The Libertarian Temperament

“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.

“Society 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.

Tolerance: 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.

Integrity: 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.

Conversely, 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.

Civility: 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: 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.

Governments 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 champion.

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 second 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.

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8:18 am on May 16, 2020