Below is the basic text of a talk I gave last year to the Property and Freedom Association. It is, I think, relevant to the questions you raise.
The Limits of Liberty, or Hurrah for Repression!
University College Dublin
When discussing libertarianism, I have found from experience that many people are willing to accept that public utilities and product creation and distribution and even schooling and such like can be provided by the free market—but they tend to draw the line at the provision of law, justice and security. This, for many, is a step too far. There can be no doubt that, practically speaking, minarchism is an easier sell than anarchism. However, despite the ‘law, justice and security’ objection’s being the logical (and obvious) point of resistance, the rhetorical or emotional point of resistance lies elsewhere. Libertarians and anarchists are taken to be hard-hearted selfish and self-centred people who care nothing for others and their plight. ‘What,’ I am asked, ‘will become of the poor?’ Of course, there is an answer to this question and in a few weeks I’ll be addressing this objection head on at Queen’s University Belfast when I gave a talk, called, some might think provocatively—‘Let the Poor Starve!’ But that’s another issue for another day. Recently, I have had the experience of people saying to me, ‘I’m no longer a libertarian. The world is going to hell in a hand basket, social order is breaking down, cultural philistinism is rife, we are presented with ever more vulgarity in public. Libertarianism is not enough.’
Well, whoever said that it was?
It cannot be too heavily emphasized that libertarianism is not intended to deny the importance of love, community, discipline, order, learning, or any of the many other values that are essential to human flourishing. Libertarians as much as anyone else can cherish these values but, however much they might cherish them, they reject any and all attempts to produce and maintain them by force, coercion or intimidation. They regard such attempts at coercion as both wrong in themselves and as ineffective. As Tibor Machan puts it, ‘force is permissible and useful only in repelling force, not in building character, love, faith, scientific knowledge, etc.’ In the end, as Rothbard notes, the question for the libertarian is this: ‘Should virtuous action (however we define it) be compelled, or should it be left up to the free and voluntary choice of the individual?’ No third road is possible here; one must choose compulsion or liberty.
Even among libertarians, who might be expected to know better, misunderstandings can arise from a failure to recognise the severely limited scope of libertarianism. It is not intended to be, nor is it, a complete ethical or political system; it is rather an overarching constraint on any such system. Libertarianism does not imply that all modes of conduct are equally valuable or have equal merit. There may well be those who think of themselves as libertarians who believe this but such a view, despite the assertion of some (such as Russell Kirk) that liberty descends into a maelstrom of licence, is not a necessary consequence of libertarianism as such. A libertarian may choose to be a libertine but there is nothing in libertarianism to constrain him to be one. Machan asks, ‘Is libertinism implicit in the advocacy of liberty as the highest political principle?’ and he answers, ‘No—libertarianism only prohibits the forcible squelching of indecent conduct, not its vigorous criticism, opposition, boycott or denunciation in peaceful ways.’ [Machan, 49]
Here’s the question that must be put to people to determine if they are libertarians. “Would you be willing to use force (physical violence), either yourself or delegated to another (person or institution), to compel another (adult) person to act or to refrain from acting in matters not covered by the non-aggression principle?” If the answer is yes, your respondent is not a libertarian. If the answer is no, your respondent is a libertarian. And that’s all there is to that.
We can happily concede that libertarianism isn’t enough for an adequate moral/social/political life anymore than water is the only thing that you should drink if you like an interesting and varied diet. There is more to life than liberty. After all, the point of being free is so that we can go and do things, not just sit around admiring and incensing our freedom.
2. Some distinctions
At this point, we need to make a few distinctions. The first is between implication and consistency. We also need to distinguish between the cultural and political forms of conservatism and liberalism.
Consider the following two propositions: ‘University College Dublin is situated 3.5 miles south of Dublin city centre’ and ‘San Marino is a small mountainous state completely surrounded by Italy’. (San Marino’s motto, by the way, is libertas!) These two propositions are consistent, that is, they can both be true together However, the two propositions are also truth-independent—the truth or falsity of one proposition implies or entails nothing whatsoever about the truth or falsity of the other.
Now, Libertarianism and political conservatism are inconsistent. You cannot be a political conservative and a libertarian. And political liberalism and libertarianism are also inconsistent.
