In the September issue of Commentary, Kay Hymowitz surveys libertarianism in the form of a review essay on my book, Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, and reason contributing editor Brink Lindsey’s book The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America’s Politics and Culture (excerpted in our July issue).
The right-wing joust at libertarianism has a long tradition, and Hymowitz’s starts off kinder than most. She credits libertarianism or libertarians with an admirable devotion to free markets and with making a “real contribution to the policy debate in recent years.”
But her ultimate point is, fittingly, a pretty traditional one for conservatives. It’s similar to L. Brent Bozell in National Review back in 1962 (“I doubt whether a movement dominated by libertarianism can be responsive to the root causes of Western disintegration”); Robert Nisbet in Modern Age in 1980 (“a state of mind is developing among libertarians in which the coercions of family, church, local community, and school will seem almost as inimical to freedom as those of political government”); and Russell Kirk in the 1990s (libertarians are “contemptuous of our inheritance from our ancestors…Of society’s old institutions, they would retain only private property”).
Hymowitz concludes that the moral state of America is parlous—and libertarianism is to blame. “It is difficult,” she writes, “to separate the reasons for our abiding social disarray from the trends that Doherty and Lindsey praise and for which libertarians bear a measure of responsibility.”
A libertarian polity, she says, needs the virtues of character that only a traditional family can inculcate. Yet libertarianism is helping kill the family—as well as, in ways she doesn’t flesh out, helping destroy “decent schools.” (Libertarians, as Hymowitz fails to note, mostly advocate private education, and importing as much competition as possible within a state-run system as a second-best solution, as a far better guarantee of decent schools than government education.)
It’s a stern indictment, saying of a philosophy that it is fatal to the very core of civilized human existence itself. But is it a fair one?
Most libertarians have understood that their preferred political arrangement works best with certain extra-political virtues. Libertarianism is a political philosophy, after all, not necessarily a fully fleshed out moral vision. You see this understanding in 19th century libertarian Herbert Spencer’s belief that the state would disappear only when human moral evolution was ready to embrace the law of equal freedom spontaneously. You see it in Ayn Rand’s belief that a full embrace of her Objectivist philosophy from ontology to aesthetics was necessary for a healthy culture. You see it in Lew Rockwell’s 1990s call, enthusiastically embraced by Murray Rothbard, for a “paleolibertarianism” that combines libertarian politics with traditionalism. You see it in the generic sense on almost all libertarians’ part that a world overflowing with people unprepared or unwilling to live productively or in peace with others under any circumstance couldn’t be a successful libertarian one. Hardly a libertarian qua libertarian exists who has ever been a confirmed enemy of the traditional family as a matter of policy—however much they believed in people’s ability to make private choices privately, even ones that might, under some circumstances, damage a family unit.
Indeed, the paleolibertarian argues that a fuller libertarianism would turn out to be the traditional family’s best friend; that without a welfare state or Social Security, traditional family arrangements will be more vitally needed, and thus more likely to stay strong. This requires the ancillary assumption, as per Hayek, that humans have the ability and tendency to develop and hew to social institutions that help them flourish without central control or outside management. That might be arguable, but without some belief in it, it’s hard to imagine why one would give any credence to political liberty whatsoever.
Hymowitz’s article is framed as a critique of a political philosophy and movement. But it’s hard to see what is really political, or even unique to libertarianism, about her complaints about family and social breakdown.
She is not attacking the sort of radical libertarian belief, curious to most outsiders, such as, say, that the FDA should be abolished, or any welfare state at all is a bad idea, and morally wrong to boot. She is tut-tutting freedoms that can damage the family—which include divorce and out-of-wedlock childbirth. These are not freedoms that many Americans believe need to be outlawed, and would be were it not for those overly influential libertarians. She’s attacking as “libertarian” something that nearly all Americans believe we should have the legal right to do, and want to be able to do, even if they might think others’ are abusing that right.
While using the clever argument that certain elements of social and legal libertarianism lead to more government control elsewhere—such as rampant divorce giving judges’ power over custody arrangements—and that “Dysfunctional families create an increased demand for state-funded food, housing, and medical subsidies,” she simplifies the causality by ignoring that un-libertarian incentive-twisting policies like those she lists help encourage family breakdown in the first place.
That people left to their own devices can make decisions that might make them, or their spouses, or their children, unhappy is a grounded fact of life, one of those Permanent Things that traditionalists love to talk about.
But decisions that hurt families strike a death blow to civilization itself, and can't be blithely tolerated. Hymowitz notes that “Today, a record 37 percent of American children are born to single mothers, and the number appears to be on the rise. Most of these children will be either poor or very limited in their ability to move up the economic ladder.”
But American culture, however contaminated by libertarianism’s reckless personal autonomy undermining the family, is managing to slow some bad trends that have worried traditionalists.
A great source of such encouraging data is an article I’ve had in my files since its Spring 2004 appearance in City Journal, by Ms. Hymowitz herself. She notes (over the course of the 1990s mostly) juvenile murder rates falling 70 percent, arrest rates for violent juveniles down 44 percent, juvenile burglary arrests down 66 percent, vandalism at low levels, schools getting safer, drinking and drug use trends among youth falling in the early 21st century, and teen sex (though that trend has stagnated since 2001), abortion, and pregnancy rates falling as well.
On a macro level, the U.S. economy continues to be productive with high employment and high college graduation rates. It seems, as Brink Lindsey argues, that Americans have reached a manageable balance of social libertarianism with an intelligent self-discipline—because such self-control helps enrich them. As Lindsey has written, “The strength of this desire, and not the fading hold of old cultural forms, provided the basis for ongoing commitment to middle-class self-restraint—self-restraint as a means to exuberant self-expression.”
Hymowitz says that libertarianism’s creed:
described by Doherty as “[P]eople ought to be free to do whatever the hell they want, mostly, as long as they aren’t hurting anyone else”—is not far removed from “if it feels good, do it,” the cri de coeur of the Aquarians.
Actually, one can believe “if it feels good do it” is a bad way to run your life while still believing in the political principle of people being free (from outside coercion) as long as they aren’t hurting others. So those two ideas are as far removed as “I don’t think it’s good for you to do this” is from “I should use violence to prevent you from doing this.”
If you don’t understand that distinction, it’s not just that you
haven’t kept up with supposedly wacky radical modern libertarians
such as Karl Hess and Murray Rothbard. You haven’t even kept up
with John Stuart
Mill. And you are accepting a political principle that
constricts human liberty to a very narrow range indeed, one in
which no disapproved urge or action is safe from state
interference. It’s the kind of narrow range of freedom in which
even most families—the bulwark of human social development and,
yes, also human individuality—would find it hard to thrive.
Senior Editor Brian Doherty is author of This is Burning Man and Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.