For whatever reasons, conservatives are apparently launching a preemptive war on libertarians. Last week we looked at AlfonZo Rachel's wild and unhinged attack. This week we'll focus on an important misunderstanding.
I guess this is Round III …
Old Rebel claims that libertarians believe "society has no claim to an individual's loyalty, and cannot restrict a person's choices in any way." I responded to the contrary, noting that libertarians enjoy all the familial and social ties any given conservative (or anyone else for that matter) does. To call into question one's loyalty to family and community based merely on a difference of opinion in regard to state power is nonsense on stilts. But Old Rebel specifically used the word "society," so I asked for a definition of "society" in the comments. I even provided some hypotheticals.
I'm still waiting for an answer. Yet the conversation moved onto "society" repelling invaders. Anyway …
We can suppose society equals the mass of 300+ million people living the in U.S., but we immediately run into a problem: the fact that whenever two or more people enter a room there is going to be disagreement. So then, can we realistically expect 300+ million people to think and act in unison? If not, then who, or what, is this "society" that compels individual loyalty, and makes restrictions on individual choices? Does it think and act on its own free will? And from where does it derive this "right" to exercise such overwhelming authority?
Government serves the culture that created it.
Sure, in an ideal world, I suppose "government serves the culture that created it." But we don't live in an ideal world, do we? So this is just fantasy. Government — in the actual world we live in — serves only itself (and its self-serving clients). What is government after all, other than a group of people who, based on a foundation of myths and lies, presume dominion over everyone else? The very pith of government is violence and plunder, not virtue.
If "culture, then, [is] the foundation of government," we're doomed. Because a culture of plunder and violence isn't worth saving at all.
Libertarians do not in any way, shape or form "imagine an ideal of what man is, and insist political questions be settled based on that ideal." Far from it. Because the state is the only institution that "legitimately" acquires its income via organized theft and enforces its (often arbitrary) edicts through violent force, it necessarily encourages bad behavior thus attracting the criminal element above all (the worst really do rise to the top). Therefore it is precisely because of man's corruptible nature, not in spite of it, that libertarians oppose the state.
But who, or what, is this "society"?
If society is defined as people who live in a particular geographical region and share customs, manners, laws, and a common history, then we have no quarrel. When we start talking about the "rights and duties" of society, and society holding some kind of "claim to an individual's loyalty," however, we begin to part ways, because all this talk smacks eerily of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "general will" and the Progressive view of the state as the locus of community, justified in a great crusade against private corruption.
Here's a typical example:
Whenever a progressive invokes the "community," that term refers to a state-engineered collective in which the individual has no rights.Whenever a collectivist refers to "public education," that phrase is shorthand for the process of destroying a child's developing sense of self-ownership and indoctrinating them in the notion that they are the property of the "community."
[Melissa Harris-Perry] is a collectivist of such passionate conviction that she regards opposition to Obama's radical centralization of power to be a species of sedition. She considers private firearms to be a pestilence, but embraces a vision of social engineering that would require a great amount of gun-related violence by state functionaries … In her "Lean Forward" ad, she uncorked this specimen of unfiltered collectivist cant:
"We have never invested as much in public education, because we've always had a sort of private notion of children – your kid is yours, and totally your responsibility. We haven't had a very collective notion of, 'These are our children.' So part of it is that we have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents, or kids belong to families, and recognize that kids belong to whole communities. Once it's everybody's responsibility, and not just the household's, then we start making better investments."
Now I know that most conservatives, especially Old Rebel, would vehemently oppose Melissa Harris-Perry's collectivist views, yet from the argument against libertarianism as presented by conservatives, it's impossible to discern exactly what that opposition is based on. As Old Rebel says,
"The individual within his society" is the standard conservatives use to determine political questions. The rights and duties of the individual and the society he lives in differ from one society to another.
Libertarianism is a political philosophy, not a grand unified theory of things. So when discussing politics, a libertarian concerns himself solely with questions of what should be legal/illegal — the proper use of force. Yes, how a person lives their life is important, and morality and virtue play a vital role, but these issues are pre-political, or prior to matters of politics which again deals only with the proper use of force. Therefore the argument that libertarianism is somehow incompatible with tradition and common social mores, and/or requires freedom from "others' expectations," is spurious and unfounded anywhere in libertarian theory — a straw man.