Political conservatives are not opposed to freedom as such. Freedom is valuable but, given the conservative commitment to order, it must be subordinated to morality and to traditional social norms. Libertarians, by definition, value individual liberty in a special way. They reject the imposition by force of particular conceptions of virtue, justice and the good society which, whatever value they may have, do not justify the forcible invasion of a person’s freedom. Libertarianism concerns itself only with determining the conditions in which force or the threat of force may legitimately be used in human relations, namely, for the protection of human individual liberty; all other employments of force or the threat of force are illegitimate: ‘…libertarianism is a claim about the scope of permissible force or the threat of force among human beings, including human beings who constitute the governing administration of a given human community.’
So too you cannot be a political liberal and a libertarian. Political liberals value freedom but, because they value other things more highly, they are willing to coerce others to bring those other values into being.
But both cultural conservatism and cultural liberalism are consistent with—although not entailed by—libertarianism, and so is every cultural position in between. One’s cultural choices are not pre-determined by one’s libertarianism. What cultural position one chooses to adopt is an extra-libertarian matter.
3. Society and Tradition
Man is an inherently social being, living in and through society. Society is not simply a random assemblage of individuals but is a network of individual relationships existing under conceptual descriptions, and it is permeated and interpenetrated by institutions of various kinds, which institutions constrain, compete and cooperate with each other, contextualise and shape people’s lives, and act as repositories of artistic, technical, social and political knowledge. Society is real—not in the way in which a garden gnome is real but real in much the same way that the market is real. Society is not the outcome of some grand design or some overall plan. It is, rather, the evolutionary resultant of how people have lived their lives over many years, the decisions they have made, individually and together, the laws that have emerged to regulate their lives in community, and the means they have devised to further their ends.
Society, at bottom, depends upon attachments that precede reason and calculation such as love of one’s family and locality and other attachments that radiate outwards from there into one’s country and one’s nation. Such attachments are constitutive of one’s being; they are not chosen arbitrarily.
In their focus on tradition, conservatives are on to something important, which, however, may not have quite the political significance they attribute to it. It is undeniable that much of what we are is simply given to us and is not a matter of choice. The family we belong to, the nation we conceive of as ours, the language we speak, the way we speak it, indeed, many of our ideas—all these are important, perhaps constitutive, parts of what we are, parts of our very identity, if you will, and yet not a matter of choice. Even if one changes one’s political allegiances and obtains a new passport, it is scarcely possible to cease to be in some fundamental sense a member of the nation you were born into. Similar considerations apply to one’s family. One chooses one’s friends or they you, but one’s family is simply a given. It makes sense to talk of an ex-friend or an ex-roommate or an ex-partner but we would struggle to make sense of someone’s referring to his ex-father or his ex-sister. In matters of nationality and matters of family, we are in what Henry Maine would call the realm of status, not contract. Yet, despite being constitutive of our identities, tradition, for the libertarian, can have, at best, an heuristic rather than a normative function for however much something has been done, for however long, and by however many, questions can always be asked—Is this right? Is this good? Is this the best?—and these questions subvert any ultimate normative claim that tradition can make.
While some libertarians adopt a hostile attitude towards custom, habit and tradition and, in particular, towards religious traditions, this was not the position of the pre-eminent libertarian of the latter half of the 20th century, Murray Rothbard. In an essay on Frank Meyer, who sought to ‘fuse’ the conservative’s reverence for tradition with the libertarian’s love of liberty, Rothbard wrote that custom ‘must be voluntarily upheld and not enforced by coercion’ and that ‘people would be well advised (although not forced) to begin with a presumption in favor of custom…’ A key point of tension between conservatives and libertarians is precisely this question of coercion but if it were granted that one should not be coerced into observing customs or traditions Rothbard, for one, was more than happy to go along with much of conservative thought. In a late essay, he called his fellow libertarians to order, remarking that libertarians often mistakenly assume ‘that individuals are bound to each other only by the nexus of market exchange’ forgetting that ‘everyone is necessarily born into a family’ and ‘one or several overlapping communities, usually including an ethnic group, with specific values, cultures, religious beliefs, and traditions.’
Libertarianism differentiates itself from liberalism (in both its classic and its modern incarnations) and also from conservatism in rejecting the use of force in all cases except those of resisting or punishing aggression. The modern liberal is (or was, until recently) content to use the power of the state to enforce his economic views on all to produce what he considers to be the correct distribution of goods and services while claiming as large a space as possible for personal, especially sexual, morality; the conservative, on the other hand, generally wishes to leave as much space as possible for economic activities while recruiting the state to enforce his moral views on others. Unlike the libertarian for whom liberty operates as a principle across the whole range of human endeavour, both the liberal and the conservative are selective in those spheres in which they will allow liberty to operate. Where a libertarian differs from the conservative in the matter of custom, habit, and tradition is not necessarily in his lack of appreciation of their social, moral and cultural value but simply in refusing to allow their maintenance or propagation by means of force or coercion. If coercion is ruled out, then many libertarians are only too willing to entertain a presumption in their favour.
