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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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