Libertarian Solutions to Communal Difficulties

By James Matthew Wilson for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

Devon, PA. R.R. Reno writes on the First Things website this morning,

I’m no libertarian. St. Paul was clear that government is ordained by God, and St. Thomas helps us see that a robust public sphere protects us from the consequences of our sinfulness, as well as helping us achieve the goods only possible in community. However, as Yuval Levin recently argued in National Affairs, at this juncture of history, if we care about persevering the goods of government, then we need to recognize the limits of government—and we need to gather the political will to impose those limits.

After he was invited to speak at Catholic University last spring, Catholic academics wrote a letter denouncing John Boehner’s efforts to reign in government spending. Perhaps Boehner’s ideas about tax policies are mistaken. Perhaps his spending priorities are misguided. Perhaps everything about the Republican Party’s economic analysis misses the mark. Prudent, reasonable people can disagree. But the Catholic academics who signed the letter failed to recognize that an insolvent government, however large and well meaning, can do very little good for it’s citizens. Today that’s not an insignificant danger.

Reno’s qualified endorsement of those Republicans who are calling for an aggressive solution to America’s ongoing deficit and debt debacle is well taken, and resonates with a reflection I have been meaning to share with FPR readers for some time.

Some readers will recall that FPR helped host Philip Blond’s visit to America more than a year ago; and some will recall, also, that a person in the audience of Blond’s Georgetown address wrote Patrick Deneen to suggest that a more libertarian-oriented version of Blond’s Red Tory, Big Society program would be suitable at the present moment.  I agreed with much of what the anonymous author proposed, as I did with his characterization of his program as sharing in the spirit of libertarians.

On this website, which has often given voice to both libertarian and Austrian economic ideas, to distributist, social democratic, and — much to the scandal of some — monarchist ideas, let me add the following claim after the fashion of Reno’s.  I believe that libertarianism grounds itself upon a naive, perverse, and frequently dangerous anthropology — one that lies to the human being about his political nature and may rob him of the vocabulary necessary to understand and find means of fulfilling that nature. (Among other things, modern psycho-analysis testifies to the failure of human beings to be able to talk productively about community; we have all but displaced politics by dividing it into psychological self-adjustment and therapeutic social work).

Monadic individualism is a modern heresy in which libertarians persist.  As such, libertarians may also claim — justly, in most respects — to be heirs of the classical liberalism of the Eighteenth Century, and so, their extreme minority status in our society testifies to just how far liberal society has strayed even from the errant dogmata of its origins.  As Russell Kirk was fond of observing in the nineteen-fifties, liberalism has long since ceased to promote freedom and has taken on the yoke of massive technocracy in the service of a centralized administrative state.  Kirk delighted in quoting Santayana, who once wrote that liberals have little interest in loosening men from any bond save that of marriage; and, in our own day, debates about homosexual unions further validate the old arguments (voiced most prophetically in Papal encyclicals on the family from the nineteenth century) that the dissolving of the marriage bond is consistently the front line in the liberal war to conquer all of private life for centralized administration.  It is easier to render every person a ward of the state, when one does not have cohesive and sovereign institutions like the family getting in the way, and rendering the family a nonspecific, merely affective, juridical fiction may quite effectively neutralize its social function and natural integrity altogether.

But I do not view the minority condition of libertarian thought merely as a bell-weather of centralization and the rationalizing bloat of liberal government.  However much I may disagree with libertarian anthropology, most libertarian proposals strike me as precisely the solutions to the broken condition of American government in our day.  A slashing of the role of federal bureaucracy (beginning with an end to the Department of Education); a return to sound money; an insistence that government operate within its means and that those means be restrained — these strike me as something other than the radical demands of ideologues.  They are the recommendations of prudence.  Those libertarians, such as Ron Paul, who recognize that decentralization through strong state government is a better means to securing their aims than the continued intrusion of the federal government through the undifferentiated application of the Bill of Rights win my even stronger support; as do those who acknowledge the obvious distinction between free trade and open borders and the off-shoring of American capital through state-managed corporate welfare.  Indeed, in the case of Paul, such libertarians win my endorsement.    As Bill Kauffman once wrote, so shall I, that libertarians will now, and probably always, find a welcome seat on my porch.

Let me close by adding that I could say much the same for the members of the Tea Party.  I’ve been a little surpised and, not infrequently, disheartened by references to the Tea Party by other writers for this site.  Usually this has appeared as an indulgence of a sort of anti-populist chirping perfectionism that condemns Americans for participating in politics just because their political philosophy is not wholly thought out or wholly satisfactory (conservatives, because so often on the losing side of battles for the modern leviathan of the state, trim their numbers through purges on the level of philosophy as the counterpart to liberals’ purging on the level of ideological correctness or docility before the technocratic order).  So far as I have witnessed, the Tea Party has a rough-and-ready constitutionalism that may not survive historical scrutiny, but which certainly suffices for the purposes of advancing their sound and strict economic proposals and their American Christian social conservatism.  Since the Tea Party is hardly a unified movement, but just a congeries of concerned citizens groups, intellectual purity should not even be a concern here — though that does not mean bad thinking should be ignored or that all of us do not need, as our first duty and our only happiness, to seek the Truth about the whole unity of reality, including the truths of politics.

But, one of our foremost concerns at present should be forwarding and furthering prudential proposals that wither the size and scale of the state and its role in the economy.  The Tea Party is probably the only way in which those proposals will get taken seriously in Washington.  Rather than rendering the Tea Party more vulnerable to attacks by global elites and party hacks like David Frum and Fareed Zakaria, FPR and all Americans who would like their country to endure for a few more decades ought to join up with it.  Just as I view many libertarian ideas as the source of smart and necessary policy at present, I find the Tea Party to be one of the most hopeful phenomena in American politics in — dare I say it — decades.  Some mornings, I wake up with the vague intimation that Americans actually care about self-government and see it as requisite to their happiness.  We may be clients and consumers fed by the intravenus tubing of the welfare/warfare state and anesthetized by a revolting and pornographic mass culture, but we are not just that — at least, not yet.

  • Share: