For this week’s installment of Contra-Statist, we wanted to take on a new foe: the pseudo-intellectual right, this time taking on Patrick Deneen of The American Compass and his assertion that we libertarians are controlling everything right now. Buckle up, because there’s a lot to dissect from this borderline unreadable piece (who exactly is the market for this anyway?) masquerading as a scholarly article.
Washington Post columnist George Will has added his voice to that of Brad Thompson in decrying the rise of an un-American conservative authoritarianism, represented, among others, by such thinkers as Adrian Vermeule, Sohrab Ahmari, and yours truly. Will and Thompson invoke the American Constitutional tradition as the cure for this “anti-American” threat from the Right. The tradition they seek to defend, according to Thompson, is the “classical liberalism of the founding era [that] assumed individual rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness” and that “government must be impartial in adjudicating rival conceptions of the good life.” Similarly, Will argues that the Constitution reflects a belief in “limited government respectful of society’s cumulative intelligence and preferences collaboratively revealed through market transactions.” The Constitution, according to Will (echoing Thompson) establishes “a regime respectful of individuals’ diverse notions of the life worth living.” In other words, America was founded as a libertarian nation.
A few things right off the bat:
1. I would say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ regarding America being founded as a libertarian nation; America as conceptualized in its founding didn’t cross-off every libertarian check box, most notably the fact that slavery – one of the most stark examples of hurting people and taking their stuff - remained in tact. However, the fact that a nation was centered around individual rights (even if it was just the rights of property-owning white men) was a major inflection point in world history considering the thousands of years in which any freedoms the people experiences were purely at the whims of their rulers.
2. What part of life, liberty, property, and/or the pursuit of happiness are you so opposed to, exactly? Because that’s exactly where this is heading.
Were we to focus more or less exclusively on some passages in the Declaration – as Thompson does – this might be a plausible claim, since it is the Founding era’s most Lockean document.
In addition to being the most Lockean document, it’s also the one whose ratification signified the founding of our Country. After all, we celebrate our Independence Day on July 4, not on the anniversary ratification of the borderline theocratic Massachusetts Constitution (and, yes, that will come up later).
Thompson might want to read this 1774 sermon by Nathaniel Niles on 1 Corinthians, delivered on the eve of the Revolution in Massachusetts. Niles (a member of Congress during the Founding generation) expressed a commonplace from the pulpit that connected a true form of liberty, understood as governance over one’s self-interest, to a commitment to the common good. Invoking an ideal of liberty completely opposite to that of John Locke, he stated: “imagine a state whose members are all of a free spirit; and then attend to the glory and pleasures of liberty. The individuals are all of one mind. They unite in the same grand pursuit, the highest good of the whole.”
If we would learn how great a tendency liberty has to produce happiness, we must consider it in such circumstances as give it an opportunity to do good.
Let us then, for once, imagine a state whose members are all of a free spirit; and then attend to the glory and pleasures of liberty. The individuals are all of one mind. They unite in the same grand pursuit, the highest good of the whole. Only suppose all the members of such a state to be acquainted with the best means of promoting their general end; and we shall seem them all moving imperfect concert. The good of the body will be their first aim. And in subservience to this, they will impartially regard the particular interests of individuals. You and I shall perfectly unite in our regard for your interests and for mine. Your interest will not be the more dear to you, nor the less so to me, because it is yours. In these circumstances, there would be no room for the emotions of any of the angry painful passions; but, on the contrary, every soft and pleasing affection of every soul, would be called forth into vigorous and harmonious exercise. Every individual would choose to move in his proper sphere, and that all others should move in theirs. This would at once constitute pure felicity, and exalted beauty. How good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity: Such a state of things, in the little community of a single family, must be productive of great good. But should it take place through a nation, each family would enjoy the same good from its own domestic circumstances, beside the far greater pleasure which would accrue to each individual from a consideration of the same happy condition of the whole.
Will and Thompson would have us believe that endorsement of a conception of liberty that orients us toward the common good was never before heard in the American tradition until the likes of Vermeule and Ahmari. In erecting their distorted construct of American philosophy, Will and Thompson present a version of the American tradition comparable to Pravda’s efforts to color the Russian tradition as exclusively communist.
In case you didn’t hang in there for all 484 words of that last blurb, the author is essentially arguing that:
1. American 18th Century political philosophy was not monolithic (nobody was actually arguing this).
2. Some obscure congressman’s sermon is on equal or greater footing with Thomas Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Freaking Independence.
