In the current issue of Commentary, City Journal contributing editor Kay Hymowitz criticizes libertarianism as fatally flawed by some internal “cultural contradictions” (this essay may gain greater attention than your typical Commentary article due to its being picked up by OpinionJournal Federation).
When I hear someone cite “contradictions” in social criticism, I usually expect either a rehashed Marxist criticism of whatever modern ill capitalism hath wrought most recently, or a Schumpeterian eulogy for the capitalism that will destroy itself by creating a resentful intellectual class. My expectations were partly right: Hymowitz’s piece provides the latter. And, like Schumpeter, she is only half right.
Schumpeter’s contention that capitalism, by creating the prosperity that allows for pursuits that extend beyond mere survival, gives rise to an intellectual class that, while well-educated, provides little that other people want, and therefore aren’t compensated as well as, say, an industrialist would be. Thus, the intellectuals become disillusioned with the system that begat them because it isn’t “just.” However, the socialist intellectuals did not triumph. They’ve done plenty of evil, but capitalist society still survives and, in some areas, thrives.
In similar fashion, argues Hymowitz, bourgeouis virtues, by allowing capitalism to flourish, give rise to the kind of libertinism that can only arise once the discipline imposed by the hard work of struggling for survival is removed.
That may be, but so what? The fact that some, even many, libertarians celebrate the liberating effect of affluence upon realms of society that extend beyond the state doesn’t make libertinism part and parcel of libertarianism. Reason magazine can defend porn at the same time that the Acton Institute defends traditional morality — and both be libertarian.
Libertarianism is a philosophy of government — and nothing more. Yes, many libertarians may have unconventional aesthetic interests, but that doesn’t make those quirks defining aspects of libertarianism.
Part of Hymowitz’s argument is citing outlier examples.
Murray Rothbard, for example, became a fan of Che Guevara and the Black Panther leader H. Rap Brown. Karl Hess, a libertarian/anarchist said to have written Barry Goldwater’s famous lines about “extremism in the defense of liberty,” was an equal-opportunity revolutionary; during the 60s, he symbolized his move to the New Left by donning a Castro-style beard and jacket. And many young libertarians spent the decade moving back and forth between the right-wing Young Americans for Freedom and the left-wing Students for a Democratic Society.
The point in rehearsing this history is not to play gotcha; many good people did and thought things during those days that they would prefer not to remember (assuming, as the joke has it, they can remember). Rather, it is to suggest that when one’s moral compass consists of nothing more than doing “whatever the hell you want” and avoiding physical harm to anyone else’s person or property, it is very easy to get lost.
And a weak suggestion it is. Yes, and it’s very easy to make poor choices when others aren’t keeping you from doing so. This is nothing more than the charge repeated, in varying formulations, by traditionalist conservatives and some Objectivists, that libertarianism is a call to license. That would be true only if libertarianism were a philosophy of everything, which, again, it is not.
Hymowitz acknowledges that Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek had a “Burkean” respect for a free society’s established institutions, such as the family — but from there she jumps to assert that libertarianism took an “unfortunate turn” toward license.
On the one hand, libertarians make a fetish of freedom; it is their totalizing goal. On the other hand, libertarians depend on the family–an institution that, in crucial respects, is unfree–to produce the sort of people best suited to life in a free-market system (not to mention future members of their own movement). The complex, dynamic economy that libertarians have done so much to expand needs highly advanced human capital–that is, individuals of great moral, cognitive and emotional sophistication. Reams of social-science research prove that these qualities are best produced in traditional families with married parents.
This is where Hymowitz’s argument falls apart. Freedom is not a “totalizing” goal, but a political one. Moreover, undermining social institutions has never been part of libertarian philosophy, and it is not now. So some libertarians “fetishize” freedom from restraints not imposed by the state. Well, many don’t — case in point: the cultural conservatism often in evidence at lewrockwell.com.
I found the following the most egregious case of Hymowitz’s argument by omission:
A libertarian, according to Brian Doherty, “has to believe” that “the instincts and abilities for liberty . . . are innate,” that we possess “an ability to fend for ourselves in the Randian sense and to form spontaneous orders of fellowship and cooperation in the Hayekian sense.” But this view of the relationship between the individual and society is profoundly and demonstrably false, especially when applied to the family.
Children do not come into the world respecting private property. They do not emerge from the womb ready to navigate the economic and moral complexities of an “age of abundance.” The only way they learn such things is through a long process of intensive socialization–a process that we now know, thanks to the failed experiments begun by the Aquarians and implicitly supported by libertarians, usually requires intact families and decent schools.
When has Brian Doherty — or any other prominent libertarian — suggested such insanity as “children emerging from the womb ready to navigate the economic and moral complexities of an ‘age of abundance'”? Humans having the innate ability to live in society and in freedom does not, in any way, imply that said ability springs full flower from the womb with no need for it to be nurtured.
In the end, the one thing that Kay Hymowitz does make clear is that she finds some libertarians’ interests icky, such as “science fiction…an avid interest in space travel…[a]nd…an almost unlimited enthusiasm for biotechnology.”