Libertarianism Is Not the Answer

I have to agree with Patrick Deneen and disagree with George Leef about the worrisome nature of rising libertarianism among students today. It is a troublesome development in my view. For Deneen, this trend essentially means a kind of “laissez faire” selfishness among students that emphasizes personal autonomy and material success and doesn’t allow for a proper sense of civic engagement and concern for others. Leef counters that if there is a libertarian trend, it is because students are recognizing the pernicious effects of government intervention in private life. He also insists that libertarians are indeed concerned with others, but on a personal basis, not through government welfare programs.

In the abstract, Leef’s position sounds appealing, but unfortunately, libertarianism doesn’t turn out this way in practice. Libertarians want less government, which many agree would be a fine thing, but they also resist any definition of the good or any proposed hierarchy of goods as an illegitimate intrusion on individual freedom. The idea is to leave people free to make their own way and also, theoretically, to face the consequences of their own mistakes and choices. But without some guide to what is good, people are more likely to make mistakes that damage not only the individuals concerned, some of whom are completely innocent (such as children in the case of drug use), but also of society at large (as with easy, no-fault, no-stigma divorce). Students may think certain decisions are purely personal, but they in fact have larger ramifications.

Thus, it is startling to learn that Charles Murray can point to all the cultural decline he details in his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, and at the end recommend libertarianism as the remedy–as if a presiding non-judgmental libertarian streak in the culture wasn’t itself at least partly responsible for many of the behaviors he observes, such as not working and having children without marriage.

Furthermore, and most disturbingly, the coercive power of political correctness has come to operate at all levels in our society, including government, to enforce agreement with whatever “lifestyle” anyone wants to adopt and to suppress any judgment, criticism, or disagreement. The libertarian might protest that in his view there should be no government coercion, or any kind of coercion, for that matter, but there is. And as long as there is, libertarian strictures have the ironic result of making all of us less free, and in more ways than one. Many wind up damaging and even destroying their lives, and the lives of others, as they explore their “freedom,” and the rest of us have to countenance, support, and even acclaim deviant behavior or take the consequences of violating political correctness, which are often considerable. And by the time students realize that their libertarianism has operated only to augment the liberal program for our society, they have helped set in motion developments that are nearly impossible to reverse.

A proper liberal education, in the classical liberal sense, includes some understanding of what is the best and highest and most noble fulfillment of a human life. And that, by the way, could also be a definition of true freedom.

Carol Iannone writes on literature and culture and is Editor-at-large of Academic Questions.


14 thoughts on “Libertarianism Is Not the Answer

  1. I’m a libertarian because I’m a liberal. Likewise, I’m a libertarian because I’m a conservative. Libertarianism is only an individualistic wing of liberalism or conservatism. Most liberals take the tabula rasa argument of classical liberalism and turn them into the idea that man is clay which society and the state can mold into a higher, freer, better man. The New Man Through Communism idea came directly out of this view of the nature of man. Likewise, the conservative belief in original sin or the basic tendency toward evil (or anti-social behavior, if you so prefer) is a powerful motivator to either restrain the state or unleash it to control society.In the case of your Mormon example, like Howley, you fail to account for the dichotomy of cultural libertarianism: cultural libertarians want to maximize personal choices, but when adopted as a set of social values, libertarianism drives libertarians to actively undermine a whole array of options. You are, in essence, adopting a somewhat softer form social ostracism like what used to be used to control sexual behavior.For right-libertarians like me, this is no problem. I could care less about those Mormon extremists so long as they aren’t beating their kids, marrying them off against their will and things like that. I’m down with Muslim men having four wives. If two men and a woman want to have a polyandrous relationship, that’s their business. I don’t personally approve of any of those choices, and would freely tell them such if asked. You can have my support in choosing your lifestyle, you just can’t expect me to uncritically nod my head in approval. No has a right to validation.

  2. If Professor Winkler is correct in his assessment of his students, their beliefs aren’t really libertarian, since libertarians reject the idea that the state has any rightful role to play in directing society. If his students endorse governmental transfers to help the poor, that is inconsistent with libertarianism, but perfectly consistent with the confused belief system engendered by the welfare state — I want what’s mine, but I also want the state to confiscate money from others and set up a system (no matter how inefficient) to aid the needy.

  3. “libertarianism doesn’t turn out this way in practice”. “In practice?” Where has libertarianism been put into practice? Let me know so I can go there.

  4. “libertarianism doesn’t turn out this way in practice”. “In practice?” Where has libertarianism been put into practice? Let me know so I can go there.

