Fake Libertarians

A cursory examination of the blogosphere courtesy Google News reveals a theme of “fake libertarianism” making the rounds. There are two components to this theme. One pertains to a critical assessment of the extent the moral foundations of Ron Paul fall outside the typical sphere of libertarianism. This examination is a product Paul’s performance in a recent debate where he apparently articulated a view that contraceptive methods are a product of immorality. I would concur that any moral foundation that views sexual freedom as immoral is outside the typical sphere of libertarian moral foundations. But can we equate that to being a “fake libertarian”?

The other part is illustrated by this post at Hillsdale Natural Law Review that repeats a charge that has been cooked up from the bowels of the Heritage Foundation. The charge: Libertarianism is not libertarianism. This is intended as a direct attack on libertarian moral foundations–that they are antithetical to liberty. So the fake libertarians are actually the libertarians. This is an attempt to cast conservatism as the true libertarianism, where libertarianism is defined as “limited government.”

Writes the author, Tyler O’Neil:

Dr. Matthew Spalding, author of the book We Still Hold These Truths – a title which made its way onto the subtitle of CPAC 2012 – explained that “most people who consider themselves libertarians [really just] believe in limited government.”

Yes. Isn’t that what Libertarians believe?

Spalding’s answer is no: “Libertarianism is really based on a different philosophy,” he says, a “radical individualism in which the individual creates their own sense of meaning.”

“Its roots,” he proclaims, “are very different from the roots of the American Founders.”

I would contend, however, that both O’Neil and Spalding have it exactly backwards. Libertarianism in metaphysics refers to a position on “Free Will” that rejects any compatibility of “Free Will” with the path dependency of casual determinism. So we are really talking about “free will” in the popular sense that most understand that term to mean. And I would stipulate that most would in fact accept the metaphysical meaning of Libertarianism while nonetheless rejecting the political meaning of it. Indeed, I would venture that most would reject the determinism/free will position, usually referred to as “Compatibilism,” articulated by many of the classical liberal thinkers. Compatibilism is succintly expressed by Thomas Hobbes’ statement: “Liberty and necessity are consistent.” This simply means that if an agent has a desire for an Action A, then the agent is free if it can do A. Agents are still motivated by reasons. The Libertarian position, however, holds a third condition: the agent can do something other than the Action A. This breaks the path dependency.

I find it amusing that the conservative authors equate libertarian “free will” with radical existentialism. But this is typical of conservatives: they are prone to making shit up and then casting their inventions as eternal truths. Existentialism, as I understand it, simply is a statment that our nature is a product of the stands we take. There are traces of it throughout western philosophy. In the modern form, it generally refers to the conflict of human agency vis a vis its cultural context. Existentialism would hold that Human agency is not only responsible for its actions but also for the values that it holds. This is the source of human angst: to be free means to be reponsible for your own values, your own meaning.

The conservative critique against existentialism is once again ass backwards. Whereas the conservative sees responsibility for one’s own values as a moral foundation for totalitarianism, I would suggest an alternative interpretation: existentialism as an individualist bulwark against a claim of irresponsibility for the inculcation of shared cultural values imputed by rabid Nationalism. The analogy of

Nietsche:Hitler :: Existentialism:Totalitarianism

is a fallacy on the order of school boy logic. The better and more accurate analogy would be

Nietsche:Hitler :: Devine Inspired American Exceptionalism:Totalitarianism

The relating factor is nationalist expropriation of any moral framework to legitimize and indeed glorify hegemonic ends.

Of course it should be made plain that metaphysical libertarianism is not equivalent to existentialism. Existentialism would be just one facet or school within a broader array of libertarian metaphysical views. And it should be further clarified that metaphysical and political libertarianism are entirely two separate things. You can be one without being the other. But I would point out that the conservative essay is an example of the problematic aspects of conservative foundations, foundations that always seem prone to attaching transcendence to culture. The essay implies free will is incompatible with liberty. Now I would suggest that “free will” in many respects reduces to a contextual argument. I’m not sure what practical meaning free will would have had in, say, 13th or 14th century Europe in terms of the ability of human agency to take a stand or rise above the culture(it could be perhaps be argued that there is no Renaissance without the Black Plague). However, certainly in the age of mass communications and global trade, human nature as a product of the stands we take seems to have more relevance. Custom may be our nature but it doesn’t mean we have to be slaves to the one we are born into.

