In her book The March of Folly, Barbara Tuchman describes a number of examples in history, from the Trojan War to Vietnam, in which destructive policies were obstinately adhered to even in the face of overwhelming evidence that those policies were faulty and, in fact, massively counter-productive.
Our folly of today could be called the”March of the Liberal Activists,” the parade of those on the political left who are fervently convinced that the solution to every problem, real or imagined or manufactured by government itself, lies in the massive resort to political force: higher taxes and mountains of new regulations.
If there is an alternative to this march to national decline it can be discovered only with an awakening to what a free society is all about: to identify the underlying principles on which a free society is based. It has been the modest goal of this website – and of the original Tom Smith parable (especially Pt. 2) to illustrate what these principles might be. These three principles – Individualism, Private Property, Capitalism – are presented in the chart at the close of the previous essay, “Principles.”
But nothing could be this simple. Right?
The principles are simple. What is unclear is what they would lead to in the real world. To present this arguement requires a broader picture - a picture with a recognizeable label. The desired label is certainly not “liberalism” a term which has been corrupted into the fascism of the left which we see about us today. As Mussolini put it, “Nothing outside the state, nothing above the state.” That’s the “liberalism” of today.
Nor does the label “conservative” quite fill the bill. In general, the conservative looks to his faith, to custom, to tradition, or perhaps to the Constitution as the guide to good government. All of these criteria are of value - but as we are painfully aware, each is subject to different, and often contrdictory interpretations. The result is the endless and inconclusive wrangling which was evident in the debate during Tom Smith Pt. 2:
You base it all on "faith," you say?
Well, my "faith" says the other way!
You say "tradition" is the guide?
New ones move the old aside!
You quote the Constitutions laws?
I quote the "General Welfare" clause!
Nothing's certain, which assures
My argument's as good as yours!
The libertarian, however, starts with the one basic premise: the sovereignty of the individual over his own life, and then lets the chips fall where they may. The term which combines the virtues of traditional conservatism with this clear and unambiguouis basic premise is “Libertarian/Conservative.”
Libertarian/Conservative has not been a widely used term. In his 1962 book Reflections on the Failure of Socialism, writer Max Eastman wondered what to call his own evolving political philosophy. He wrote;
... when challenged to give a name to my position, the phrase
libertarian conservative came to my lips. It has several values that are much needed in the present Babel of labels. It emphasizes the ideal of freedom contained in the old meaning of the word liberal, and avoids the Implication often conveyed by the word conservative that one's whole program is to "sit tight" on what we happen to have. In a world as full of restraints and confinements as this one, "libertarian" sounds as if you were going to do something to remove them. It also sounds as if you are not going to do it through tight-knit secret societies and rabid crackpot organizations whose super-patriotism suggests the beginning of a counter-tyranny rather than an effort to defend and enlarge the freedoms we have. (1)
But then Eastman adds:
For me the word "libertarian" has also the advantage that owing to its past associations, it does not drag religion into a conflict that is strictly secular-economic and political .... (2)
Well, yes and no. Certainly, we do not wish to replace the authoritarianism of the king with the authoritarianism of the church. But it's a mistake to assume that libertarianism is necessarily in conflict with religion. On the contrary, the core value of what would evolve into the Judeo-Christian culture of Free Will could be described as a nascent libertarianism.
For example, when the people asked Gideon (Old Testament, Judges) to be their king, that he and then his son, could rule over them, he relied, "No. I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The Lord shall rule over you."
To Gideon the message from above was not one of submission to a king or to the Pharaoh or some higher authority, but rather a message of free will and of individual responsibility. And the Ten Commandments, of course, also speak of private behavior and of private conscience.
The idea that people should have authority over their own lives in accordance with their own conscience was something new. As Charles Krauthammer wrote in his best-seller Things That Matter, "The bible is not about history; it's about values.” And it's these values – the values of the emerging Judeo-Christian culture - which animate the best in the conservative tradition of today. (And let us note that one need not be "religious" in any formal sense to embrace the essentially Free Will values of that culture.)