3. Our Republic was founded on a communal commitment to an arbitrarily defined common good rather than individual rights and liberty…and, oh by the way, George Will is basically like the propaganda arm of the evil Soviet Union which was founded on a communal commitment to an arbitrarily defined common good.
The claims of Thompson and Will require us to dismiss a vast area of thought, argument, theory and practice during the nation’s founding period that was decidedly not libertarian. A confrontation with the far more complex and variegated philosophical and theological sources of that period, and their ongoing influence throughout much of American history, would require recognizing that such libertarianism has never been present in any actual operable political form during America’s history.
And yet, here you are claiming that you need a movement to take back American from us.
Indeed, as a school of thought, a pure form of philosophical libertarianism was not a significant presence in American history until its articulation as Social Darwinism in the early 20th century.
“Libertarian” derives its root from the Latin “libertas”, meaning freedom so, my casual question: can you really not think of any major movements, perhaps in the mid-19th century, centered around freeing people? Really?
It did not become an influential economic school of thought until the mid-twentieth century under the influence of several foreign thinkers, F. A. Hayek and von Mises (and later, Ayn Rand). I wonder whether Thompson and Will consider themselves as dangerous members of an un-American fifth-column, influenced by a coterie of Austrians and a Russian ex-pat.
Whoa, we’ve fringed a bit into xenophobia! Nice twist! Have you ever wondered why heroes of libertarianism left their homelands and chose to come to America, of all possible places?
Don’t wonder, Rand specifically let us know:
“America is the land of the uncommon man. It is the land where man is free to develop his genius – and to get its just rewards. It is the land where each man tries to develop whatever quality he may possess and to rise to whatever degree he can, great or modest. It is not the land where one glories in one’s mediocrity. No self-respecting man in America is or thinks of himself as “little,” no matter how poor he may be. That, precisely, is the difference between an American working man and a European serf.”
- Ayn Rand, 1947
“America’s founding ideal was the principle of individual rights. Nothing more – and nothing less. The rest – everything that America achieved, everything she became, everything ‘noble and just’ and heroic and great and unprecedented in human history – was the logical consequence of fidelity to that one principle. The first consequence was the principle of political freedom, i.e. an individual’s freedom from physical compulsion, coercion, or interference by the government. The next was the economic implementation of political freedom: the system of capitalism.”
- Ayn Rand, 1974
In order to argue that a “common good conservatism” is antithetical to the American tradition tout court, Will and Thompson must contrive an American tradition that then – as now – has only held sway among a relatively small number of elites. A fuller and more accurate telling of history – even of the Constitution – suggests that it is Will and Thompson that are outside the mainstream of the American tradition.
The problem with his “common-good conservatism” argument is that it relies on an objective truth on what the common good is. Ask a nation of 330 million people, and you could get 330 million separate answers on that. As far as the Constitution – there is a general welfare clause and some broad powers available to Congress that arguably fall under serving “the common good”, but there’s also a 10th amendment saying that the powers not delegated to the Congress are reserved to the states and to the people, which is a pretty glaring statement on the side of the individual rights.
Let’s take the example of the Bill of Rights, which Thompson explicitly invokes as one of the key founding documents of the purported American libertarian tradition. The proposal and passage of the Bill of Rights was the great victory of the so-called “Antifederalists,” a group of men who opposed the ratification of the Constitution on the grounds that it designed a political system that would lead to political centralization, the rise of judicial tyranny, the creation of a professional military that would be inclined to foreign adventurism, a commercial republic that would accumulate debt and undermine civic virtue, and the eventual hollowing out of the prerogative of states to govern themselves.
So, the Bill of Rights – which you’re contending is NOT a part of libertarian tradition – was a victory of people who supported decentralization, opposed foreign military interventionism, and feared out-of-control debt. So, in other words, libertarians.
The First Amendment – forbidding Congress from the establishing of religion and free exercise thereof – is, doubtless both for Will and Thompson alike, primary proof that the Constitution was established to preclude government influence in establishing any preference for “the good life.” This talking point by both Will and Thompson perhaps dupes people who take their understanding of the American tradition from the mid-twentieth century ACLU, what used to be a left-liberal position that has now gravitated rightward. The Bill of Rights was in fact proposed and ratified in order not merely to forbid the government from establishing a religion, but prevent the federal government from interfering in the existing State establishments. It was Congress that was forbidden from establishing a religion, not the States. The first of the Bill of Rights was a protection of the state responsibility to protect the moral frame without which human society might descend into looting, rioting, and an orgy of violence.
