Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Trouble with Libertarianism

I am the Secretary for my homeowners’ association.  Before you start pelting me with rotten tomatoes or yank my H&F contributor privileges, please hear me out.  We had our reasons for opting to live in this neighborhood but ultimately my reasons aren’t important and no one should have to justify what appeals to them about where they choose to live.  What matters is that no one unduly imposes their vision of happiness on anyone else, and as we all know HOAs have a reputation – sometimes deserved, sometimes not – for doing just that.  Here in Texas growing anti-HOA sentiment led to a mini revolt that culminated in an overhaul of the state’s laws governing HOAs in 2012.  Under the banner of “reform” and cries for liberty Texas adopted a number of changes, expanding the code that deals with HOAs to 47 pages containing nearly 13,000 words.  Texans are supposed to be thankful for this ‘release’ from tyranny.  Call me an ingrate if you will but I see things a bit differently.
The neighborhood where I live was planned as an HOA from its inception, which means this particular HOA wasn’t forced on anyone, and as I wade through page after page of regulations we now have to follow on top of our own by-laws I am left to wonder:  Whatever happened to freedom of association?  If a group of like-minded homeowners with a shared interest in creating a certain type of living environment want to form an association for that purpose, what gives others the right to say we can’t or to impose onerous rules and regulations that make it overly burdensome to do so?  Imagine if a group of ‘free-speech’ activists began targeting sites like Hardnox & Friends, demanding, in the name of liberty, that anyone be allowed to post articles and imposing a list of rules and regulations that, to their way of thinking, better protects the free speech rights and thus the liberty of other individuals.  Such crusades, I am finding, are often more about imposing one group’s preferences with respect to liberty at the expense of someone else’s notion of liberty.  Pushback against increasingly tyrannical HOAs seems to have been answered by another form of tyranny masquerading as preservation of liberty (BTW, why not simply have a law that prevents Associations from forcing pre-existing homeowners into HOAs or from amending their CCRs without a super-majority?  One simple sentence.).
Whether we like it or not the exercise of individual “rights” is in many respects a zero-sum game.  My “right” to drive my car as fast as I want must be balanced against your “right” to be reasonably safe on the road; my “right” to enjoy loud music late at night must be balanced against your “right” to sleep or just enjoy a bit of peace and quiet on your own property.  Outside of what is guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, no one can always have 100% of what he wants without stepping on the “rights” of someone else, which is why libertarianism can be a tricky thing and why I’m troubled by what looks to me like a growing movement in that direction.  As we increasingly hear people proudly proclaim, “I’m a fiscal conservative and a social libertarian,” now seems like a good time to examine what that means.
What exactly is a libertarian?  Just like the term “conservative” the label tends to be co-opted by groups and individuals seeking to mold it around their own unique beliefs, and dictionary definitions seem to have little relationship to reality, not to mention that even those are all over the place.  Keeping in mind the oft invoked “social libertarian” phrase I would distinguish conservatism from libertarianism this way:
Conservatism advocates limited government and the inviolability of individual rights while at the same time also recognizing the importance of and giving great deference to the preservation of societal systems and mores.  It recognizes that neither the individual nor societies can exist without one another, in the same way that Siamese twins who share vital organs depend on each other’s good health.  A certain amount of harmony is essential within society in order for individuals to flourish and for the continuation of mankind to be ensured.  It is, in short, an adult’s ideology; it accepts reality and the need to sometimes sacrifice short term satisfaction for long term prosperity and security.
In contrast, libertarianism places much greater weight on the “rights” of the individual, to the point of sometimes dangerously ignoring what’s necessary to preserve and nurture society.   While it is immensely nobler in motive than liberalism, it shares two of liberalism’s more unfortunate traits, the first of which is arrogance.   Arrogance is when an unremarkable community organizer/politician presumes to “transform” a government founded by some of the best minds in American history, or when the wife of a president presumes to know more about feeding children than parents and schools that have been successfully feeding children for centuries.  Likewise, libertarians are known to be arrogantly dismissive when it comes to the lessons learned and imparted by past societies.  Like the new manager who fails to get to know a business before insisting on drastic changes, libertarians are unconcerned that past societies have universally rejected behaviors like prostitution and recreational drug use, or that they heretofore unanimously restricted marriage to opposite genders.  The adult stops, observes and asks, “Why?”  The child plows ahead without pausing to consider what potential dangers lay ahead, or perhaps assuming that any dangers won’t affect them.
The second trait libertarians share with liberals is an unrealistic view of human nature.  Just get government out of the way, they tell us in their quest to be freed from the limits society imposes on them.  People will behave themselves, you’ll see.  If that were true then there would have been no impetus for the laws we have.  If people didn’t drive recklessly we wouldn’t need speed limits.  If people didn’t litter, we’d need no laws against littering.  Didn’t we just have a nurse who had been exposed to Ebola ignore the risk to others so she could travel?  Does that episode support or disprove the notion that people can be trusted to think of others before they act?  The reality belies the spin and leads me to conclude that libertarianism isn’t so much about the principled quest for freedom for all but is instead about protecting the “right” to do whatever the hell one wants regardless of the impact on anybody else.  Conservatives fear government because all too often it places power in the hands of the wrong people.  Libertarians don’t like government even in the hands of the right people, which in theory is all of us.
Libertarianism sounds good.  Heck, who isn’t for liberty?  But the question is:  how does one define liberty?  If I’m legally forced to recognize same-sex marriages, is that liberty?  If my neighborhood is overrun by drug dealers, pimps and prostitutes whose “rights” I am commanded to respect, is that liberty?  If I and other like-minded individuals want to form our own community with mutually agreed-to rules but others say we can’t, is that liberty?  If my nation’s hands are tied against preemptive acts of self-defense, is that liberty?   These are the questions that make me discomfited by the “fiscal conservative, social libertarian.” 


