The Libertarian Praxis Problem: Part 1

I have not attempted to re-write this post, intended to be the first of at least two, as anything other than a “comment in reply” – or, to be more precise, as a comment in reply to comments in reply to comments in reply. 

We had begun on the notion of a “libertarian moment” in American politics: whether it ever occurred at all and whether the decline of Rand Paul’s presidential candidacy marked its passage into history. Discussion eventually moved to the the question of a proper home for a “liberty interest” on the American left-liberal/right-conservative spectrum. The comment by “pillsy,” with which I begin below, points to a much broader investigation, for which this post and the intended follow-up might serve as a preface. For those interested in pursuing the topic beyond the parameters of a post or two, I have also posted a preliminary bibliography/postography at my own blog, and I would be happy to take recommendations for it either here or there.


Thanks, pillsy, for your thoughtful and articulate comment.

At one point when addressing my argument directly, where you assert the authenticity or principled basis of Leftists’ commitments to liberal values, I think you confirm it where you mean to refute it:

Of course there is such a principle [binding the Left to liberal values]: free speech is essential in order for the left to organize and advocate for the kind of change it wants to see. The history of free speech activism in the US is heavily entangled with the history of leftism because leftists were so often the people the government wanted to silence.

Quite so, but precisely as an example of a commitment that is, as you state it, thoroughly contingent: The Left, in your depiction, does not favor freedom of speech as an end in itself, but as a practical necessity in relation to the Left’s actual primary interests, including its organizational self-interest or survival interest.

A deeper underlying connection of the Left to ideal liberalism must be considered at some point ((In short, the ethical concept of the Enlightenment or of the philosophical modern pre-existed the Left; leftism, especially after Marx, developed in a complex filial relationship with individualistic and idealistic worldviews: Revolutionary communism is also based on a theory of liberation: In the passages where Marx himself envisions the world to come after the proletarian revolution, we are all finally able to be authentic libertarians for the first time.)), but, on this side of the Revolution, as both critics of the Left and leftists themselves have observed (or advocated), the organized Left in liberal-democratic political cultures seeks to exploit the primary commitments of its enemies against them. In its organizing efforts it looks for and finds those who take bourgeois values and institutions seriously as ends in themselves. Because the Left’s commitments are not to those values and institutions, it can, once in power, or once the organizing objective has been achieved, discover their dispensability, and, cut to the chase (at least as the critics write the movie): the Terror, the Purges, the Gulag, the Cultural Revolution, and the Killing Fields – or, rather less climactic, “PC” speech. ((Comparing the last item to the first ones is on its face ridiculous, but laughing it off is to ignore the genealogy of “political correctness” (a hand-off from Maoism to the new social movements during the 1970s), and to diminish an underlying totalitarian impetus and corrosion of essential precepts.))

For you, the axis of conflict seems to lie elsewhere, on the question of property rights and economics. What distinguishes right from left for you are “elements of how people on the right view free speech” bound to “a commitment to expansive property rights and unfettered commerce,” and which therefore “conflict strongly with leftist values.” From the classical liberal perspective, this observation repeats and reinforces the prior one, since for you the leftist view depends on subordination of the rights of the individual: The Left separates freedom from property ideally – since, at root, “property is theft” – even as the rise of the Left portends the actual separation of real individuals from their property or what they had thought was their property.

For the American libertarian, or for classical or philosophical or ideal “liberals” – “liberals” broadly speaking –  freedom of speech is essentially, as it were inalienably and self-evidently, bound to “expansive property rights” and “unfettered commerce.” All derive from and return to an ontology of the individual: In the distinctive, defining statements of Early Modern philosophical systems – in other words in the best and newest thought available to the Founders and Framers of the best and newest government – the thinker will begin with the singularly undeniable fact of his or anyone’s being or consciousness (e.g., Descartes’ “cogito”), then proceed outward via the senses and activity (e.g., Hobbes’ “motions”)  to presumptive ownership of all they encompass or encounter ((Hegel’s discussion of “Property” in Elements of the Philosophy of Right summarizes, synthesizies, extends, and systematizes this typically Modern orientation – proceeding from premises such as in the first paragraph of §44 (emphasis in the original):

A person has the right to place his will in any thing. The thing thereby becomes mine and acquires my will as its substantial end (since it has no end within itself), its determination, and its soul – the absolute right of appropriation which human beings have over all things.