On the other hand, many will object to any expression with the word "libertarian" in it. Christianity, they will inform us, emphasizes “compassion” and “charity.” Generally, it is presumed, through higher taxes and ever-expanding government. But hard-hearted libertarians seek lower taxes and smaller government.
Therefore, libertarianism is un-Christian. Right?
Compassion and charity are indeed Christian virtues, and are an important part of any civilized society. But they are private virtues in voluntary response to one's own values. Charity-by-force, extracted by the welfare state, is not charity at all; it is simply stealing, wrapped in the cloak of liberal self-righteousness.
Or worse. In his provocative book The Pity Party, William Voegeli makes a convincing argument that those who promote the vast new spending programs may be less interested in doing good than in feeling good about their own high-mindedness. Voegeli puts it this way:
The perverse determination to assign govenment new social welfare responsibilities, rather than focus like a laser on discharging existing ones as effectively as possible, makes sense if the welfare of the people whom government programs were created to help was never really the main point of those programs. Rather, it was secondary, irrelevant, or even contrary to the more pressing need [of reassuring those who support] such programs that they are admirable people and their political adversaries are not. (3)
Hence the liberal’s apparent indifference toward the endless failures of liberal programs to "help the poor." As described in Tom Smith Part 2:
We exude compassion!
Though our illusions be in tatters,
We're feeling good about ourselves,
And that's what really matters!
Self-righteousness may indeed by one of the urges behind liberal activism, but a greater factor might well be the interesting phenomenon of "Radical Pique." It will be noted that the anti-capitalists in this country and elsewhere are not at all the struggling masses of Marxist folklore. On the contrary, they comprise a comfortable and prominent elite. Generally affluent and well-educated, they represent important segments of the professions, the media, politics, and especially the intellectual community. They are bright, articulate and idealistic. But they are also impatient and resentful. They have all the answers (they think) to the problems of poverty, the environment, the economy, housing, etc. - but the marketplace does not pay sufficient attention to what they are saying!
Here is the essence of Radical Pique: disdain for an economic system which responds to what people actually want rather than to what these bright reformers think they should want. Worse, capitalism rewards those who cater to those wants. But a system so vulgar that it gives more encouragement to a rock star than to a leftist intellectual; or so materialistic that it pays more attention to a consumer than to a consumer advocate; or so insensitive that it rewards a developer who builds needed housing more highly than the environmentalist who opposes it; is obviously rotten to the core!
Unwilling to accept the indifference of the marketplace, the anti-capitalist elite turns instead to the machinery of political force. Hence the determination to politicize issues: to get them out of the marketplace, where the anti-capitalists have no more influence than anyone else, and into the political arena where they have a great deal of influence. With their intelligence, communications skill, and organizing ability, they can load a hearing room or create an ad hoc committee or stage a media event at the drop of a phone call. In this arena they are no longer mere consumers voting with their dollars; they are at last the molders and shapers of society. Political force has elevated them to a position of importance they were unable to achieve through the give-and-take voluntarism of the marketplace.
“Progressives” despise capitalism, then, not because it is undemocratic, but precisely because it is democratic: It responds to what people actually want, rather than to what the liberal elitist wants. Hence Radical Pique.
One unfortuate result of Radical Pique is that it has been so successful in invoking the plight of the poor. In so doing, it has pursued counter-productive policies which actually harm the long-term interests of the poor.
In fact, the greatest benefactor of the poor has not been government at all, but capitalism. It’s capitalism which has generated in this country the highest standard of living the world has ever seen – for the poor as well as the rich.
So, what is the legitimate and useful function of government? The legitimate - and needed - function is to defend the people against aggression, whether from without (the invader) or from within (the mugger or the con man). When government acts outside this limited range, however, then government itself becomes the aggressor, seeking to micro-manage people's lives through the machinery of political force. That is where we are today with (to pick a number out of the air) perhaps 60% or so of the activities of the federal government falling into the illegitimate category.