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  1. Excellent post, spot on, you have articulated what is conservatism and what it is not. Libertarians attempt to convince others that they are the true representatives of conservatism. In fact in too many areas their concept of liberty skirts on the edge of outright anarchy. They, as do all Utopians be they Right or Left, believe that good morals are innate and well understood, one need merely choose good. But determining what's good is to the libertarian, completely subjective -- absent a higher power -- so long as it isn't directly harming another person or their property. The vast majority of Libertarians I've associated with do not believe in an objective GOD or any GOD based religion for that matter. Personally I believe it's exactly that mindset which leads to chaos and eventually totalitarian regulation by the very men and women who believe their understanding or concept of liberty is better than that of anyone else.

    1. Thanks very much for your kind words, AfterShock.

      I agree, libertarianism flirts with anarchy, and that phenomenon underscores its juvenile nature. With respect to religion, my experience with libertarians (mostly our old “friends” Anarcho and Moshe but a few others as well) revealed not just an absence of belief in God but an ugly disdain towards those who do. That’s a striking difference between libertarians and conservatives, many of whom may not be religious but who are still respectful of those who are and appreciative of the positive influence religion can have in society. Ultimately their disdain is in keeping with that juvenile aspect of libertarianism that doesn’t want anyone placing limits on doing whatever the hell they want, and of course most religions advocate or require personal discipline.

    2. RE: Religion -- I advocate the principles of the 10 commandments and that those simple laws came from "the" true GOD, for the ultimate success of mankind. One can choose for one's self whether to believe GOD exists and is the source, but it's impossible to argue against the efficacy of those laws given the state the world was in before them and their incredible influence after they were received. So while non-believers are free to deny GOD at their own risk, they deny the truth and necessity of GOD's 10 laws to the detriment of everyone.

  2. Its funny that neocon 'arguments' against libertarianism (or rather, I should say, the strawman they construct and put in its place) are more-or-less identical, philosophically, to those put forth by progressives.

    1. Well hello, Henry.

      If you think I’ve mischaracterized the nature of libertarianism, by all means feel free to set the record straight. The description I’ve provided is based upon the numerous debates I’ve had with self-professed libertarians over several years, and it pretty much fits them all to a T. So far it appears to fit you as well.

