TCS Daily


Marxism of the Right?

By Max Borders - March 10, 2005 12:00 AM

Until this article by Robert Locke appeared in The American Conservative, conservatives and libertarians have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship. After all, there is so much on which they agree.

But can it last? Distortions like this one should make us wonder:

        "Free spirits, the ambitious, ex-socialists, drug users, and sexual eccentrics 
        often find an attractive political philosophy in libertarianism, the idea that 
        individual freedom should be the sole rule of ethics and government."

Since Mr. Locke tempers these characterizations of the lib-curious with the word "often," one can no more verify his claim than take issue with it. Still, I should mention that I know a number of libertarians who don't even drink caffeine -- much less smoke crack -- due to their personal and religious choices. As one of my colleagues is fond of saying to those ignorant about our movement: "You're thinking of libertinism." Mr. Locke is, perhaps, guilty of the same error.

And that's what makes this article titled "The Marxism of the Right" so fascinating in its contradictions. One can assume that Mr. Locke counts himself among those ready to wield the power of the state in defense of his cloudy notions of "the moral," i.e. to prevent the ambitious from getting too avaricious (one of the seven deadly sins, you know), or to keep sexual eccentrics from using VapoRub in ways unintended by God. If anything is clear in his article, it's that Mr. Locke's only contact with libertarian thought comes from "cocktail parties, on editorial pages, and on Capitol Hill." Consider this definition:

        "This is no surprise, as libertarianism is basically the Marxism of the Right. 
        If Marxism is the delusion that one can run society purely on altruism 
        and collectivism, then libertarianism is the mirror-image delusion that one 
        can run it purely on selfishness and individualism."

The notion that libertarians believe society ought to be run based on "selfishness" indicates that Mr. Locke frequents cocktail parties with Objectivists, not libertarians. First of all, most libertarians don't think society should be "run" at all, rather -- as Hayek taught -- society should essentially run itself. If we have the appropriate rules of non-harm enshrined in proper institutions, society is, while a complex system, a self-regulating one. The very notion that it can be "run" is a form of the fatal conceit, which has evidently entranced Mr. Locke.

Social norms like citizenship, community, patriotism and the like can be wonderful (and diverse) epiphenomena of these underlying rules -- but they are meaningless without said rules. And they don't need to be enforced by religious zealots, communitarians, or lesser Pat Buchanans.

Mr. Locke goes on to say:

        "Like Marxism, libertarianism offers the fraudulent intellectual security of 
        a complete a priori account of the political good without the effort of 
        empirical investigation. Like Marxism, it aspires, overtly or covertly, 
        to reduce social life to economics."

Notice how Mr. Locke attempts to create a dichotomy through philosophical claptrap. First, he wants to pigeon-hole all libertarians into the simplistic category of a priorism. While some of us are Kantians or (eh hem) Lockeans, such is certainly not universal in our ranks. Indeed there are at least as many types of libertarian as there are prefixes to be fitted with "con." Are such fallacies of generalization typical among paleo-cons?

Libertarian thinkers like James Buchanan and Jan Narveson, for example, are contractarians, which means they don't rely on a priori truths for their justification and are -- in many senses -- moral skeptics. If the charge of a priorism was meant to suggest that libertarians simply don't use evidence to support their claims, I would say that is just false -- and wonder about such a curious accusation coming from one who claims that the existence of pornography "vulgarizes" society. (I can't think of anything less empirically verifiable.)

The assertion that Marx "reduced social life to economics" is amusing if not misguided. While I realize that Marx's labor theory of value was economics in some vague sense, most contemporary economists are reluctant to give a footnote to Marx in Econ 101 textbooks. Perhaps the better description of Marxist thought is an attempt to "reduce social life to materialism." This more accurate description of Marx has nothing to do with libertarianism, and with that correction, Mr. Locke's cutely constructed "mirror-image" theory collapses.

Mr. Locke's biggest mistake comes in the common -- but false -- conflation between individualism and selfishness. All we libertarians are saying is that we are prepared to direct our own "altruistic" and "collectivist" urges in ways that the government simply cannot and, indeed, should not. We are collaborative and cooperative -- and radically so. And, yes, we think that since the market in goods and services is dynamic, the market in making positive changes in peoples lives can be dynamic too. Call it Tocquevillianism on steroids. If Mr. Locke would like to call this a reduction of everything to economics, I suppose we're guilty.

In a sense, we do believe that all human values are economic. One makes an economic choice when he gives his money to Bob Jones U or the Nature Conservancy, rather than to Wal-Mart. But if Mr. Locke thinks that doing "moral good" means the government should continue stripping resources away from people and their communities to be managed by the moral elite in Washington, he is more than mistaken -- he is a part of the problem.

I will forego any lengthy criticism of Mr. Locke's quasi-philosophical discussion on the nature of "good," which terminates in this sentence: "Taken to its logical conclusion, the reduction of the good to the freely chosen means there are no inherently good or bad choices at all, but that a man who chose to spend his life playing tiddlywinks has lived as worthy a life as a Washington or a Churchill." But I will say that if we were all Churchills, we would have no heroes. For the state to get involved with trying to create Churchills is not only likely to fail, it is likely to infantilize a population. Do we want to "create" people incapable of independent action? If we are to take Mr. Locke's implicit rationale to its logical conclusion, we should expect his manual for "how to make inherently good choices and live a worthy life" in the next edition of The American Conservative.

I must admit, Mr. Locke does raise some good questions about the nature of common goods:

        "But some [goods], like national security, clean air, or a healthy culture, 
        are inherently collective. It may be possible to privatize some, but only some, 
        and the efforts can be comically inefficient. Do you really want to trace every 
        pollutant in the air back to the factory that emitted it and sue?"