When it comes right down to it, the difference between conservative and libertarian is not whether order is desirable; it is what kind of order is desirable and where that order is to come from. For the libertarian, genuine order arises intrinsically from the free interaction among individuals and among groups of individuals; it does not descend exogenously from on high. As is clearly shown in the world of business, high level order can emerge without an orderer. Each individual consumer, each firm, orders its own affairs and the relations it has with others. Out of this nexus of relationships emerges a higher level order that is not the design of any one person. No one person or agency, for example, is required to organize the production, transport, distribution and sale of food in a given country. Food producers, transport firms, wholesalers and retailers, each working to their own ends, produce an ordered and flexible outcome that is not planned by any one person or agency.
It is clear that conservatives and libertarians accord liberty different priorities. Nisbet claims that for libertarians ‘individual freedom, in almost every conceivable domain, is the highest of all social values’ and is so ‘irrespective of what forms and levels of moral, aesthetic, and spiritual debasement may prove to be the unintended consequence of such freedom.’ [Nisbet, 21] This is an instructive, if mistaken, judgement. On the contrary, I should say that for libertarians, liberty is the lowest of social values, lowest in the sense of most fundamental, a sine qua non of a human action’s being susceptible of moral evaluation in any way at all. Human freedom can be used for all sorts of actions directed to all sorts of purposes which are then susceptible to moral evaluation but, unless human action is free from coercion, moral evaluation is intrinsically impossible. Libertarians value freedom as a hard core without which morally significant human action is not possible but, to repeat, while libertarianism as such has nothing to say beyond asserting and defending individual liberty, this is not at all the same as thinking that libertarians in living out their lives are concerned with nothing other than liberty. As if to contradict Nisbet, Murray Rothbard, whose credentials as a libertarian none can doubt, remarked that ‘Only an imbecile could ever hold that freedom is the highest or indeed the only principle or end of life’. For him, such a claim is scarcely coherent or meaningful. He agreed with Lord Acton that ‘freedom is the highest political end, not the highest end of man per se…’ [Rothbard 1984, 95]
A libertarian, then, can accept, to a large extent, the presumptive legitimacy of existing social structures but without conceding any inviolable status to them. And a libertarian can be a gradualist in respect of necessary or desirable changes, albeit a rapid gradualist. Such is the complexity of existing institutions that any immediate or radical change is likely to be wildly destructive and perhaps even inimical to a coherent and improved restructuring.
4. Capital: Economic and Social
Men act to improve their situations. In order to act, something about one’s current situation must be apprehended as being capable of improvement and we try to bring that improvement about. A man came across his friend banging his head against a wall and asked him why he was doing this. “Because,’ replied his friend, ‘it feels so good when I stop.” A being perfectly satisfied in every way would not act—it’s a moot point if he even could act! Just as in economics, equilibrium is tended towards but never reached, because of the ever-changing, kaleidoscopic nature of the world, so too, in our human lives, complete satisfaction is never attained but is, at best, intended. Our ever-changing physiological conditions, force us to act to preserve homeostasis. But we are also psychologically unstable and, if St Augustine is to be believed, also spiritually unstable. ‘You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts know no rest until they rest in Thee.’ We can live hand to mouth, as our remote ancestors did, or we can try in a more ordered and long-term way to improve our situations—the way we do this economically is by the creation of capital.
There are bad ideas that, despite their demonstrable and demonstrated idiocy, refuse to go away, vampire notions that just won’t stay in their graves. I’m thinking of setting up a Society for the Flogging of Dead Horses because some dead horses simply won’t lie down and die. One such seemingly indestructible bad idea is Marxism in all its multifarious variety of forms. One particularly annoying aspect of Marxism and Marxists is their complete inability to appreciate the nature and function of capital. This may seem surprising given that Marx wrote a very large volume on that very subject but such is the case. Marx and his latter-day disciples are prey to the ever-popular illusion that consumption is the key to economic prosperity and that capitalists, by exploiting their workers and by hoarding their ill-gotten gains, are guilty not only of theft but of bringing the whole economy to periodic ruin.