)) – until, of course, a collision with someone else’s being or consciousness or ownership. Property rights, among other rights, stand in these systems, and in our own society, as the pre-adjudication of such “natural” collisions wherever possible, otherwise as the basis of their lawful containment. During the movement from Early Modern to Modern in philosophy and history ((…with continual reliance on the ancient thinkers and prophets but with a logic given ever clearer, more idealized and therefore universalizable enunciation, second nature now for most of us, but for the same reason not often articulated)), thought, inquiry, and speech emerge as the most inviolably personal property of all: Within the system as a social system, so for any and all of us, treating your right to your own opinion – your freedom of thought, inquiry, and speech – becomes inseparable from treating you yourself as my and anyone’s equal, or treating your good as always implicitly a good in itself for both of us.

At this point uniquely the otherwise contradictory commitments of democratism and of individualistic liberalism meet, unite, and, in the theory of liberal democratic government, necessitate each other. In Locke’s work, the argument emerges in specifically theological terms: I must be free so that I may authentically pursue my salvation, so that my choice for the good and the true is a free and therefore authentic and salvifically creditable choice, not a path chosen for me or forced upon me by others. Moreover, from this would-be universal, but also originally Christian and Protestant perspective – freedom of religion being the test at issue for Locke, the stakes being the highest imaginable and including but not limited to personal and collective physical freedom and safety, war and peace, and the constitution and justification of the state – the government that interferes with its citizens or subjects in this way would be putting their souls at risk, so committing the gravest offense imaginable against them.

In 2016, on the internet, I probably need to request explicitly that non-religious readers interpret such terms non-dogmatically or ideally, and understand the category of the divine and concepts of eternal salvation as rough synonyms for common (no less vague) terms of secular discourse referring to the morally sound, the minimally acceptable, the necessary, and so on. Despite this difficulty, I choose Locke in part because his thinking, especially via the Radical Whigs, was so influential in America during the late Colonial period, but the thought joining the concept of the individual to the concept of the just (or best achievable) order as an in this sense liberal order receives parallel expressions from Hobbes to Hegel, with or without explicitly theological (or anti-theological) grounding. ((The contemporary left critique of Locke – as a slave-mongering hypocrite, in short – points directly to the contradictions I intend to address in more detail in the next post.))

The material success of the American project realizes, but also obscures, distorts, and finally puts into question its own original idealism. Two hundred and forty years after the Declaration of Independence, the re-assertion of its premises tends to be the mark of crisis, whether in a true crisis of the state, or in the travails of one or both political parties in a presidential election campaign, or in a controversy over an academic’s email, or even in disagreement over gendered pronouns. The point in relation to our discussion is that, when crisis occurs, the libertarian can derive a commitment to freedom of speech, as freedom of speech of the individual, universally, from an ethical standpoint that in turn rests on an ontology or worldview. Put more simply: The political position can be derived from (can be shown to have derived from) an ethical position, which in turn can be derived from philosophical principles. To the extent that the Left stands for commitment to a social principle or counter-principle in the first position, or to the derivation of the good for each from the good of all, it cannot perform the same operation to the same end. Yet neither can the Right, even if American conservatives can call upon history to stake a superior and prior claim on classical liberalism, since the Right also derives the good of each from the good of all, if from an alternative position on the good.

From the reverse angle, this situation presents, and has always presented, a difficult if not insuperable problem. Metaphysically individualist libertarianism places the individual in first position and proceeds from there, but placing the collective rather than individual good in first position is the natural presumption and pre-supposition of politics. In other words, at the moment that philosophical liberalism is adopted by or encounters the Left or the Right, it begins to detach – both logically and practically – from its origins.

Examining this problem for liberalism generally, for the libertarian movement such as it is, and for partisans of the American Left and Right will require a return to the original, more general question, as to what the notion of a “Libertarian Moment” in American politics might even mean for us.

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    1. […] of the claim that property is thieft fits neatly within this framework. My comment in the post [cross-posted here] about property as the “pre-adjudication” of the natural collision of individual rights is […]

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