Libertarians often disagree about the nature of common goods, and a lot of great innovations have come out of these discussions. But these disagreements are no more fatal to our movement than conservatives' internal arguments about whether the Ten Commandments should sit in state courthouses or whether the war in Iraq was justified. Libertarians have been the ones asking whether some private roads might actually be a sound alternative to traffic snarls. (Only now are conservative politicos picking up on innovations like HOT lanes.)

Libertarians are the ones asking if private initiatives and market forces will help clean the air and conserve natural lands more effectively (and efficiently). And while no serious libertarian discusses the idea of tracing pollutants back to smoke-stacks, we were the first to propose market alternatives to the environmental regulatory morass that was begun under -- and we proudly lay claim to insightful theories like public choice that show how government can scarcely well provide for the "public good" even if it wanted to.

But according to Mr. Locke, libertarians need to consider other "hard questions," like:

HQ: "What if it needed to limit oil imports to protect the economic freedom of its citizens from unfriendly foreigners?"

A: Why would we want to cripple our economy in pursuit of an autarkic fantasy? (Besides, how can vehicles without oil protect us?)

HQ: "What if it needed to force its citizens to become sufficiently educated to sustain a free society?"

A: This is like asking whether we need a state religion to preserve religiosity.

HQ: "What if it needed to deprive citizens of the freedom to import cheap foreign labor in order to keep out poor foreigners who would vote for socialistic wealth redistribution?"

A: Why can't we simply have constitutional checks on redistribution?

Granted, some of Mr. Locke's cited "hard questions" are hard, and we've been going over them for a long time. In addition to questions about genuinely public goods, we wonder about whether conscription might be necessary to protect our freedoms in war; or whether open borders without assimilation are dangerous to our institutions. Some libertarians are pragmatic, not just "abstract and absolutist." Most libertarians don't think of children as full agents deserving full freedom despite Mr. Locke's invented claims of libertarian "idiocy." And while there are some extreme libertarians who are against state-sanctioned care for the senile or the insane, few if any libertarians are opposed to volunteer-driven and philanthropically funded care for those who represent a danger to themselves or others -- and this might require oversight of some form to ensure folks aren't harmed.

On the question of drug legalization, Mr. Locke would have done well to put his pen down. Even some conservatives are starting to see that the War on Drugs has done little or nothing to clean up inner cities and has created an underclass of prison inmates unnecessarily. The resources the state has wasted in trying to control people's personal lives is appalling, and its failure is evident (yes, there is empirical data for this fact). And "drug users who caused trouble" would be put in prison. Why Mr. Locke assumes otherwise is disturbing, because it appears he really hasn't looked to libertarian resources on this. Putting drug users who cause trouble into prison is a heck of a lot simpler and less costly than imprisoning people simply for possessing or using drugs -- all out of a moral imperative that is not universally shared.

The sad part about this article is that Robert Locke sounds like many people. Behind all of his golden mean rhetoric, Locke assumes that an inefficient bureaucracy with a monopoly on power can not only spare us from the "extreme costs" of our free choices, but effectively identify them. Many good thinkers since Frederic Bastiat have spent the last century and a half showing how unintended consequences end up doing us more harm than good. We should wonder how Mr. Locke or anyone else thinks he has finally figured out how to fix complex society. This anointed power-class, while they usually disagree on almost every policy issue, does agree on one thing: that they should be in power.

Locke believes he has reached the point of full-tilt profundity when he claims:

        "Empirically, most people don't actually want absolute freedom, which is 
        why democracies don't elect libertarian governments. Irony of ironies, 
        people don't choose absolute freedom. But this refutes libertarianism 
        by its own premise, as libertarianism defines the good as the freely 
        chosen, yet people do not choose it. Paradoxically, people exercise 
        their freedom not to be libertarians."

Mr. Locke should consider something more ironic. In a truly free society, people will be just as able to enter into collective arrangements with people who have also chosen to forego so-called "absolute freedom." Mr. Locke and I can start a Hutterite commune where everybody shares the work and bows hourly to a statue of Edmund Burke as a condition of residing there. I can't imagine why in the world Mr. Locke puts so much faith in democracy while simultaneously implying that inexpensive foreign laborers that might turn 'commie pink' on us should be kept out.

Locke's economic assertions in this next passage rival those of Paul Krugman:

        "There is not the space here to refute simplistic laissez faire, but note for 
        now that the second-richest nation in the world, Japan, has one of the 
        most regulated economies, while nations in which government has essentially 
        lost control over economic life, like Russia, are hardly economic paradises. 
        Legitimate criticism of over-regulation does not entail going to the opposite 
        extreme."

There is not the space here to explain the complexities of economics to Mr. Locke, but suffice it to say that Japan has been successful despite stultifying regulation, and those regulations (most notably in banking) are showing signs of making the country's economy sclerotic. Russia, on the other hand, has only been "free" for fifteen years and has lived close to a century without the formal or informal institutions to make a market economy and a free society tick. Nevertheless, it is still growing at close to six percent per year.

I will close this article without addressing Mr. Locke's visions of how libertarianism in practice would unleash "sadomasochism" and other caligulan horrors. Suffice it to say that libertarians know that we are able to exercise self-restraint not because the Great Nanny in Washington threatens us with chastening, but because we belong to communities, families, and relationships in which the values of healthy living are naturally grown orders.

Max Borders is a libertarian by day, libertine by night in the Washington, DC area.

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