The Libertarian Temperament

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“Men are
qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition
to put moral chains upon their own appetites; in proportion as
their love of justice is above their rapacity; in proportion as
their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity
and presumption; in proportion as they are more disposed to listen
to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery
of naves.

cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite
be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more
there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution
of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their
passions forge their fetters.”

Edmund Burke, 1791

This brief
essay celebrates the cardinal virtues of the libertarian temperament.
It is written, not in a narrow partisan sense of an electoral contest,
but of those enduring qualities of spirit and right thinking which
has made individual freedom the genius of our civilization.

The Passion
For Justice:
Bound up in the inexplicable nature of humanity
is a relentless search for a standard of equity. But such is the
elusive character of this quest that, from the ancient Babylonian
Code of Hammurabi to the latest U. S. Supreme Court decision, justice
has often been no easier to obtain than define. The question of
who is right, Albert Jay Nock noted, is a small one indeed
beside the question of what is right.

The most mistaken of these attributes, tolerance, is not an
amoral acquiescence but cognizance of the plurality of choice. This
respect for individuality and diversity is the recognition that
only under a climate of freedom can development of standards of
conduct be possible.

An Emersonian self-reliance is endemic in the libertarian temperament.
Beyond an adherence to conviction and first principles, integrity
implies a wholeness and integration of values. From this integration
come contrasting insights which find their clearest expression in
Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Henry David Thoreau.

“Man is born
free but everywhere he is in chains.” Rousseau forcefully asserts
that man is bound by the chains of convention, ignorance, and faulty
social institutions. These shackles are the chief obstacle to progress
and achievement of an equitable society. A liberated humanity must
break these artificial restraints to find full expression of our
authentic personalities, our true unfettered selves.

this element – integrity – can equally lead one to Thoreau’s conviction
that the ultimate social reform is not to be found at the ballot
box, legislative chamber or other similarly base political “mechanics.”
It is internal rather than external, the pursuit of the best within
each of us in individual excellence and ability.

But the ever-stalwart
Murray N. Rothbard rejected this paradoxical dilemma which has beset
generations of libertarians.

In his brilliant
essay, “Freedom, Inequality, Primitivism, and the Division of Labor,”
he warns against the deadly Romanticism of Rousseau, while in “On
Resisting Evil,” he scorns the retreatist quietism of a Thoreau.
But it is in his powerful “The Case for Radical Idealism,” where
Rothbard outlines his strategic vision of social change. And it
is here we find our principled guidepost for action based upon integrity.

We live in an era of institutionalized envy and barbarism where
character and courtesy are dead. Arrogant and boorish behavior is
celebrated everywhere in a cult of conformity to non-conformity.
Civility, Albert Jay Nock observes, is the recognition that how
we conduct ourselves – our respect for the humane consideration
and rights of others – is what distinguishes us from the robot
on the one hand, the savage on the other.

Humility is that inner discipline which recognizes the nature
and limitations of power. Guided by Lord Acton’s maxim that “power
tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” Nobel
Prize-winning libertarian economist Friedrich Hayek spent a lifetime
examining what he called the “fatal conceit” of government planners
and politicians.

Once labeled
“original sin” by the faithful – before Walter Lippmann’s “acids
of modernity” eroded a more simple orthodoxy of belief – this “fatal
conceit” or feigned omnipotence and omniscience by the wielders
of state power comes from the inevitability of elite rule built
into the political structure.

do not remain in power except by the willing acquiesce and apathetic
resignation of their subject peoples, guided and gulled by the complacent
and compliant news media.

It is this
“fatal conceit” which prompts power-brokers to prefer the planned
chaos of social engineering, imposed by design or fiat, to the free
and spontaneous order of marketplace institutions which libertarians

It is the task
of libertarians to provide the measure of security for the individual
which protects him or her from the arbitrary and irresponsible exercise
of such personally held power.

It is time
for each of us, as libertarians and, more importantly as human beings,
to solemnly renew our legacy of freedom, and swear in our hearts
with Thomas Jefferson, “eternal hostility against every form of
tyranny over the mind of man.”

Finally, it
is time for each of us to be in the vanguard of this worldwide renascence
of human liberty in the first decade of the 21st century, joining
in solidarity with our brothers and sisters abroad in declaring
war upon the state, all governments, as destroyers of rights and
plunderers of the common heritage of humanity.

19, 2007

A. Burris [send him mail]
is a history instructor in an American high school.

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