HELPING THE POOR
The principal rationale for this government over-reach is invariably "to help." To help this or that industry, this or that group, and in particular, of course, to help “the poor.” Yet, the cruelest of ironies is that these interventions do not, in the end, help the poor at all. In fact, it's the poor who are the principal victims of out-of-control big government. Jason L Riley spells it out in his book, Please Stop Helping Us: He asks, :
.... Have popular government policies and programs that are aimed at helping blacks worked as intended? And where black advancement has occurred, do these government efforts deserve the credit that they so often receive? The intentions behind welfare programs, for example, may be noble. But in practice they have slowed the self-development that proved necessary for other groups to advance. Minimum-wage laws might lift earnings for people who are already employed, but they also have" a long history of pricing blacks out of the labor force.
Affirmative action in higher education was intended to address past discrimination, but the result was fewer black college graduates-particularly in the fields of math and science- than we'd have in the absence of racial preferences. And so it goes, with everything from soft -on-crime laws that make black neighborhoods more dangerous to policies that limit school choice out of a mistaken belief that charter schools and voucher programs harm the traditional public schools that most low-income students attend. (4)
Riley, who happens to be black, argues that black problems are not the result of "racism" so much as the deformities within the black culture:
And although black civil rights leaders like to point to a supposedly racist criminal justice system to explain why our prisons house so many black men, it's been obvious for decades that the real culprit is black behavior- behavior too often celebrated in black culture. (5)
Does racism exist? Of course it does. But the most poisonous racism of all is the Racism of Low Expectations, practiced compulsively by white liberals. Their unspoken assumption is that blacks cannot make it without the condescending patronage of high-minded liberals – such as themselves. Hence the nakedly racist programs such as “affirmative action.” Hence the refusal of liberals to acknowledge that there may be a fundamental probem of a disfunctional black sub-culture. A disfunction, as Riley notes, that is aided, abetted, subsisized, encouraged and excused by white liberals:
Liberalism has also succeeded, tragically, in convincing blacks to see themselves first and foremost as victims. Today there is no greater impediment to black advancement than the self-pitying mindset that permeates black culture. White liberals think they are helping blacks by romanticizing miscreants, And black liberals are all too happy to hustle guilty whites. The result, manifest in everything from black studies programs to black media to black politics, is an obsession with racial slights real or imagined ....(6)
In fact, Blacks in general have excelled in every trade, in every profession, in every field of entertainment, and in every sport. And they have done it as every other group has done it - the Irish, the Italians, the Asians the Jews - by determination, skill and hard work. And they have succeded not because of the patronage of white liberals, but in spite of it. Riley concludes:
Much more disturbing is that half a century after the civil rights battles were fought and won, liberalism remains much more interested in making excuses for blacks than in reevaluating efforts to help them. (7)
Helping the poor is just one of many issues. Let’s take a look at a few other hot-button issues and see where the Libertarian/Conservative philosophy would lead us. Three will illustrate the point: Abortion, “Climate Change,” and the ruinous War on Drugs.
The path of non-intervention is not always comfortable. Take the endlessly divisive issue of abortion. The dilemma arises from the fact that both sides have a reasonable point. The pro-choice person believes, correctly, that the woman owns her own body, and that her womb belongs to her, not to her Congressman or to the State. And so it’s her decision to make.
But the pro-life person is equally correct: decent people honor human life and have a special obligation to respect and protect the lives of the innocent and defenseless. Including the unborn.
Both arguments are sincerely held. Accordingly, both sides have every right to plead their case in the marketplace of ideas. But neither side has the right to resort to force – whether it be the bombing of a clinic or the coercive intervention of government!
Accordingly, government should seek neither to forbid abortion, nor by taxation to subsidize or otherwise facilitate it. To the libertarian, issues of private behavior and private conscience are best left to the Priest, the Rabbi and to the parents. The proper position of government is simply “hands off.”
As noted above, the real goal of many liberals is not so much to do good as to feel good; to bask in the glow of their own self-righteousness; to wrap themselves in the mantle of"good intentions."
Initially, the climate issue was called “global warming,” For example, fifteen years ago, Dr. David Viner of the University of East Anglia (famous for its role in the "climategate" scandal) declared that within a few years winter snowfalls would become "a very rare and exciting event," and that "children just aren't going to know what snow is." (8) This gloomy prediction was widely echoed in the media. But with no significant warming over the past 18 years, and with winters about as snowy as ever, a change in rhetoric was called for. Now the impending doomsday is called man-made “Climate Change.”