By this definition, the first amendment only prevents government interference into the state churches of the states that existed in 1791; alternatively, it presupposes that the founders felt that every state government that would ever comes about would meet their and your moral ideals.
Thompson lauds the State constitutions as yet more evidence of the pure libertarian founding that was indifferent to religious questions – neglecting that most of those State constitutions at the time of the Founding included a positive requirement to profess a belief in God. Like many state constitutions at the time, the Massachusetts Constitution established rights of property and conscience, but also empowered the state to create and fund religious institutions and also mandated duties of worship: “It is the right as well as the duty of all men in society, publicly, and at stated seasons to worship the Supreme Being, the great Creator and Preserver of the universe.”
A couple more things:
Like the institution of slavery that we inherited, enforced standards of morality was the norm throughout much of human history. The new nation had just liberated itself from an Empire with a literal state church. That fact that state constitutions including this language wasn’t unique; the commitment of individual rights to life, liberty and property were what represented deviations from the norm – and thus, the libertarian moment that Will and Thompson are presumably referring to.
More to the point – is this what you want? Because a state that can impose a standard of morality upon the populace won’t be guaranteed to enforce your standard of morality. More likely, the state will enforce a standard of morality antithetical to your own. Do you want to be on the wrong side of that stick?
Will and Thompson write these parts of the state constitutions out of the American tradition, as well as the First Amendment’s original intention of protecting these establishments, acting as if our Founding Fathers were indifferent to questions of morality, piety, and virtue, satisfied merely with market forces. By stripping away the emphasis upon duties borne by anyone who owns property, possesses guns, or expresses an opinion – duties that derive from God as much as our rights – we destroy the benefits of such rights by turning them into the narrow possessions of cramped and selfish individuals, thereby instituting among ourselves the “war of all against all.”
How? How do people acting in their own rational self-interest destroy the benefits of anyone else? Do you think conflicts between individuals originated with Ayn Rand’s emigration to America? What Bible have you been reading?
Until recent times, America has never been so foolish to consider itself a libertarian nation, much less had such a view advanced by so-called “conservatives.” We have had a libertarian public policy imposed by the mainstream of each political party: libertarian economics by elites on the right, and libertarian social ethos by elites on the left.
A truly libertarian economic public policy would involve no taxes, no regulations, no barriers to trade, and no Federal Reserve.
A truly libertarian social ethos would involve decriminalizing all drugs and all sex-work.
This is not the society we live in (yet). We live under the largest state that has ever existed in human history, one that fights bloody wars abroad while amassing the largest prison population in the world.
Will and Thompson mistake this aberration – foisted upon an increasingly recalcitrant and unhappy public – as the sum of the American tradition, rather than an aberration and deformation. In truncating the breadth and fullness of the American political tradition, and by mutilating it to fit into their cramped and ahistorical libertarian ideology, Will and Thompson (and their compatriots) diminish the prospects for a genuine restoration of the American tradition. Their effort to rewrite American history in order to force a truncated libertarian ideology upon the nation is rather … un-American.
And there you have it. The author has summarized that American tradition is not libertarian based on the words of some random 1770's delegate over our founding documents written by someone on Mount Rushmore. Then, he argues that some combination of Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, Ayn Rand, and/or the ACLU turned us away from our tradition in the 1950’s and, despite living under the largest, most expensive government in the history of humanity, that this is a manifestation of libertarianism.
Somehow, in all of that, the author never offers any elaboration of the following:
1. What he thinks libertarianism is (I don’t think he has any idea).
2. What makes our current, highly taxed, highly regulated society the epitome of libertarianism.
3. Why either current society or actual libertarian society is less preferable to his ideal.
4. Any evidence whatsoever that individual freedom, to the extent we have it, is unpopular.
5. Any evidence that a society with government enforcement of a moralistic code would choose his – and, conversely, and consideration of what would happen to him if society chose to have government impose the moralistic code of, say, ANTIFA.
It’s abundantly clear that the author has no idea what libertarianism is, especially since his gold standard examples for libertarianism are relatively mainstream centrist thinkers like George Will and Brad Thompson. If we lived in an even remotely libertarian society, the Libertarian Party would have more than exactly one congressman and would not be constantly agitating for change to the status quo – but it’s important to recognize that there are also those on the right (since they’re often less vocal than the authoritarian left) who feel the government doesn’t control you enough.