You've got to give some statists credit. Henry Fairlie, among them, has one of the finest noses, detecting even the most remote threat to their health and welfare. Writing in the New Republic (January 6, 1979), Fairlie decries some advances toward liberty as reactionary—"the rejection of the long teaching and experience of our civilization that it is only by concern, care and compassion for others that we may survive and progress as individuals and as societies."
What is the reaction he specifically has in mind? "The 1970s has not been a decade of conservatism. There might have been something to be said for this. [What? Why?] Rather it has been a Decade of Reaction, for which the preparation has been long and sedulous. We are being led by the conservative intellectuals, and they are leading themselves no less, into the garden of weeds and nettles that Ayn Rand helped to prepare for us. If that seems too vulgar, it must be said that one of the key conservative works [sic] of the 1970s, Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia, is no less vulgar in a radical libertarianism, as we are asked to consider it, that is really nothing but a self-indulgent permissiveness—which any true conservative should resist by instinct—speciously given the dignity of a moral system.:
Mr. Fairlie probably composes his essays by instinct, since he commends that to others. And instinct would seem to guide him here—at least in the form that instinct can be conceived of in human affairs, as reliance on past habits and forms of thought regardless of reason, logic, and the facts of reality. For by such reliance, he has concocted a morass of innuendo, half-truth, fable, whimsy, and pseudo-poetics that he wishes to pass off as serious intellectual commentary on the state of our culture in our epoch.
Consider the passage just quoted from Mr. Fairlie's recent outpourings. If this decade is the scene of a reaction, what of it? A reaction here means wishing or attempting to turn things around, to return to earlier habits and practices. So understood, a reaction is not good or bad per se; it depends on what is to be revived. In the Soviet Union a reaction now would most likely be a hard-line Stalinist attitude. Senator Goldwater was called a reactionary in his 1964 presidential campaign because he wanted to reestablish certain principles of politics closer to what the Founding Fathers had in mind than to what the modem liberal welfare-statists envision as appropriate for a human community.
The reaction that Mr. Fairlie laments is the fact that—contrary to what his literary, philosophical, and political heroes have preached—many people, proud and humble, are tired of being the patsies of Mr. Fairlie & Company. The buzzwords permissiveness and self-indulgence are meant to condemn any such rejection of self-abnegation as a means of personal and social survival. To strive for a successful, healthy, prosperous, free life is to be self-indulgent. To seek a political climate in which various and sundry characters are prohibited from regimenting us for purposes of carrying out their version of "concern, care and compassion" (read: the welfare state) is considered an embracing of permissiveness.
Poor Ayn Rand. She received no prominent recognition at all during the heyday of her philosophical and literary activities. She has been abused by conservatives and liberals alike. (Her philosophy isn't even respected much by contemporary libertarians such as Robert Nozick and Murray Rothbard, judging by what is said about her by these representatives of what Mr. Fairlie calls "the rip-off,…an honest description of the new libertarianism.") And now she is being credited with having laid the groundwork for what Mr. Fairlie finds distasteful (to his instincts) in our age.
I suspect there is a subtle, if subconscious, trick here. Mr. Fairlie is, apparently, going on the offensive. (That he feels the need to do so should encourage all individualists and libertarians, overt or latent.) He finds any hint of the death of altruism and collectivism such a fearful prospect that he is calling to arms all those with similar instincts. The strategy is clever. It was through complacency that those who wanted to live in a free society, pursuing their own happiness, lost the political and intellectual momentum. Mr. Fairlie apparently fears a similar complacency among the reigning collectivists, and to stem the reaction against his "long teaching and experience," he hopes to foster an alliance between left and right collectivists. These two factions have a lot to quarrel about, of course, but they have even more to lose if the libertarian alternative makes any headway at all.
Mr. Fairlie is disgusted that we "find ourselves electing people to office, then giving them no authority to govern us." What a preposterous assessment of our political circumstances. Only someone completely in accord with contemporary statist trends could articulate it—wishing, one must assume, for totalitarian governmental measures, in contrast to the present relatively confused, more or less petty although widespread tyranny of the various levels and arms of government. This preposterous assessment does give us a hint, though, about who is reacting to what, and what earlier state of affairs we are being asked to fully restore.
This is indeed the crucial point. There is now some minimal hope that, with the enormous failure of the politics of "concern, care and compassion for others," some advance can be made in the direction of the original radical alternative that the United States represents. The libertarianism Mr. Fairlie castigates as "barbarism" is the bona fide American political system, and if we work hard and are lucky enough we may see it, somewhere down the road, resurrected as the major revolutionary alternative to the many centuries of tyranny and semi-tyranny that have been mankind's "long teaching" and horrible "experience."
What Mr. Fairlie and others don't like about the libertarian drift of our culture—or the hint of it his sensitive nose has detected—is just what Madison observed almost 200 years ago, in Federalist 14. "Is it not the glory of the people of America, that, whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestion of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience?"
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Behold the Guardians of Tyranny".