With this basic understanding of libertarianism, we can see more clearly now why ideas about the individual "within his society" that also lays "claim to an individual's loyalty," sounds not a bit unlike the claptrap preached by Melissa Harris-Perry above. But let's look at another example, socialist Robert Heilbroner, who argued for the necessity of a coercive state to impose "collective morality":
Bourgeois culture is focused on the material achievement of the individual. Socialist culture must focus on his or her moral or spiritual achievement.
Now let's change two simple words.
Libertarian culture is focused on the material achievement of the individual. Conservative culture must focus on his or her moral or spiritual achievement.
Take egalitarianism out of the equation and one begins to wonder on what philosophical underpinnings do progressives and conservatives actually disagree. After all, both obviously view the state as a positive tool for achieving "collective morality."
Most conservatives acknowledge the negative consequences of the welfare state on society — yes, economic incentives really do matter. Progressives have theories regarding the culture of poverty too, but libertarians and conservatives generally agree.
In a nutshell, welfare benefits are often far superior to low-wage/entry-level jobs because the recipient also gains valuable leisure time, which discourages work and encourages dependency. As their work habits fade and job skills grow obsolete (in an ever-evolving economy), long-term recipients become trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty. The government dole eventually usurps man's role as chief provider for his family thus artificially breaking the traditional roles of mother and father, causing the traditional family unit to lose its luster.
The welfare culture tells the man he is not a necessary part of the family; he feels dispensable, his wife knows he is dispensable, his children sense it. — George Gilder
The welfare state also breeds corruption. Every dollar the government collects is a dollar politicians and bureaucrats use to buy votes, payoff "contributors," push agendas, and otherwise divert the money to purposes far different than allegedly intended. Backroom deals in favor of hand-picked cronies are a feature of the state, not a bug. You simply can't have one without the other. That is, as long as you admit there's no such thing as a perfectly moral man. Fraud is equally rampant among recipients of welfare too.
Fine, we agree the welfare state is a cancer on society. But conservatives don't support the welfare state, so what's your point? Good question. Before we get to the answer, however, let's take a brief look at the state in all its glory.
Since the earliest stage of human history (say, the time of Cain and Abel), human beings have been homicidal maniacs. Yet, for untold ages, something was missing, something with the capacity to raise their murderous mania to truly magnificent heights. Only very late in human history … men finally devised the state. By employing its powers of organization, command, violence, and plunder … men [no longer had] to rest content with workaday violence and manslaughter. Now they could achieve vastly more monstrous enormities …
Killing by the ones, tens, or hundreds no longer defined the limits of human wrath … No longer did a man have to settle for murdering his brother, his wife, or his fellows in the nearby village. Now even huge numbers of remote strangers became fair game. Indeed, thanks to the state's amazing capabilities, a ruler might now conceive of utterly annihilating an entire society.
What sorrow we must feel as we contemplate the bleak counter-factual of history without the great Roman Empire: we cannot begin to imagine any stateless society able to put even a tenth as many severed heads on pikes along the roads or to nail even a tenth as many men on crosses to endure prolonged suffering before they gratefully expire. Likewise for the great Chinese, Persian, Mongol, Aztec, Inca, and other empires that fill the pages of history … No individual, no family, and no gang could have wreaked such havoc … Only man's ultimate achievement in social organization — the state — could have done the job.
Something few modern conservatives appreciate, yet Old Rebel understands, is that the prevalence of war over the past 100 years has been a socially destructive force which has contributed greatly to America's decline. No less a conservative luminary than Russell Kirk warned of the militarization of America society.
Hostile toward every institution which acts as a check upon its power, the nation-state has been engaged, ever since the decline of the medieval order, in stripping away one by one the functions and prerogatives of true community … What the state seeks is a tableland upon which a multitude of individuals, solitary though herded together, labor anonymously for the state's maintenance. Universal military conscription … and the concentration camp are only the more recent developments of this system … All those gifts of variety, contrast, competition, communal pride, and the sympathetic association that characterize man at his manliest are menaced by the ascendancy of the omnicompetent state of modern times …
It's no wonder then why conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet declared that "war and the barracks life of warriors [are] the true cause of communism. War communism precedes, indeed gives birth to, civil communism."
