I am part of an enjoyable discussion group, a kind of “cyber cafe” as one of our members calls it. What follows is a brief note of reply to our ongoing discussion about liberty.
I began as a libertarian and felt it was a very exciting option in an increasingly statist world. Loved it.
Then, I began to see that libertarianism is part of the problem, and contrary to its passionate rhetoric, has been feeding us into the hands of the state because of its tendency to substitute Me for We in any political system.
I call it “the simple faith” because it operates on a principle of excluding the reality and importance of human relations in the life of society. This produces the infamous “atomization” of civil society that leads to what I describe as “hyper-individualism” : the clearly false idea that human society is not a corporate body, but merely an aggregate of autonomous individuals. That is what has increasingly exposed us as individuals, to raw and direct state power (by weakening civil society as a protective barrier between the state and individuals).
The so-called “harm principle” is the banner for this. Do whatever you want as long as you do no harm to another individual. This was adapted from Mill, who in his own “On Liberty” , the classic opus on this theme, himself listed a very large number of limitations on liberty, including harm to the corporate body of all. A cowardly act in war, for example, may harm no one in particular, but harm an entire people in general. Rampant public vulgarity may have no individual target, but will demean society as a whole, and so on.
But the idea that any human society will thrive without any conception of the common good, with only a warning not to harm others – a pretty basic negative command of natural law – is simply an impoverished ideal.
In short, libertarianism has no vision of the good. Only of harm. And it relies on the right of individual choice and to private property justify this narrow credo. From whence, it argues, and so very poorly (just one example of false logic) that it’s morally permissible to kill any human being in the womb because if the unborn baby is “unwanted” (the choice mantra), it is “occupying” it’s own mother’s body without permission (the property mantra).
There should be no need to expose the foul and rank stupidity of such an argument, put out principally, if not originally, by Murray Rothbard himself, a kind of doyen of the rise of this thinking.
It is a simple faith because theorists with simple minds – Mill had a very simple mind, if resting on a very high IQ- have seized upon a simple way to relieve themselves of the difficulties of deeper thought and moral struggle.
Mill’s mistress, who eventually became his wife, Harriet Taylor, very successfully rescued Mill from his tendency to draw moral conclusions as if they were simple economic or logical equations, by introducing him to Romantic poetry. Whereupon all Mill’s stodgy utilitarian friends deserted him.
Mill himself ended up banishing logical thought altogether, cited the poetry of Woolworth as his touchstone of real, deeper knowledge (intuitive, rather than logical), and for the short remainder of his life wandered back and forth in his “vibratory” (a hanging garden built for him by his wife) in the south of France where, for years on end, he said he “vibrated” with his new emotional reality.
In short, deeply discouraged by his own simple and unsatisfying moral logic, he became a mystic.
Libertarianism is deeply correct to resist excessive state power, and as deeply incorrect to have set itself up as one of the primary forces attacking what Burke called the “social freedom” – and the social rights and reality – of civil society.