Libertarianism and Liberalism
Libertarians like to say that the meaning of the word "liberal" has been completely reversed, from being the party of capitalism to the party of socialism. But they do not seem to understand why this transformation happened, nor even to care very much. They do not recognize that the continuities between "classical" and contemporary liberalism are actually much greater than the differences. These continuities are the reason why the transformation was possible, and perhaps inevitable.
Libertarians and socialists have far more in common with each other than either would be willing to admit. Below the level of one or two superficial, derivative issues, libertarians and socialists are of one mind and spirit. The very fact that they so overestimate these minor points of difference, only highlights their commonality, for those of us who do differ profoundly from both of them.
The issue in controversy between the two ideologies is whether the individual is prior to the collective, or the collective to the individual. From this follows the question of political-economic organization: whether all property should be privately or publicly owned. For the total state of socialism, libertarians substitute the total market. But the entire debate over individualism and collectivism presupposes a false and dehumanizing dichotomy. Man is not meant by nature to be either a hermit in his own skull, dealing with others only through commerce and contract, nor a hive-insect, totally submerging his own identity in the collective whole.
Contemporary liberalism manages to combine the worst features of both individualism and collectivism. The individual is a nonentity and a ward of the state, but he asserts his claims against society with a complete lack of restraint and responsibility. Every sort of freakishness and immorality is encouraged in the name of "freedom" and "diversity" and "self-realization," and government is expected to subsidize these "lifestyle choices." This is seen, for instance, in the howls of indignation raised at any suggestion that "artists" who deliberately affront public sensibilities should be deprived of public patronage.
By any measure of the real well-being of humanity, capitalism is better than socialism; but nevertheless, the two have a disquieting affinity, and capitalism should not be embraced unreservedly. The debate over capitalism and socialism (at least as libertarians argue it) presupposes the reduction of politics, and indeed of the whole human condition, to economics. (This materialism distinguishes both libertarians and old-fashioned socialists from the New, "counter-cultural," racist/feminist/homophile Left.) For both of them, the production and consumption of wealth is an end in itself, the be-all and end-all of human existence. Their dispute is over the best means to this end, and how the wealth should be distributed.
To the collectivist, equity is synonymous with equality. If the individual counts for nothing, obviously no one deserves any more or less wealth than anyone else. To the individualist, wealth is something to be earned by individual merit (which is true), and society is nothing but a network of contractual, commercial exchanges between individuals (which is false).
For libertarians, it is not enough to say that the market is the most rational, just, and efficient mechanism for the allocation of scarce resources: instead, it must be the principle by which the whole of human existence is governed. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that the Free Market is a kind of God-surrogate. The very thought that the Free Market can produce a bad, wrong, or merely undesirable outcome, is inconceivable; just as, for Christians, it is inconceivable that God might not be good and right. If there's any problem, the Market can solve it; if the Market can't solve it, it's not a problem. Accordingly, all human phenomena are either annexed to the economic sphere, or ignored.
In contrast to most of the contemporary Left, libertarians are not nihilists -- at least, not all of them, or not entirely. They do have an implicit positive ethos. Unfortunately, the only aspects of human nature they affirm are the belly, the groin, and the faculty of economic calculation, whose purpose is to satisfy the belly and groin. This is not to say that the belly, groin, and economic calculation are immoral and disgusting in and of themselves: the evil lies in the sacrifice of the rest of human nature, and the rejection of all goals higher than bodily gratification.
This ethos can never be separated from politics, however much libertarians pretend to be neutral in matters of personal morality. Every movement that aims at a radical transformation of society is based on some conception of good and evil, which will permeate the whole society that it influences. Even when not explicitly promoting actual libertinism, libertarianism tacitly legitimates all desires insofar as they can be reduced to economic terms. This makes it impossible to maintain the distinction between saying "People should be free to do whatever they please" and "People should do whatever they please."
If any one fundamental belief is essential to all varieties of the Left, it is that human institutions, and ultimately human nature itself, are infinitely malleable. They are all schemes to reconstruct society according to preconceived blueprints. Instead of basing politics on man and society as they actually are, Leftists base it on a dreamworld conceived without reference to either nature or tradition.
