Viewpoint: Secular Fundamentalism


Recently, in National Review, a libertarian named Jerome Tuccille published an attack on the libertarian movement. It was a short description of a small group of libertarian cultists, and of their characteristically futile patterns of thought. The description, in many ways, was accurate, and Tuccille may have performed a service by bringing the problem out into the open. The need to discuss it does not lie in some medieval quest for self-mortification, but rather in the fact that one cannot cure a malady that one does not acknowledge.

The most important perspective one can acquire on the problem of the cultist mentality is to see its universality. It is not unique to libertarians. The problem, in fact, is epidemic in every cultural and political group in the land. The country is literally overrun by liberal robots, emitting their latest trendy responses; by conservative robots emitting the entrenched prejudices of their grandfathers; and by socialist robots, consumerist robots, Black Panther robots, health food robots, gay robots, Moonie robots, feminist robots, etc., etc.—all reciting their sacred texts. To the degree that there is sense or sensibility in any of these movements, they are almost obliterated by the ritualistic incantations.

The reasons for this phenomenon are hard to grasp when the robot is an ally, but they are glaringly obvious when he is not. The knee-jerk liberal, who exists in the greatest numbers, is quite transparent. His reflexive concepts clearly serve as a substitute for knowledge, for thought, for judgment, for independent moral vision. His automated repertoire gives him the illusion that he understands a complicated world, and, above all, that he is a vessel of rectitude. But that is also an explanation of every other kind of "movement" robot. The same mental process is occurring in all—and in all cases it hurls the individual out of contact with reality.

If the libertarian cultist is similar, in principle, to all other cultists, he differs strikingly in details. Characteristically, he is young and inexperienced. He gulps down a few books by libertarian writers, and rushes to change this society before he has understood either this society or the books. He tends to restrict himself to a shrunken conceptual repertoire. It generally consists of a one-note opposition to the evil of government intervention, and frequently this is the only aspect of social reality of which he seems to be aware. Monumentally important political, social, cultural and intellectual problems leave the cultist indifferent. He is only concerned with government misdeeds. His "thinking", consequently, is eternally out of context, and his value system flattened and hostile. His disconnection from what he often refers to as "the real world" leaves him ignorant of the workings of this society. Fixated on a handful of concepts lifted from Ayn Rand or Murray Rothbard or both, he reduces all experience to those concepts, and shelters his reductionism with severe moral rigidity. He is, to cite the illuminating phrase of Michael Novak, a "secular fundamentalist." And it is of interest to note that Mr. Novak was speaking of morally rigid liberals when he identified the phenomenon.

Now, is there a solution for this problem? There is, indeed—and that is why it's so useful to think about cultism-in-general, and not just about the libertarian form thereof. All cultists are gripped by the desire for a simple world which can be explained by a few all-purpose formulas. Thus, the first solution is simply to face the fact that it isn't that kind of world at all. How does one go about such "facing"? By reading. The prescribed regimen is six months of steady reading of specialized journals and books in a half-dozen fields. The cultist will emerge from that regimen staggering in salutory confusion, and equipped with a new kind of certainty. He will know that the world is a very complicated place and that a pocketful of formulas will not explain it. At one fell swoop, he will lose the worst form of his ignorance—his ignorance of being ignorant. And his sense of moral superiority, falsely hitched to three and a half ideas, will die a swift death. He will, we must suppose, still remain attached to the idea of political liberty—but he will realize that just saying his beads ferociously will get him no place.

The second solution emerges from the other major trait of all cultists—namely their disconnectedness from social reality. And again, the solution is tailormade to the symptom: To cure disconnectedness, one must connect. Connect with what? In the case of a libertarian, he must connect with those individuals or groups who are moving in the direction of liberty. In other words, he must look for fellow travellers. If he does, he will discover from his reading that the country is now full of them. There are the philosophers who now know that by defining "rights" as arbitrary grants from the State, they have destroyed the concept of "rights." There are the economists who now know that their Keynesian-interventionist formulas are bankrupt. There are the neo-conservatives who now know that the powers of the State must be curbed. There are the businessmen, labor leaders and workers who now know that the "public interest" regulators are destroying industries and jobs. There are the black leaders who now know that turning blacks into wards of the State is destroying their humanity. All are moving in the right direction. And people who are walking in the direction of liberty should be joined. One should not repudiate such fellow travellers because of philosophical differences; one should connect with them in the area of philosophical similarities. That connectedness will destroy cultism forever, as the libertarian learns what a fight for real liberty, among real people, in a real society, really means. He will learn that he cannot leap, by fantasy, into an ideal world—he must fight for it step by step, with the aid of others.

Jerry Tuccille did not mention it, for reasons best known to himself, but there are many libertarians, today, who are already functioning effectively in this society, who are already struggling to solve specific problems, who are already connected to real people in a real world who share some, if not all, of their goals. Many such libertarians arrived at this sensible state by the simple act of growing up; usually they are older than the cultists. But there's no point in hanging around until one ripens like a cheese. There's work to be done. The most important message I would give to young libertarians is this: libertarianism isn't an imaginary world; it isn't a bible; it isn't a spiritual state; it isn't a chastity belt. It is a compass.

Contributing editor Edith Efron writes a regular column for TV Guide and is the author of several books. Her viewpoint appears in this column every third month, alternating with those of Alan Reynolds and Tibor Machan.