This brings me to Ron Paul. As I argued on many previous occasions, libertarianism(the political variety, not the metaphysical one discussed above) is a social theory and not a moral one. In this paradigm, moral foundations themselves do not identify what a “true libertarian” is. Instead, we are concerned with enforceable obligations and an enforcement regime that does not violate the lockean proviso. So this means it matters not what an agent’s personal preferences are regarding sex outside marriage, birth control, abortion, gay sex etc, but it does matter what obligations are enforced. Libertarian violations are violations against the moral constraints that define the scope of enforceable obligations. The libertarian credo vis a vis the moral constraint is: “live and let live,” which can also be re-stated as “anything peaceful is tolerated.”

Unfortunately, Paul in a more than a few instances has reached into his conservative foundations to contrive enforceable obligations. None more egregious than this “We the People Act” nonsense that unilaterally defines “Life begins at conception” as an enforceable obligation. As such, the proposed law would abrogate “any claim based upon the right of privacy, including any such claim related to any issue of reproduction” from federal court jurisdiction. The law essentially removes any federal court jurisdiction over state regulation of individual sexual and reproductive activity. It would set the stage for Red States to ban abortion and regulate sexual activity on par with the Taliban(I’m not really exaggerating, here, unfortunately).

There is no libertarian defense of this type of outcome. And you can’t make any ridiculous appeals to a Constitutional argument of States’ Rights(or more accurately powers delegated to the States). There is no “Jeffersonian argument,” here. The historical reality is that the United States has never been a Jeffersonian Democracy. States have always used the Federal government to subsidize bad policies. We can go all the way back to the “Fugitive Slave Act” to demonstrate that the Confederacy’s claim of “State’s Rights” translated to other States’ obligations. In the same vein, we can easily demonstrate that our “Red States” are subsidized entities that suck off the teat of federal welfare. So Paul’s proposal is one of selective removal of federal court jurisdiction creating an array of subsidized Taliban satellites that will certainly be looking to the Federal government to “nationalize” local obligations. How long would it take a State that has outlawed abortion in all circumstances to makes it a crime for its citizens to cross state lines to get an abortion? Or how long would it be for the same said States to make it a crime for out-of-state providers to advertise abortion services to its citizens(e.g., over the internet) and demand federal compliance for out-of-state prosecutions and/or extradition into the state for prosecution. Here’s a clue: not long.

Ron Paul is an example of a rule by “libertarians” that can be just as tyrannical as your current master.


4 thoughts on “Fake Libertarians

  1. Regarding the “We the People Act” (WTPA)…

    First, for reference, here’s the core of it:
    The Supreme Court of the United States and each Federal court–

    (1) shall not adjudicate–

    (A) any claim involving the laws, regulations, or policies of any State or unit of local government relating to the free exercise or establishment of religion;

    (B) any claim based upon the right of privacy, including any such claim related to any issue of sexual practices, orientation, or reproduction; or

    (C) any claim based upon equal protection of the laws to the extent such claim is based upon the right to marry without regard to sex or sexual orientation; and

    (2) shall not rely on any judicial decision involving any issue referred to in paragraph (1).

    Your analysis of the anti-libertarian consequences is interesting. I think that many “state’s rights” people start with the assumption that were it not for federal meddling, the states could develop in legal isolation from each other to be more or less libertarian. You clearly show the flaw in that assumption; given the federal system, libertarian principles need to be enshrined at the federal level or else anti-libertarian practices will have the opportunity to be federalized.

    I’m intrigued by the claim that a state could “regulate sexual activity on par with the Taliban” were it not for the constitutional protections that the WTPA would gut. I can think of a few other Federal protections that would restrain state governments. One is the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, which would probably prohibit disproportionate punishments (e.g. stoning for adultry). Then there are due process considerations and the need for search warrents, which helps to make such intrusive laws unenforceable by requiring a high standard of proof. Finally, many of the Taliban’s regulations of sex relied on more general regulations such as segregation of the sexes. It seems like the Feds would nullify sexual segergation laws, but I can’t think of what would be the legal basis for doing so. Some states have “equal rights” amendments, but that is of course something that they could repeal on their own initiative.

    1. Thanx for the comment.

      The argument against Paul is that WTPA is a selective removal of federal jurisdiction in a specific context but that federal jurisdiction would still in fact be used to enforce the “local” obligation. A claim of polycentric law is not valid and really never has been(in the US experience).

      However, my argument is not really one for enshrinement of libertarian principles at the federal level because the feds largely exempt themselves from the things they are supposedly enforcing. Indeed it is the feds that make polycentric law unworkable.

  2. Anyone who wants to know what libertarianism is should read FOR A NEW LIBERTY by Prof. Murray Rothbard. He as libertarians know was the father of modern libertarianism. Rothbard is the be all and the end all of libertarianism. Nothing else needs to be said because no one has ever put it better than him.

    1. Yes, I agree Rothbard is one of the founders of the modern libertarians. I do not agree that he is the be all and the end all of libertarianism.


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