At its origin, the Left did believe in fixed human nature and objective moral law, by which actually-existing society was judged and found wanting: the ideology of "natural rights," which inspired the American and French revolutions. Libertarianism is, at least partially, a throwback to this original belief. But libertarianism only corresponds to the facts of human nature insofar as that nature has already been stunted and warped by liberalism.
The isolated and homogenized individual that libertarians posit as the human norm can only exist after society has disintegrated. The notion of the primordial "state of nature," with which liberalism began, is only being realized as a consequence of liberalism. In fact the idea of the "social contract" created the very problem it was supposed to solve. In order to establish this "social contract," liberalism had to destroy preexisting institutions and communities, and thereby create a world of unsocial rational maximizers. Instead of socializing unsocial persons, it is unravelling the preexisting social fabric, and sending mankind, for the first time, into a "state of nature."
Of course, few if any liberals, classical or contemporary, would admit that these are the intentions and results of liberalism. Political utopians of every kind are characterized by their attachment to abstract ideals, and by complete indifference to the actual, existential conditions of the ideals' realization. Caught up in their ideological dreamworld, they fail to notice the real world around them, and the real effects of their social-engineering projects. They prefer gray theory to the green tree of life, and unhesitatingly destroy the latter for the sake of the former. Just as socialists (usually) refuse to admit that totalitarianism is the inevitable result of their policies, libertarians (usually) refuse to admit that their policies would lead inevitably to anomy and anarchy.
Translated into flesh and blood, the libertarian utopia is a world of busy, productive, androgynous robots, exercising their absolute freedom of choice in detergents, intoxicants, and sexual partners. Twenty billion of them live on an Earth whose surface has been totally paved over and covered with a glass-and-steel anthill. These billions, despite their antlike conditions, live in perfect isolation from each other, each like Robinson Crusoe on his island, except for relations established by free and deliberate contract. They are all exactly alike, except for their preferences in detergents, intoxicants, and sexual partners. The Gross World Product goes up and up and up, and everything that makes human existence worthwhile gradually disappears. In short, libertarians believe that Aldous Huxley's Brave New World really does portray the ideal society, but that it will come into being by the voluntary action of free individuals.
The question, then, as we contemplate a libertarian future, is whether humanity would be better off if libertarianism works as promised, or if it fails disastrously, as Communism did. I believe that the answer in both cases is the same: better a disastrous failure than the realization of the utopian delusion.
The political utopian believes that his ideology can and should supersede all the accumulated experience and customs of previous generations, and that it applies everywhere without modification. Whatever his particular utopia, he is universalist and cosmopolitan: he despises nationality and community, tradition and history, the rooted and familiar; he is, in a word, antipatriotic.
The Leftist's loyalty is never to a real country, but to an ideology, which his country might or might not embody. Nothing could be more alien to the spirit of liberalism than the sentiment dulce et decorum est pro patria mori -- "It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country." The libertarian regards his country as a legal fiction that, at best, safeguards his accumulation of wealth, and allows him to live out his lifespan to its inevitable and meaningless end. The contemporary liberal, or socialist, regards his country as a mere province of the future world-state.
Libertarianism and socialism both aim at the homogenization of humanity. The difference between them is whether the abstract individual is considered more important than humanity in general, or vice versa. Libertarians want to see everyone in the world become a money-grubbing egotist; socialists prefer to turn everyone into a classless, selfless nonentity. Either way, everyone will be exactly like everyone else, in all essentials. Or would be, if the world actually worked the way ideology prescribes.
All liberals, "classical" and contemporary, ignore national and cultural differences, most of the time; if they do notice these differences, they bemoan them as "dark forces of tribalism and xenophobia" that are bound to be swept away by "progress" and "enlightenment." Accordingly, no "enlightened" and "progressive" person could possibly object as the West is buried under the wretched refuse of the Earth's less civilized regions. Mexicans, Muslims, Hindus or whatever will all be magically transformed into interchangeable mass-men, just like us.
Libertarians, in particular, are delighted by the prospect of an endless influx of cheap labor. Seeking refuge in their ideological dreamworld, they recite their incantations about abstract "liberty" while ignoring the fact that their precious "liberty" is an historical and cultural artifact, which cannot be conjured up out of thin air. Not only oblivious to the intrinsic evils of a "diverse" and "multicultural" society, they are blind even to the political and economic dangers of importing whole new classes of voters and dependents for the welfare state.