"All wars of any appreciable length," Nisbet argued convincingly, "have a secularizing effect upon engaged societies, a diminution of the authority of old religious and moral values and a parallel elevation of new utilitarian, hedonistic, or pragmatic values. Wars, to be successfully fought, demand a reduction in the taboos regarding life, dignity, property, family, and religion; there must be nothing of merely moral nature left standing between the fighting forces and victory …."
War and the military are, without question … responsible for the majority of the torments, oppressions, tyrannies, and suffocations of thought the West has for long been exposed to. In military or war society anything resembling true freedom of thought, true individual initiative … is made impossible — not only cut off when they threaten to appear but, worse, extinguished more or less at root. Between military and civil values there is, and always has been, relentless opposition. Nothing has proved more destructive of kinship, religion, and local patriotisms than has war and the accompanying military mind.
So as we can see by observing warfare and welfare, far from being an institution that "serves the culture that created it," the state — always and everywhere — is the enemy of the culture and society it claims to serve.
Libertarians are under no delusion about the true nature of the state. Nor do they hallucinate that the state can best witness society's many important needs and problems, alleviating them by legislative fiat. Especially those concerning the human soul. Every power extended to government, be it for "public health" or "public morality," aggrandizes the secular state at the expense of human "life, dignity, property, family, and religion."
Conservatives need to face the music: You lost the culture war. You lost the argument over the proper role of the state in society too. You lost by ceding too much ground to your opponents.
Conservative arguments against "atomistic" individualism are straight outta Comte, or Amitai Etzioni, Rousseau, or perhaps some modern leftist communitarian like Rick Santorum, E. J. Dionne Jr., or David Brooks. In its essence, this argument is the same as Progressive cries for "the common good." And nevermind that no libertarian I've ever heard of has advanced this silly notion that people are antisocial hermits, because the debate between individualists and collectivists has nothing to do with whether or not human beings are "social creatures," and everything to do with whether our communities will be coordinated by cooperation and persuasion … or violent force.
Another example of ceding ground to the left can be seen in the hot-button issue of gay marriage. Now, the institution of marriage predates any organized government. That is, marriage exists prior to the modern state. But by arguing the state plays a crucial role in the protection of "traditional marriage" against forces wishing to "redefine" it, you are reinforcing the progressive notion that marriage is nothing more than a "political construct" that "society" can create, mold, and destroy at will.
The personal is the political to the left … and to the right. Only libertarians wish to protect mankind's subsidiary institutions from the whims of mass democratic politics. It's this overwhelming passion for politics, this dreamy vision of a mythical good government, that is ultimately corroding family, church, and community from the inside out. Turning to the state instead of the church has resulted in Christian acceptance of easy divorce, single parenthood, cohabitation, Ares worship, etc., each of which poses a far greater threat to the institution of marriage than the state's mere acknowledgement of gays.
But hey, go ahead and join the progressive war on libertarians! Freedom is the problem, well, people who advocate freedom anyway, not that band of thieves writ large otherwise known as the state — the quasi-religious institutional church of the land. I'm sure someday, somewhere, over the rainbow I guess, angels will come down from Heaven and bring forth this government that "serves the culture that created it" — the eschaton immanentized.
Until then, I leave you with these words from the great conservative Joseph Sobran.
[T]his is the flaw in thinking the state can be controlled by a constitution. Once granted, state power naturally becomes absolute. Obedience is a one-way street. Notionally, "We the People" create a government and specify the powers it is allowed to exercise over us; our rulers swear before God that they will respect the limits we impose on them; but when they trample down those limits, our duty to obey them remains.
It's entirely possible that states — organized force — will always rule this world, and that we will have at best a choice among evils. And some states are worse than others in important ways: anyone in his right mind would prefer living in the United States to life under a Stalin. But to say a thing is inevitable, or less onerous than something else, is not to say it is good.
I miss the serenity of believing I lived under a good government, wisely designed and benevolent in its operation. But, as St. Paul says, there comes a time to put away childish things.
 The title of this post was inspired by the highly recommend book, The Left, The Right, and The State.
 Libertarianism isn't monolithic. There are many flavors, opinions and controversies within the libertarian movement. Some will certainly argue differently (and better) than I have.