect as a Green, a socialist, or even a Libertarian, without speaking the required shibboleths of abortion “rights” and “gay marriage.” This extremism drives away people of strong morals who would otherwise be sympathetic to the party’s central concerns.

Let us be honest. “Social issues” is the evasive Libertarian code for Cuccinelli’s sincerely-held traditional Christian beliefs about sexuality, and the Libertarian opposition to those beliefs. They appear to think that opposing Cuccinelli’s religious beliefs is even more important than making progress toward the positive libertarian value of personal freedom.

The essence of this kind of libertarianism is cutting off the nose to spite the face.

These libertarians are Russell Kirk’s chirping sectaries. They are the cracked reeds of the political swamp, distinguished only by the noise of their continual chatter.

The writer does not hereby endorse any political candidate or party.

How is Being Conservative Like Being a Hipster?

We’re repulsive, arrogant snobs and everyone hates us!

But really, there’s a great analogy between the hipster approach to “stuff” culture and the conservative approach to “ideas” culture. First, some background. In this video, Mike Rugnetta of PBS Idea Factory explains how hipsters appropriate the cultural capital of other subcultures and eras.

So you see how, unlike a “pure” subculture, hipsters build their culture by taking the interesting bits from everywhere and leaving what they don’t like. Conservatives do the same thing with political ideologies. Conservatism, unlike libertarianism or Marxism, isn’t really an “-ism.” It’s a disposition; almost, like hipsterism, a posture. It’s an attitude about how more than a rigid system of what. That doesn’t mean conservatives don’t believe in the “what” of things. But this belief is tinged with some degree of irony or caution. This enables conservatives to evaluate and appreciate, yea, appropriate elements of other political systems without actually entering into those subcultures.

Conservatives can identify:

. . . with the liberal concern for democratic openness and inalienable rights . . .

. . . the socialist concern for human welfare . . .

. . . the Lockean appreciation of labor value . . .

. . . the Marxian critique of exploitation and commodification . . .

. . . the capitalistic appreciation of currency and credit . . .

. . . the libertarian concern for individual liberty and skepticism of big government . . .

. . . the Green skepticism of corporate bigness and technocentrism . . .

. . . the technologist‘s concern for solutions that work . . .

. . . the humanist‘s love of truth and free inquiry . . .

. . . the open-minded, scientific curiosity of sociology . . .

. . . the religious openness to divine wisdom . . .

. . . the moralist‘s certainty . . .

. . . and the philosopher‘s skepticism.

Conservatism is able to bring elements of all of these otherwise opposing ideologies together in a remarkable unity, because the conservative disposition is one of caution and integration. It is open to everything and at the same time careful not to get drawn too far in one narrow ideological direction.

The strength of conservatism—that it is not an ideology—is also its weakness. Ideological thought tends to be more passionate, partake of more certitude, and have more devoted followers. It is also more likely to be wrong and produce negative unintended effects, often undermining its own ideals through impatience. Conservatism is more reticent, less concerned with action, more interested in maintaining the good things that already exist than bringing forth new ones. It is not very cohesive as a “movement.”

And certainly every conservative you meet will tend to lean toward some of the above ideologies more than to others. That’s normal human diversity. But by the same token, adherents of these different groups may find that becoming more “conservative” may help them to appreciate and build connections with other groups working toward common ends.

The Hipster Conservative and the Future

Douglas Haddow writes in Adbusters Magazine, “The hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture so detached and disconnected that it has stopped giving birth to anything new.” Conservatism often inspires similar spite from modern liberals, technologists, and neo-conservatives. In The Future and its Enemies (1998), Virginia Postrel characterized people of a conservative disposition—“reactionaries” and “stasists” she calls them—as opposing the increase of knowledge and improvement of human life (“progress”).

Postrel, while critical of conservatives, made a number of surprising observations in which she was ahead of her time. We hipster conservatives can only turn green as we imagine how soon we might have hopped that bandwagon, if only we had not been in middle school at the time. Postrel observed various instances of individuals on the political Left finding common cause with others usually considered “right-wing.” Continue reading The Hipster Conservative and the Future

Response to Star Parker: The Two Rons

Picture of Ron Paul and Ronald Reagan talking
Ron Paul and Ronald Reagan chat during Reagan's presidential campaign.

Star Parker is a conservative commentator we hipster conservatives generally appreciate. We believe she agrees with us that America’s biggest problems can’t be fixed at the ballot box, but require change to happen in America’s hearts, households, communities, and churches. So we were disappointed when she recently slammed some of our fellow young conservatives for supporting that perennial Republican presidential candidate and libertarian crank, Ron Paul.

What’s Star got against conservative young people? First, she says, “increasing numbers of my campus hosts ask that I not talk about ‘values.’ Leave out the stuff about marriage, family and abortion, please, and just talk about the economy. The materialism and moral relativism that created our left-wing culture is now infecting our youth on the right.”

Having met many young GOPers, we’d place them in two categories. There are those who are exactly as Star describes: modern materialist libertarian libertines. But there are also those who are not any of these things; who share Star’s and our deep concerns over America’s moral condition. And many in this second category, perhaps more than in the first, support Ron Paul.

It may be true that Ron Paul lacks the conservative bona fides of an acceptable Republican candidate. Yet Star’s three characteristics of Reagan-era conservatism–“Individual freedom, respect for constitutional limitations on government and traditional values”–hew pretty close to Mr. Paul’s constitutional-conservative, pro-individual, pro-life platform.

Star’s subtitle gets to the heart of her objection: “The Ron Paul youth have little interest in a Reagan-like ‘shining city on a hill’ message, or talk about a threatening ‘evil empire’ abroad.”

On economic liberty, national debt, and even family values, Ron Paul stacks up pretty well to other likely Republican nominees. Which is to say, it’s slim pickings this cycle. What truly disqualifies him in Star’s estimation is his rejection of aggressive American foreign involvement. For her, it is a belief in American exceptionalism and invocation of an “evil empire” abroad that make a true conservative.

We agree with Star that America’s problems are primarily moral ones. Even the so-called economic issues (unemployment, education, taxes, government spending, national debt, personal indebtedness, welfare, corporate welfare, and health care) are actually moral issues with a significant economic dimension. But we disagree with the idea that America’s moral character is best displayed by an aggressive drive to bring democracy to the world. Reagan had the Soviets to compare us to: what do we have today? Radical Islam and rogue regimes–i.e., the terrorists Reagan and other presidents funded when we were fighting the Soviets. Perhaps Reagan should not represent the apogee of consistent conservatism.

Young conservatives should care more about moral issues in American politics. But we must also consider whether America remains or ever was the Shining City on a Hill that Reagan imagined. For instance, how can we continue to denounce Communism and all kinds of tyranny while maintaining despotic China as our most-favored trading partner and chief creditor? If we’re serious about knocking out radical Islam, why do we continue to import oil from Saudi Arabia, where women are brutally repressed, gays are flogged or killed, and Christian converts are decapitated? Where is our moral superiority now?

Ron Paul’s variety of classical liberalism is similar to Reagan’s. Both have major problems and for many of the same reasons. Neither is a good foundation for conservative politics today, but American conservatism has much bigger problems than a few young conservatives who support Ron Paul.