Any legal-political order must rest on some specific moral-cultural order that transcends and justifies it, providing the fundamental consensus of standards and expectations that make social life possible. The whole notion of a value-neutral legal-political framework is delusory and pernicious. Trying to justify a political order by self-interest is preposterous: people will manipulate or circumvent the law whenever they see it in their interest to do so. Only a deep-rooted sense of identification with the political unit, and loyalty to it, will make people regard the benefit of the whole as their own benefit.
Liberals and libertarians see "moral intervention" as a matter of "imposing one's values" on someone, rather than affecting the character of society as a whole, because there supposedly is no such thing as "society as a whole." With liberals, this is mere hypocrisy, since they are not at all reluctant to impose their "values" on others by force.
Libertarians, on the other hand, posit a false dichotomy: either "society" is some mystical entity with a mind and will of its own, or it is nothing. In a metaphysical sense, it is true that only individual persons exist; but every person actually exists in a group of one kind or another, whose members have a distinctive character that unites them together, and sets them apart from others.
If people are not antisocial creatures in some imaginary "state of nature," their social units -- whatever they may be -- will command their primary loyalty. Either their primary loyalty is to the nation-state (or something functionally equivalent) or it is not, and their loyalty will be transferred to particular factions within society, outside the state -- the Mafia, for instance, or La Raza.
Contemporary liberalism, of course, is all in favor of such particularism -- except, of course, the particularisms of American nationality, Western civilization, the Christian religion, and the white race. To both liberals and libertarians, it is self-evident that the "liberation" of the autonomous individual, the proliferation of "diversity," rapid social change, the rejection of traditional mores, etc., can only be Good Things.
The difference between the egalitarian-collectivist-statist Left and the libertarian-individualist-capitalist Left is a lot like the difference between the dystopias portrayed in 1984 and Brave New World. Both destroy the human spirit, or try to: the one by brute force, the other by corruption.
Translated into American terms, Orwell's "Ingsoc" is contemporary liberalism; his "Newspeak" is the mind-numbing jargon of Political Correctness. The liberals themselves are the Party, the ruling class of ideologue-tyrants; their certified minorities are the passive, subjugated "proles," in whose name they rule; the millions of people who resist their will are "oldthinkers" and "thought-criminals." But a complex technological society cannot be ruled by a commissar-class: even if those commissars were rational enough to want to keep it going, they wouldn't know how.
The ECS Left, if undefeated, will destroy all civilization: primarily by dumbing down culture, and particularly education, thereby attacking science, technology, and capitalism at their root. They cannot build, they cannot invent, they cannot create: they can only bully and destroy. In the end, they would destroy themselves, too -- but that would be cold comfort to the rest of us.
The LIC Left, on the other hand, subverts civilization more slowly and subtly. It is indifferent (at best) to the general decay of culture, but would preserve the purely technical side of education, which it realizes is necessary to deliver the goods. It would create a population, not of illiterate neo-barbarians, but of contented, fornicating, soma-taking drones.
The really scary thing about Brave New World and the LIC Left is that human nature itself is changed by technology. "Ingsoc" and the ECS Left only stunt and warp human nature by stamping out its higher manifestations; so there is hope for the remote future, after the collapse. Humanity might recover, and start anew. But in Brave New World, there is no longer any potential that might flourish again.
In Huxley's future, genetic engineering and behavioral conditioning are used by a global totalitarian state to create a new human species, perfectly adjusted and mindlessly contented. The development of similar techniques in a LIC regime would have the same result. People would welcome any technology that would better suit them to their empty, meaningless, hedonistic existence, until it became as natural to them as breathing water is to fish.
A post-Western civilization would be as alien to us as Islam, but still human; a posthuman civilization would be as alien as if Martians had invaded and exterminated us like rats. And, given the soulless, subhuman nature of Brave New World and the LIC Left, such a civilization would not only be utterly alien, but vastly inferior to our own, no matter how much technical prowess it had. Whole vast potentialities of the soul will have been wiped out and replaced with nothing. It would be a world in which anything more to life than fornication and soma and consumer goods is neither imaginable nor desirable.
© 2000 by Karl Jahn