But is climate really changing? Of course it is! And it's been fluctuating for billions of years - long before the appearance of SUVs and power plants! Does human activity have an impact on climate? Of course it does! If one strikes a match it contributes, to some unmeasureably minute extent, to global temperature!
And so, the government paid “experts” trumpet their meaningless agreement that climate changes and that humans influence it! Oh, the horror!
But there’s not a shred of credible evidnce that human activity has a significant, or even a measurable effect on over-all global climate. But to mention the multitude of failed predictions by this new-age religious cult is to incur the wrath of its vast and well-funded lobby, and to invite the label of "denier," or "flat worlder," or “monster who has no regard for the future of our children." Ardent environmantal cultist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., for example, insists that such skeptics deserve to be imprisoned!
The government pours an estimated 22 billion dollars per year into the "fight" against man-made global climate change, but the only perceptible result, other than to enrich an army of consultants and alleged “climate scientists,” is to expand the role of government. But to the liberal activist, the lack of useful results is irrelevant. What counts is the righteousness of "the cause" - to save the earth for "our children." To the liberal activist, it’s less important to do good than to feel good. And the preferred instrument for this massive do-goodism is, of course, the machinery of big, big, big, and ever-bigger government.
In pandering to the demands of environmentalists, our political leaders ignore the basic premise of the free society (and Libertarian/Conservatism), the sovereignty of the individual over his own life. People should not be forced to subsidize projects which have nothing whatever to do with the legitimate function of government: to protect the individual against aggression. When government strays into extraneous areas – such as bankrolling the religious cult known as environmentalism - then government itself has become the aggressor.
Washington has thus oozed or elbowed its way into every nook and cranny of our lives and has become the most profligate, the silliest and the most irresponsible aggressor of them all.
THE WAR ON DRUGS
As noted, in her book The March of Folly, historian Barbara Tuchman described a number of episodes in history in which destructive national policies were adhered to even in the face of overwhelming evidence that those policies were counterproductive. This nation's War On Drugs would be a fitting addition to Tuchman's list.
The death toll of drug abuse is trivial compared to that of alcohol or cigarettes. The associated evils - pushers on the street corners, police corruption, warring gangs fighting over turf, the billions spent on enforcement activities - are not the consequence of drug use as such, but of anti-drug legislation. Decades of political intervention have escalated a manageable problem into a national catastrophe. Like Prohibition, the cure has been worse than the disease.
The failure of the drug war illustrates what happens when we lose sight of the basic premise of the free society: the sovereignty of the individual over his own life. If a person chooses to take drugs, that’s his choice and his business. (If he endangers others while under the influence, that’s another matter. As with alcohol, that’s when it becomes our business, and that’s when he belongs in jail.)
The unwinnable War on Drugs is another March of Folly; a domestic Vietnam which must eventually be abandoned. There is no “light at the end of the tunnel,” and the costs of the escalating War on Drugs are far exceeding any conceivable benefit. It’s time to cut our losses and get out.
Libertarian/Conservatism is a philosophy based on the wisdom and values of our Judeo-Christian culture, anchored always to the basic premise of the libertarian idea: the sovereignty of the individual over his own life.
This is a powerful linkage. The libertarian element clarifies the contradictions and inconsistencies of traditional conservatism, while conservatism provides the credibility and wisdom of our 3000-year-old Judeo-Christian heritage.
Libertarian/Conservative is a powerful combination. It can win the debate.
More. It can win the world.
1. Max Eastman, Reflections On the Failure of Socialism (Grosset and Dunlap,1962) p. 79
3. William Voegeli, The Pity Party (Harper and Collins, 2014) p. 151)
4.. Jason L Riley, Please Stop Helping Us (Encounter Books, 2014) p. 3
5. Ibid. p. 4
6. Ibid. p. 173
7. Ibid. p. 174
8. "Snowfalls Are Now Just A Thing Of the Past," Charles Onians, THE INDEPENDENT, March 20, 2000.