      As for your contention that conservatives and progressives are philosophically alike in their disagreements with libertarians, you’re wrong. You must be, as there is no underlying philosophy to progressivism, and therefore no basis for a shared philosophical disagreement. If you disagree then pray tell what is this mystery philosophy, I’d love to know. Just remember that it isn’t conservatives who form alliances with progressives in organizations like the ACLU. It’s libertarians and progressives who have bonded for a common cause.

    2. LOL…I don't think libertarians forming alliances to protect things like freedom-of-speech makes us progressives…just like us forming alliances w/cons to protect things like gun-rights doesn't make us cons.

      To just focus on one of the many logical fallacies in your article:

      "…the individual nor societies can exist without one another…"

      This is akin to saying a "tree nor forests can exist w/o one another". Totally false statement. Societies are amalgamations of individuals; i.e., "society" is concept, just another way of saying "group of individuals" whereas human-beings exist in reality not a concept.

      And, you're right…cons and progs don't have a philosophy (which is based on logic) but an ideology (which is fundamentally based on mysticism). The ideology you have in common is Collectivism…the idea that the individual MUST be sacrificed (pretty ancient and ignorant concept) for the good of the whole.

    3. BTW, we can see the mysticism I referred to creeping into the comments section w/references to god/religion.

    4. 1. If you sincerely believe that progressives want to protect the free speech rights of EVERYONE then you are even more naïve than I guessed. You are talking about THE SAME people who routinely try and bar conservative speakers at college campuses, who control other’s speech by bullying anyone who won’t bow to their demands for political correctness, who physically attack conservative speakers and who try to drive anyone they disagree with out of business. Your so-called libertarian brothers have repeatedly told me to “shut up,” so great is their devotion to free speech. So LOL yourself.

      2. When I’m talking about man’s existence I am referring to man as a species. Sure, ONE individual can exist outside of society…until he dies, and then that’s it. Once he ceases to exist there is no more man and no more society. But if the species is going to continue – which is the instinctual drive of humans - then men and women must live together and create children, obviously, and those children must live somewhere with access to other people so that they too can eventually procreate, and thus societies are the inevitable result. Notice how they are all over the place? So it is not a fallacy to say individuals and societies can’t exist without one another, it is a fact (unless you think it’s fine and dandy for the species to die out. Good luck selling people on that!).

      3. I didn’t say conservatives don’t have a philosophy (nice try).

      4. I didn’t say the individual must be sacrificed (nice try again). I said the individual must make sacrifices, and that’s absolutely true. Have you ever lived in a household with other people? Did you make as much noise as you wanted whenever you wanted, or did you control yourself out of consideration for others? Did you walk around the house naked and toss your trash wherever it pleased you or were you respectful of your housemates for the sake of peace? That’s what I’m talking about, and that has nothing to do with collectivism (“collectivism: a political or economic theory advocating collective control especially over production and distribution;” – Merriam-Webster dictionary).

  3. Like all previous, aging generations who've grown too old to understand the younger generations or comprehend that their aging ideologies/systems are no longer working or wanted, you people (insane conservatives and liberals belonging to the worst-generation-ever Baby Boomers) are also gonna be shocked when we (libertarian-trending 13th Generation) ground your crumbling ideologies/systems (and maybe you too if you don't get out of our way) into dust.

    You spoiled and soft brats (who grew up in an age of unparalleled prosperity which you and your parents' generations squandered w/your Big Govt. welfare/warfare programs) are probably at your peak of political power now, but you're aging FAST…the future battles won't be between so-called 'conservatives' and 'liberals' who are about 99% in agreement philosophically, but between authoritarians (you) and anti-authoritarians (us)…and we don't intend to play nice by your go-along-to-get-along rules and "gentleman's agreements". And, sorry, but you're not getting the 'free' social-security and medicare you spoiled/soft/socialist brats think is your birthright.

    One fine day in the intermediate future we'll be stuffing you your decrepit carcasses into nursing homes…and then we'll get to the task of dealing w/mess you've left your children and grand-children.

