Viewpoint: Smears on Liberty


We have to face the fact that liberty is not imminent for us, however much Utopians may promise otherwise. When I heard Roger MacBride say that the victory of libertarianism is inevitable (at the Libertarian Party Convention in Washington, DC, last September), I just walked out of the speech. It distressed me immensely that such an idea would occur as even rhetorically palatable to a sane and ordinarily realistic individual. Should anyone begin to believe such nonsense, the prospects for liberty would become even worse than they are now. And they are bad.

Consider, first of all, that the left has not given up in the slightest promoting the powers of the State. Despite decades of demonstration of the failure of State efforts to make the world into a joyous, fully satisfying place for everyone (good, bad, indifferent), the left wing is just not going to give up in its hope. There is no pretense at rational grounds for their perseverance any longer. Even Marxists talk of faith these days. But the religious adherence to the power of brute force is widespread indeed. The Carter victory might have taught the more libertarian-leaning left a lesson, and I am certain that many like Robert Sam Anson of New Times are ashamed at their blind support of the pragmatic, ambiguous Georgian who declared in his first debate that at least Nixon was a good leader! But what these folks lament is that Carter isn't statist enough, that he likes the statism of the old ADA liberal types like Cyrus Vance instead of the more freaky type promulgated by Abbie Hoffman.

The right wing, on the other hand, is not a great help either. For some years now the right has been gaining ground, but not in its support of liberty. Instead it is gaining ground in its efforts to make government change its priorities. The Irving Kristols, Daniel Bells, Ernest van den Haags are after something very different from a free society. They consider capitalism the thing that is responsible for hedonism, for the wild and self-destructive behavior of economic man, for the lack of any currency of the higher values in human life.

These folks want religion. And they don't mind Jimmy Carter, simply because Carter, whatever his economic ignorance, his bureaucratic naivete, his dishonesty, is a born-again mystic. The conservatives may embrace some of the libertarian emphasis on individualism and political liberty when they see these as part of the American tradition, but they have no principled defense of them. They have a vague yearning for high culture, for elite sentiments, for the prominence of the sophisticated and refined. Why? Well, because these things are usually defined in terms of tradition. And tradition today gives us mysticism with its fancy ornamentation that is unthinkingly identified with meeting high standards.

Now conservatives and Marxists both realize that politics alone has not given the liberal democratic tradition its flesh—the culture that politics can only make possible, even encourage, but never create. Indeed, there is much more to life than politics, and in this right and left are correct, while many libertarians (who want to make everything a political issue) are wrong. But because liberal democracy hasn't been accompanied by a fully developed, rich, and culturally robust community, it does not follow that the absence of such a life is the fault of liberal democracy, or capitalism. The fault lies, instead, with the two major movements in recent times, namely materialism and mysticism.

The materialists made it appear that people merely react to their world, so creative efforts such as art, science, philosophy and culture in general fell into disrepute in a materialistic philosophy. Pleasure—the response of the physical organism to its environment in a positive manner—became the only value. And when intelligent people think this way, it is probable that the doctrine becomes influential. It is accomplished by a denigration of values.

Values require standards, and a materialist tradition in philosophy makes the human mind incapable of identifying standards. Standards depend on the knowledge we have of the essence of things, of their nature. But if we get knowledge by responding to reality, we can never know the nature of things because sensory information alone gives us no understanding of that. But then we cannot tell the standards for doing things well or badly, so politics, medicine, science, education and all become conventional, with no firm grounding in the nature of the endeavors involved. So ethics—for example the ethics of the professional educator, scientist, politician, journalist—is unavailable. We are all left to believe in our gut feelings about things, in our vested interests. (That is why economic analysis so often relies on analyzing human behavior on the supposition that everyone acts as he feels like acting.)

On the other hand mysticism makes it all hinge on mystery or blind authority. That is why conservatives love it. What is good, valuable, right, beautiful? What we say. The same story with a different coloring. Religious values are values that some people with power enforce. No doubt, some people who had such power actually hit it right and enforced some decent, even noble values. Just as some of the things we feel strongly about are indeed the right things to feel strongly about. But in neither case do we confront understanding, nor can we be guided by it.

The attack on capitalism is that it rejects value-indoctrination. Neither the left nor the right likes that because for the left the feelings which matter prompts in us will not be treated as decisive, while for the right the "higher" feelings (with religious flavor) won't carry the kind of legitimate power that they claim for them. What capitalism demands is that you convince others of the value of what you hold dear, and only thus can you "impose" such values on them.

Capitalism is the rational economic and culture system. It expects that values, virtues, beauty, and whatever else is good in life enter the community without the gun as an inducement for people to embrace them. It is the fact that in a free society neither those who speak from the gut nor those who speak off the top of their heads can make the rest of us obey that makes this system such a challenging—and at once scary—one for most people.

But those who realize this must not relent on rejecting the smears of the anti-capitalists. Recent books such as Bell's The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Harrington's The Twilight of Capitalism, and Scitovsky's The Joyless Economy are sophisticated smear campaigns against the only system of politics that has made it possible to develop what capitalism's numerous enemies proclaim themselves to be for: culture, wealth, equality of opportunity, health care, etc. Unfortunately the prominent and widely published supporters of the free society refuse to make the proper defense of the system. Friedman, Hayek and the rest keep declining to say what is good, what is right, because they think saying so means they must enforce it; thus they accept their enemy's premises. The rest refuse to go to work on finding personal values and reject what amounts to the modicum of truth in the critics' message, namely that community life needs more than political liberty.

Because those who speak along the present line are not prominent and probably not all that talented with making their point, the prospect of an early victory for liberty is meager. Still, it is certainly worth it to keep up the battle.

Senior editor Tibor Machan teaches philosophy at SUNY-Fredonia. His Viewpoint appears In this column every third month, alternating with those of Alan Reynolds and Edith Efron.