One of the most common criticisms of libertarians is their alleged obsession with self interest and complete freedom to do anything at any time. This criticism usually manifests itself in condemning articles penned by the likes of neo-conservatives like Jonah Goldberg as he recently did in his most recent installment of the anti-libertarian chronicles.
In it he states that the problem with libertarians is that they latch onto libertarianism as a feel-good philosophy because it justifies all manor of selfish personal behavior. What Mr. Goldberg and many neo-cons fail to understand is that there is a difference between freedom from government coercion and freedom from every imaginable constraint upon human behavior.
Since Mr. Goldberg claims that he prefers to quote “The Simpsons” instead of Scripture, let me humor the neo-con audience with an anecdote from the eminent show itself: In the predictably hilarious episode in which the town of Springfield must decide whether or not to build a casino in town, the townspeople consult the local Reverend and ask his opinion on the matter. The Reverend responds that once something is made legal, it can no longer be immoral.
The good Reverend’s response to the town query is useful in illustrating the problem that the neo-cons have with understanding the nature of a libertarian society. After all, libertarians in general call for little more than a reduction of the state to a minimal role in society. This does not mean, as Mr. Goldberg would have us believe, that libertarians therefore call for the destruction of all institutions in civilized society. It is rare that one will find libertarians assembled to call for the destruction of the Rotary club or the local church. Sure, there are some libertarians out there who despise religion, but there are also a lot of libertarians who hate Volkswagens, but I would contend that neither is relevant to the policy prescriptions of libertarianism.
What the libertarians understand, and what the neo-cons fail to understand is that minimal government is key in preserving the “mediating institutions” that all conservatives should be in favor of preserving. It is government that deserves the blame for the destruction of our local institutions in the 20th century. The government’s courts have done more to destroy freedom of association and freedom of religion than any libertarian movement could ever do. It is our government which has taken upon itself the mission of cleansing our American communities of anything religious and classifying any references to God as “hate speech.” It is government which has ruined our local communities by creating a dependence on a snooping federal government which seeks to centrally plan every aspect of our lives. And yet, neo-cons like Mr. Goldberg insist on claiming that it is libertarians who are seeking to ruin the traditional life of America.
When exactly was it when a bunch of libertarians rose up and demanded that all Americans give up their current way of life for the “libertarian” way of life? Libertarians fully accept that civil society is full of institutions like family and church which govern our actions and do not allow complete freedom. All these institutions, though, unlike the state, allow fluid and free entry and exit. Libertarians recognize that in order to receive the benefits of family and church, certain “tradeoffs” must be made. Such tradeoffs are a good thing, but apparently, voluntary tradeoffs like these don’t count when viewed through the eyes of a neo-conservative like Mr. Goldberg.
Social engineering and social policy is the stuff of government, not libertarianism. Only when the arrogance of government apologists allows them to think their plan for society is superior are the valued institutions of American civilization trashed in the pursuit of the “better society”. This, of course, is the central inconsistency of neo-conservatism. They feel that they can somehow figure out a way to use government to shape society more along the lines of what they would like to see. In order to do this, however, they have to make sure that government remains strong enough, so that when they do occasionally get some power, they can use that power to shove their intellectualism down everyone else’s throats. The real American tradition of conservatism is that of limited government to allow the natural development of mediating institutions within American civil society. It is not a tradition of conservative scheming to socially engineer American society.
It is time that all conservatives who value American traditions and institutions to examine the historical record and recognize that government control as manifested through war, welfare statism, and social policy is the main destroyer of American civil institutions. As long as government is kept strong and viable, government will continue this destructive process, and the fact that conservatives may be in charge every now and then will not do anything to reverse it.
June 27, 2001