David Brooks’ Anti-libertarian Dance


By David Beilstein

DAVID BROOKS, our pesky so-called conservative columnist over at the New York Times stuck his foot in his mouth. I continue to scratch my head at GOP animus toward Libertarianism (of the consequentialist variety) when it comes to national politics. Have no fear, however, Reason’s Damon Root wrote this response,

In a column this week, Brooks surveys the state of the American right and declares it to be in terminal decline. The root of the problem, he explains, is libertarianism. Traditional conservatives, those who favor a society that functions “as a harmonious ecosystem, in which the different layers were nestled upon each other: individual, family, company, neighborhood, religion, city government and national government,” have been surpassed by those who “upheld freedom as their highest political value” and “spent a lot of time worrying about the way government intrudes upon economic liberty.” The result of this libertarian triumph, Brooks argues, has been a disaster for the American right. “Since they no longer speak in the language of social order,” he claims, “Republicans have very little to offer the less educated half of this country.”

Given the trajectory of the conservative movement away from Buckley-ian and Reagan-esque conservatism — a fusion of libertarian and paleo-conservative ideas — the GOP has failed miserably to win majorities. The GOP won a majority recently, once, in 2004 —by a squeaker. While Brooks appears to send an ode to Burke-ian classical liberalism there seems to be little Edmund Burke in conservatism today.

On top of this, the GOP faces larger electoral problems in the future (larger still, if Romney does not defeat President Obama). A documentation of GOP electoral decline, by Pat Buchannan, can be read here. Buchannan’s case is a demographic argument — not an ideological one. Still, the lack of a vivid liberal ideology in the classical sense is casual to GOP misfortunes.

Root continues,

Considering that the 2012 Republican Platform advocates things like “Making the Internet Family-Friendly” by banning online gambling, “vigorously enforced” legal crackdowns on pornography, and “a Constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman,” it seems a little fishy to say the GOP no longer speaks “in the language of social order.” The Republican message needs more libertarianism, not less.”

Add to this, the GOP’s insistence on imposing uniform-cultural values on the entire country rather than protecting “Burkean islands of separation” seems to animate the biggest reason less and less Americans see the Republican Party as the protector of individual liberty and sovereignty.

Take, for instance, Root’s concluding remarks. They resonate with what I blogged on a few weeks ago, here.

Brooks’ larger point is also wrong. As he sees it, free-market thinking is deficient because it “appeals to people as potential business owners, but not as parents, neighbors and citizens.”

But that is a false dichotomy.

Libertarians favor limiting the size and scope of government precisely because they believe that approach will offer the greatest opportunity for people to seek their own happiness, whether as individuals, parents, church-goers, or, yes, even as business owners.

Does that make libertarianism anti-social? Hardly. Libertarians simply maintain that there is a crucial distinction between state and society and they hope to maintain a wall of separation when appropriate so that the latter may flourish.

Consider the ideas of libertarian patron saint Friedrich Hayek. Although he is best known for his warnings about the dangers of a centrally-planned economy, Hayek was equally concerned with identifying and expanding those things that make free societies rise and grow in the first place, such as free trade, voluntary social cooperation, and the rule of law.

Contrary to the stereotype of the heartless individualist, Hayek never held that each man was an island unto himself. In fact, Hayek even suggested that humans might possess some instinctual desire for collectivism, an inheritance from early man’s struggles for food and shelter as members of small groups. As he wrote in his book The Fatal Conceit (1988), “it is true that the greater part of our daily lives, and the pursuit of most occupations, give little satisfaction to deep-seated ‘altruistic’ desires to do visible good.”

Whether or not altruism is truly instinctive, it does seem to be true that most people derive benefit from doing things for others. But where someone like David Brooks would see that as an invitation for the government to step in and take charge, libertarians believe the answer is for individuals to pursue voluntary altruism on behalf of their own family, friends, or communities while simultaneously supporting the limited government that protects everyone’s equal right to do the same.”

Note Root’s insistence upon the protection of those things GOP and ‘conservatives’ most venerate in heart and emotion. The consequentialist libertarian believes what he does because it does animate and preserve the virtuous things in a diverse society. It does it, however, respecting individual rights and Madison’s “factions.” In contrast, GOP efforts to impose uniform values on the civitas, without noticing its myriads of individuality, has created a party lacking electoral focus, and increasingly neglected by the American people as an alternative to the statist left. That’s something the Republican Party, too ensconced in progressive premises, never seems to realise. It’s a severe blindness, overcoming too many on the conservative side — be it Sean Hannity, or other well-known conservatives.

Now, one word comes to mind: competence.

The GOP, sadly, lacks competency. They have lacked competency in many another area affecting average voters. When that becomes a track record, it’s foolish to look around wondering why people are hesitant — or not willing — to pull the lever for you. Republicans have not increased individual liberty, limited the size and scope of government, or brought two wars to uncontested, quick victory, defeating Islamo-fascist metastasis, balanced the budget — or increased American fiscal stability.

A far better explication about libertarianism can be found here. This is where I am, personally. Like William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater, I see a direct connection between classical Burke-ian liberalism (paleo-conservatism) and libertarianism. The problem, it seems to me, is the modern conservative movement when it comes to major expressions politically, has walked away from both.

Certainly, the Democratic Party has not helped. They, too, have been an unmitigated disaster as a party — especially Obama’s tenure. But that is no excuse for the Republican Party to have joined leftist ideological premises in many ways, nor defend the indefensible: governing in complete incompetency.


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