The 2014 Acton Lecture Series got underway last week with an address from Jay Richards on the topic of “Why Libertarians Need God.” In his address, Richards argued that core libertarian principles of individual rights, freedom and responsibility, reason, moral truth, and limited government make little sense in an atheistic and materialist context, but make far more sense when grounded in a theistic belief system. The video of the full lecture is available below; I’ve embedded the audio after the jump.
John C. Calhoun was a 19th century American vice president who supported slavery and championed state’s rights. Robert A. Heinlein was a 20th century American science-fiction writer who opposed racism and championed space policy. The pair aren’t often mentioned together, but Breitbart’s pseudonymous “Hamilton” claims they represent two kinds of libertarianism.
Today in America, we see two kinds of libertarianism, which we might call “Calhounian” and “Heinleinian.” Both kinds believe in freedom, but they are very different in their emphasis—and in their politics.
I have a soft spot for brash, big-picture claims (like this one) even when they are probably mostly wrong (like this one). One aspect of the essay that is spot on, however, is the assessment of the “elite libertarian synthesis” in mainstream political culture:
Was Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series of children’s books written as an anti-New Deal fable? The Wilder family papers suggest they were:
From the publication of the first book in 1932, the series was immediately popular. And, at a time when President Franklin D. Roosevelt was introducing the major federal initiatives of the New Deal and Social Security as a way out of the Depression, the Little House books lulled children to sleep with the opposite message. The books placed self-reliance at the heart of the American myth: If the pioneers wanted a farm, they found one; if they needed food, they killed it or grew it; if they needed shelter, they built it.
The conservative-libertarian fusionism conversation is gaining new life as discussions and reflections about the state of the Republican party reverberate after last year’s election. Ben Domenech has a particularly worthwhile outline of what he calls a “libertarian populist agenda.”
Last month’s discussion at Cato Unbound also focused on fusionism, and in this post I’d like to bring together some of the various threads to conclude for a vision of conservative-libertarian fusionism (or at least co-belligerence) in the economic sphere.
In one of his discussion posts, Clark Ruper asserts that “a libertarian can be ‘socially conservative’ or ‘socially progressive.'” But he then proceeds to use the research of Boaz and Kirby, which identifies a group as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal-libertarian” as definitive of a new generation of liberty-minded voters. This ambiguity gets precisely at what Domenech calls in today’s edition of The Transom the difficulty posed for fusionism by “the more atheist and agnostic strands of libertarianism, particularly the urban variety.”
It’s easier for these strands to give lip-service to the openness of the libertarian cause to “social conservatives” than to really identify the coherence of conservative social values with libertarianism. This gets precisely at the dynamic I intended to highlight in my initial post about the limitations of libertarianism as a political philosophy of limited government as opposed to a fully-blown world-and-life view. If you think that libertarianism is really a political philosophy that remains largely agnostic about things other than government, then you are more likely to really think that “a libertarian can be ‘socially conservative’ or ‘socially progressive.'” But if you think of libertarianism as an ideological worldview that has to do with maximizing individual choice and autonomy in every conceivable sphere (political or not), then you are much more likely to see libertarianism as entailing social liberalism (or what some conservatives deride as libertinism).
The upshot of this is that I think the key to any constructive fusionism must deal on the basis of seeking liberty in the realm of political economy, something that both conservatives and libertarians ought to be able to unite on. We ought to be able to come together to defend and promote a system of political economy that best promotes human flourishing, particularly by addressing the problem of poverty and the complex challenges of wealth creation. This is in part why I find a movement like the Bleeding Heart Libertarians is encouraging.
In another dialogue about fusionism, Jonah Goldberg asserted that there should always be a “libertarian in the room,” referring to the context of political discussions, because “the libertarian in the room asks the right question: Why is this a job for government?”
I think we might be able to bring Jonah Goldberg and Johnny Cash together on this point, to say that there always ought to be a “libertarian in black” in the room, asking the right questions about what government policies do for the people, particularly the poor. As Johnny sang,
I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he’s a victim of the times.
I wear the black for those who never read,
Or listened to the words that Jesus said,
About the road to happiness through love and charity,
Why, you’d think He’s talking straight to you and me.
Well, we’re doin’ mighty fine, I do suppose,
In our streak of lightnin’ cars and fancy clothes,
But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back,
Up front there ought ‘a be a Man In Black.
Augustine inaugurated a tradition of Christian reflection on the saeculum, the age of this world in which the wheat and the tares grow up together, and the implications of this for common life together. On the relevance of Augustine for modern considerations of political order, I recommend a recent lecture from Eric Gregory of Princeton University.
Aquinas in many respects, and as Gregory points out, should be read as a constructive interlocutor with Augustine rather than in opposition with him. Indeed, Augustine wrote in his Enchiridion that “although every crime is a sin, not every sin is a crime.” Likewise in his treatise on free choice, he observed, “The law which is framed for the government of states, allows and leaves unpunished many things that are punished by Divine providence.”
In this vein, Aquinas treats in systematic fashion the question, “Whether it belongs to human law to repress all vices?” As I contend over at Cato Unbound, Aquinas follows Augustine in answering negatively, and his discussion has some serious implications for how both conservatives and libertarians ought to think about the limits of the law: “Conservatives and libertarians ought to recognize that positive law is not meant to repress all vices or to promote all virtues.”
I’m a contributor to this month’s edition of Cato Unbound, on the topic of “Conservative-Libertarian Fusionism.”
The forum consists of four lead essays from the panelists followed by ad hoc discussion. The first four essays are up:
- “The State of the Debate” by Jacqueline Otto
- “An Unequal Treaty” by Jeremy Kolassa
- “The Death of Fusionism” by Clark Ruper
- “Against Confusionism: Liberty and Civil Society” by Jordan Ballor
Read more about the contributors and be sure to check out the pieces and follow the discussion over at Cato Unbound.
I don’t plan to update with new posts at the PowerBlog as the discussion develops, but I will add updates to this post as appropriate, so if you want to discuss, the comments here are the best place to do that.
Update (5/21/13): I follow up and ask some questions about history and liberty. As Lord Acton said, “History is a great innovator and breaker of idols.” But if conservatives and libertarians differ on their views of tradition, what might that mean for the significance of history?
Tyler Cowen has an interesting column in last Sunday’s New York Times, arguing that despite run-of-the-mill objections to “cold” and “heartless” economic analysis, economics is, as a science, “egalitarian at its core”:
Economic analysis is itself value-free, but in practice it encourages a cosmopolitan interest in natural equality. Many economic models, of course, assume that all individuals are motivated by rational self-interest or some variant thereof; even the so-called behavioral theories tweak only the fringes of a basically common, rational understanding of people. The crucial implication is this: If you treat all individuals as fundamentally the same in your theoretical constructs, it would be odd to insist that the law should suddenly start treating them differently.
James Poulos offers an healthy response, reminding us that “no matter how solid the economic foundation for moral egalitarianism, there’s a thing or two of great moral significance that’s missing.”
Indeed, in attempting to avoid the cliché of cold-heartedness, Cowen risks perpetuating a different one: that economists ignore the mystery and spiritual significance of humanity and human behavior. The instilling of egalitarian sensibilities when it comes to seeing people as people is one thing, but part of this reorientation needs to include a recognition of the features that make each us different. Leveling things is helpful when the earth is rocky, but the bigger problem for the modern economist seems to be his propensity to create craters in the pretty green grass. (more…)