    1. I presume you are a Ron Paul supporter, like all of the other libertarians I’ve come across, so it’s ironic with that choice of leadership that you attempt to make this a fight between the old and the young. I hate to disappoint you but I’ll probably be around quite a bit longer than you’re assuming, and neither I nor my friends have any intention of playing nice with you either. Your ignorant comments about social security and Medicare make it clear that you haven’t bothered to investigate my writings before presuming to judge, which is a common failing of your special brand of angry libertarianism, and it perfectly supports my point about the childishness mentality of too many who call themselves “libertarians.”

  4. The trouble w/Collectivists/Progressives (both Left-wing/Democrat-voter and Right-wing/Republican-voter) is that they fail to understand that the state is made up of INDIVIDUALS who are every bit (I'd say likely far MORE, being it takes a certain kind of human to dive into dirty politics) as susceptible to the desire to infringe on their fellow human's freedoms as people not in the state.

    The failure in logic Collectivists make is SO DAMN BIG they can't even see it…you fret about some individuals infringing on the freedom of others and your 'solution' is to give a small group of INDIVIDUALS ("the state") the PRIVILEGE of infringing on the right of a much larger group of INDIVIDUALS ("the citizenry"). In the mind of the Collectivist, the second a human individual walks through the doors of the legislature, executive, or judiciary they are transformed into selfless angels immune to the temptation to use their political power to benefit themselves and their 'friends' at the expense of those w/o political power.

    100% Mysticism...

    1. And what is it you claim as your “freedom?” The right to do whatever you please regardless of how it impacts anyone else’s freedom? That’s how a six-year old thinks, not an adult. You are, as my friend above alluded to, basically an anarchist, which is as foolish as it gets for the simple reason, nay fact, that government is inevitable. It exists everywhere, and always has, in one form or another. That’s not my wish, it’s reality and you can’t change it. Time to grow up and deal with it.

      If you think I’m a collectivist then you don’t understand what that term means, like too many so-called libertarians. Your ‘solution’ to the tyranny of big government is to advocate anarchy. Great idea! Have you seen what’s going on in the Middle East these days where anarchy is taking place? Do you see a governmentless nirvana emerging or do you see one tyranny simply being traded for another? Be honest and grow up.

    2. Let me address another one of your inconsistencies:

      "If I’m legally forced to recognize same-sex marriages, is that liberty?"

      According to YOUR logic, yes, this is liberty. Why should you be allowed to make an individual choice in this matter when "society" has made this decision for you? We can't have individuals making whatever decisions they want, can we? Since you agreed to abide by "society's rules" you agreed to recognize same-sex marriage. Same w/ACA, same w/universally-legalized abortion. You AGREE w/these policies since you choose to live in "our society". So, you are an ACA and abortion supporter too! If you don't agree w/these things, however, you're free to move to another country or deserted island.

      Not so fun when YOUR OWN 'LOGIC' is turned against you, is it?

    3. Dear “Henry,” “Unknown,” or whatever you’d like to be called,

      I’d love to have a serious debate with someone on the subject of libertarianism, but you’re a dishonest man who is incapable of honest and rational debate, as evidenced by your repeated attempts to misquote me and false claims such as that it was “society” that redefined marriage when in most cases it was a handful of individuals overstepping their authority. You and other anarcho-libertarians have made it your hobby to sneeringly criticize and ridicule the philosophies of others as if you alone are the holders of some great secret that the rest of dummies haven’t clued into yet; pray enlighten us with this secret, magic formula you’re holding that would free us from the chains of government! No wait! Let me guess. Shall we just cease allowing or partaking in anything that smacks of government? No more legislators, no more courts, no more police, no more nasty rules and regulations. Is that the ingenious secret you’ve been keeping from us that no one else on this earth has ever considered before now? All these stupid people for generation after generation, from every corner of the earth, and not one has ever considered simply dismantling the state and saying, “There! No more state!” How can that be? I mean, obviously you anarcho-libertarians are intellectually superior and all, but are we that blind to have missed the obvious all along? Or could it be that people were too busy either trying to tyrannize their fellow man or fight against the tyranny to see what was obvious all along? That must be it!

      Good bye, Henry. Move to Chile already. I’m sure they’ll welcome your ideas about anarchy with open arms, and you’ll soon be living in blissful freedom.

      Good luck!