  5. I think George Leef misunderstands me, but mine was an observation more than an argument. I do not at all believe that libertarianism leads to indifference to the suffering of others. And, as others have pointed out here, libertarians believe that the moral and cultural guidance can can and should come from providers. But I think that my students’ libertarianism is made of different stuff.
    I fear that the practical experience of my students is such that they will expect “the government” to take care of things because that is the milieu within which they are raised. They have been taught to learn to the test, and that nothing else matters. It will not occur to most of them to self-organize, to take the initiative with problems. The Populist and Progressive era confuses them (I am a historian) because the idea of a time with minimal government is alien to them. As a consequence, they will (I think) not be averse to helping people in need, but it will never cross their minds that anyone except the government would have the primary societal responsibility to help, until the terrible time when the government is _not_ there to help out.

  6. We have sparred over this in the past, Carol and I can only repeat what I have said before: I do think there are hierarchies of goods. I reject, however, the idea that government, which always entails the use of coercion, can or should do anything to promote the good (as I see it) and prevent the bad.
    As to Winkler’s argument, I think he’s mistaken. The desire to be left free of big government and its constantly growing incursions on one’s liberty and property (the fundamental stance of libertarians, but also of many conservatives) does not mean indifference to the needs of people who need help.
    In any case, the harm that our Leviathan State does to the needy would cease if libertarian thinking replaced our current mess of collectivism, statism, and crony capitalism.

  7. You say, “Libertarians want less government, which many agree would be a fine thing, but they also resist any definition of the good or any proposed hierarchy of goods as an illegitimate intrusion on individual freedom. The idea is to leave people free to make their own way and also, theoretically, to face the consequences of their own mistakes and choices.”
    I don’t know exactly according to what source you would describe this as libertarianism. That libertarians want less government is true, but the rest is all wrong. To say they “resist any definition of the good” is inaccurate. Libertarians aren’t moral relativists, which is what you’re confusing with Libertarian. Libertarians do believe that government should not impose moral strictures, but that doesn’t mean no one can provide moral guidance. Children will still have parents, teachers, religious leaders, role models, etc, all of whom can try to impress on that child moral values. None of this goes against libertarianism, which is a political philosophy, concerning the limits of government power, the immorality of government intrusion (and coercion by force in general), and the virtue of political freedom. For the libertarian the issue is coercion by force; if you force people to do something (whether that something is a good thing or bad thing) that’s bad. To a libertarian, government shouldn’t be the enforcer of good and bad not because there is no good and bad, but because it enforces these moral strictures through force (through the threat of violence; that is, the threat of putting people in jail, fining them, killing them, etc). That doesn’t mean there are no laws for a libertarian. Since people still need to protected, you’ll have laws against violence, theft and fraud, but that’s about it.
    I think this whole article can pretty much be dismissed as a tirade against moral relativism, that mixes up its terms.

  8. The public-school system has taught the kids that they don’t need anything but Government, because Government will take care of them for everything. Given that the Government has taught them since kindergarten that there’s no need for civic engagement, why is anyone surprised that college students have no sense of civic engagement, sense of family, or history?
    Libertarianism is not walking away from social responsibility because Government can do all. Libertarianism is saying that Government *can’t* do it all, not even well. And that it’s morally wrong for Government to do it anyways.
    Libertarianism is taking matters into your own hands – helping the poor, protecting the weak, and giving all a chance to grow and blossom into who they are (v. what the Government has decided they will become).
    Your version of “Libertarianism” is more like dissociation: these indivduals are free particles aimlessly floating in society.

  9. I find that while my students hold libertarian views, they often do so under the penumbra of an assumption that the government will do everything for society (and always has). Since the government will do everything, to their mind, they don’t have to worry about civic engagement or be concerned about others–that’s someone else’s job. The corresponding decline in initiative and self-reliance, then, proves very worrisome.

  10. Replace every instance of Libertarianism in your article with any of the other -isms (socialism, communism, republicanism, etc) and your article still stands. As a libertarian, even I understand this. To paraphrase something I learned in the Army (civic duty anyone?): No ideology survives first contact. Reality has a way of messing up nice, pristine theories we develop as adolescents.
    What I don’t understand why this trend you perceive has to be ‘worrisome’? Aren’t you an educator? Take the ‘teachable moment’ and educate these young libertarians on the foundation of their ideology – that of classical liberalism. Show them that even libertarian ideology has to be modified by the reality of social interaction. I’ve a friend who is more of an Anarcho-libertarian (probably more akin to what you describe in your second paragraph) and he has this funny idea that true freedom means that there should be no government. My simple counter is thus: Who is going to protect your stuff while you sleep? We gather as societies to protect one another giving up some freedom in doing so. This is why criminal behavior is rightly criticized and criminals ostracized.
    What separates me, as a libertarian, from my fellow citizens both left and right is that I don’t think Government can make a better society – that job is best left to society. Take the arts for example. Some will say that it’s the Governments job to protect ‘The Arts’ what ever that is supposed to mean. The fact is the private sector can do a far better job with less cronyism – Kickstarter just raised over $150 million for various arts projects. The NEA only $146 million. I know 4 million isn’t much of a variance but I, as a citizen, feel better about my fellow citizen’s freely given contribution to ‘The Arts’ than the what the Government has given after taking from a more productive sector.

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