The basic fallacy here is a variety of the post hoc, ergo propter hoc—after (or with) this, therefore because of this. Decreased spending is associated with the bust phase of the boom/bust cycle so our Marxists come to think that the bust is caused by the decreased spending. The very last thing that is required in an economic bust is exogenous stimulation of the economy. The economic ‘hair of the dog’ solution’ is just as ineffective in economics as it is in drinking and simply postpones or prolongs the inevitable hangover or retrenchment. You can spend now and save later; or save now and spend later. What you cannot do is spend now and spend later. Of course, the inconvenient truth is that capital is the very first requirement of genuine economic development but capital can be acquired only by a restriction on consumption and by a deferral of immediate gratification. Saving is the key to prosperity, not just for the bloated capitalists but for everyone.
The Marxist misunderstanding of capital hasn’t gone away. The (unlikely) publishing sensation of this year was a massive (700 page) volume by the French economist, Thomas Piketty, entitled Capital in the Twenty-First Century which, as the title suggests, presents itself as a kind of Das Kapital brought up to date. As an account of capital and capitalism, it is just as unsuccessful as Marx’s original, with economic aggregates such as ‘national income’ and ‘return to capital’ dancing with each other in a bloodless ballet. Piketty, conflating real wealth with monetary instruments, is animated throughout by an egalitarian envy of those who have more money than others and, not surprisingly perhaps, he earns the praise of those, such as governments, who have a vested interest in relieving the rich of what governments regard as their ill-gotten gains. Perhaps the book’s most egregious error is the idea that capital is a kind of economic cornucopia whose gifts never fail, like magic beans, but which automatically, even mechanically, produces ever-growing wealth for its owners. Profit, profit, profit is all that capital can ever bring, never, it seems, a loss. This, of course, is true of the kind of government-sponsored capitalism crony capitalism that we see in enterprises that are considered ‘too big to fail’ but it is not true of free-market capitalism.
Capital plays a role in culture just as it does in economics and it is no more miraculously produced in the one area than in the other. Both forms of capital require saving, restriction, limitation, delayed gratification—perhaps initially induced by our family and our society but later, self-imposed.
A civilised existence requires both freedom and order. Just as a sound economy requires capital which is produced by saving, by delayed gratification, so too, cultural capital is similarly produced by delayed gratification. Freedom without order is like a sudden release of energy, a pointless and destructive explosion; order without freedom is a lifeless corpse. Freedom and order together produce a living, vital society.
Cultural conservatism is the Austrianism of culture. Cultural liberalism is the Keynesianism of culture.
5. Manners as Cultural Capital
Burke thought that manners mattered more than law and even more than morals inasmuch as both law and morals in large measure depend upon manners. In his ‘First Letter on a Regicide Peace’ he writes ‘Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in a great measure, the laws depend. The law touches us but here and there, and now and then. Manners are what vex or sooth, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breath in. They give their whole form and colour to our lives. According to their quality, they aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.’ [Burke 1796, 126]
We do not produce and maintain our manners primarily by some process of detached reason. They arise naturally in the context of social relations. Such judgement as they embody is a kind of pre-reflective judgement, what Burke calls prejudice. Manners as prejudices allow us to act swiftly and surely and rightly without the need for agonised reflection and reasoning. At the root of manners is the notion of restraint, of limitation, of delayed gratification, and its product is a kind of social capital, just as the product of fiscal delayed gratification and restraint is economic capital. Burke contrasts this form of ordered liberty with mere licence which is the freedom to do whatever one wants to do without regard to circumstances. Will you have ordered liberty, or will you have licence? What shall it be?
Now, libertarianism is compatible with both Burkean liberty or with Burkean licence. A libertarian can arrive at substantially the same conclusions as Burke with this difference, that the restraints and limitations that channel our exercise of liberty must, with the exception of the restraint of actions aggressing against others, be self-imposed, self-accepted, and not imposed by the coercive power of the law.
When manners decline as the result of cultural decay, then the law (or rather legislation) rushes in to fill the vacuum. Matters that in a culturally rich society sre dealt with by informal sanctions now have to be overtly regulated by laws, for example, date-rape or hate speech, with a consequent intrusion upon our liberty. But the law is a blunt and crude instrument and such micro-regulation is both ineffective and also stifling. man does not live by legislation alone. A society replete with minute and detailed legislation is a society whose stock of social capital had declined and is declining. This, I suggest, is a correct description of much of contemporary Western society. Whether these societies can recover is a matter for conjecture. some societies have done so in the past—but others have not, and have perished.
Order is needed for human flourishing. You can have it, or a simulacrum of it, by micro-managing legislation or you can have it by what Burke calls manners. The choice is your. I know what I would choose.