Do-Good Libertarianism


REASON's first quarter century was about as successful as the intellectual journalism life gets. Around the time the magazine got under way, the world was independently turning away from authoritarian politics of all kinds—from the jack-booted totalitarianism of Lenin and Hitler to the subtle, pseudo-constitutional oligarchy of Pulitzer, Wilson, and Theodore Vail. Thus, as Bob Poole & Co. created a new journalistic idiom in which to articulate the classical-liberal understanding of the state and the individual, the world, searching for the road out of serfdom, naturally beat a path to their doorway. Today, it seems, nearly everyone is speaking the language of free markets and free minds.

And the result is…Bill Clinton.

Clinton, the center-seeking crypto-leftist Democrat, illustrates both how much has been accomplished and how much remains to be done. People, even leftish Democrats, have put away a lot of the old statist rhetoric, taught themselves to speak the language of freedom, and are experimenting with the methods of freedom. It was a Democrat named Jimmy Carter, let us not forget, who was the deregulation president, and quite possibly his cousin from Little Rock will rack up an equally awesome pro-market achievement in one policy arena or another. But much of this new interest in freedom ends up advancing the same old authoritarianism. In other words, while the world has begun talking the language of freedom, it is still seemingly a long way from really internalizing the values of freedom.

The task facing classical liberals in the quarter century to come is to study, discuss, and proselytize for those values of freedom—for self-respect, toleration, rationality, and commitment to constitutional processes. Having established a beachhead in the rhetorical lowlands of modern politics, we should now resolutely push inland and seek to conquer the entire territory. In other words, we should start focusing on the purposes people pursue within the political system and the culture that shapes those purposes. The time has come to wage a war for hearts as well as minds, and to recover or re-create a classical-liberal culture.

This will be a difficult mission for libertarians. Not because a liberal culture is a particularly tough sell in America—to the contrary, if ever there was a society that was ready to return to its true philosophical roots, this is it—but because building a liberal culture will require perspectives and character traits and skills radically different from those that brought libertarians, and REASON, to where they are today.

Throughout most of the 20th century, classical liberalism was a fringe movement in a statist world, and its message often—and quite rightly—came down to little more than the injunction, no! Sometimes in a spirit of high moral seriousness, at other times in the less exalted spirit of an adolescent or even a 2-year-old, classical liberals have said no: no to the state, no to government intervention in the market, no to the wars that have been such a central feature of modern society, no to the sometimes well-intentioned efforts by liberal reformers to make the world a better place through public policy, no to the self-serving pragmatism that dominates the university, no to most of the political movements that have shaped our century. Last summer, when the editor of REASON sent me off to Michigan and Connecticut to cover the campaign of the Libertarian Party's presidential ticket, nothing was more striking than the polemical, negatively framed quality of the pitches and personae.

The negative posture, though sometimes perverse, made a lot of sense in the 20th century. In the first place, it enabled classical liberals to survive in a world that was almost monolithically hostile to their point of view. And it preserved their core beliefs intact. Thus, when conventional liberalism collapsed of its own dumb weight in the '60s, the classical liberals were there to pick up the pieces and get the credit. They were one of the very few groups to which a disillusioned ex-liberal could rally and feel that he really was saying goodbye to all that, once and for all. To me personally, coming to classical liberalism in middle age during the Reagan years, its uncompromising and uncompromised quality was one of its most compelling attributes.

But if "no" worked fine when the historical mission was to discredit and defeat an authoritarian polity, it won't get us far in the years ahead. Now the name of the game is not simply to stop authoritarianism and the state but to build a classical-liberal culture to replace the now-discredited statist ethos. And to do that, classical liberals will have to turn to the positive side of their creed and their natures.

Politics is not a debate; you don't win if you refute your opponents' arguments. Politics is the mostly cooperative activity of coming together around a set of values and institutions. It isn't combat so much as it is community. It's affirmation more than negation. To build successfully on the last quarter century's progress and remain at the cutting edge, libertarians will have to transform themselves into activists, glad-handers, do-gooders, reformers, idealists, and scourges of injustice. They'll have to learn to think like the last group of classical liberals in America who found themselves in a situation like the one we're in today, the founding fathers.

In practice, this means making three big changes in the prevailing classical-liberal Weltanschauung.

First, classical liberals have got to become obsessed with the injustice that is rampant in our world. They should always have been obsessed with injustice, since they're committed to such high and demanding ideals, but the truth is they've been squishy soft on it. They have been obsessed with the growth of the state and with the ideology and ideologues that justify the state. By contrast, they have tended to turn a blind eye to fraud and coercion in the private sector, ignoring the active threat to classical-liberal values posed by private power and private ambition for privilege.

Ordinary people in the real world are only too acutely aware of the injustice and politicization that are rampant in every area, from the hiring hall to the family dinner table to the local zoning code. When they hear classical liberals assail wrongs in the public sector but not in the private sector, they worry that the talk about markets is a cover for private injustice. And this is no mere theoretical concern. After all, since the early New Deal days, big business has advocated markets and limited government with respect to the agendas of labor unions and consumer groups, while quietly seeking government intervention in their own interest. In much the same way, racists, sexists, homophobes, and others who would dishonor and trample their fellow citizens' rights have urged freedom as a cover for their unjust behavior—but have denied the same freedom to the people they hold in contempt.

The fact is—libertarians know this, of course, but don't really take it to heart—that we live in a society that has been deeply corrupted in all areas and at all levels by the politics of privilege. Throughout the present century the big corporation has sought to control market processes in its own interest, rather than submit to the market process and work to perfect that process. In some cases, this has happened through the pursuit of political privilege. Just as often, however, corporate executives misbehave on a far more direct and personal level—by, for instance, lying to customers or colleagues to achieve results honesty wouldn't produce. Such behavior is wrong, it violates the rights on which a liberal society depends, and classical liberals ought to be upset about it.

Similarly, throughout the present century, there has been a high level of racial, religious, sexual, and ideological aggression and exploitation. The private sector has been no haven of decency and principle; it has been essentially as much a jungle as the state has been. Yet liberalism, to triumph in the political sphere, requires certain values and behavior in the private sphere—respect for individuals, honesty, decent treatment of one another. A society based on tolerance, mutually beneficial exchange, and rational persuasion cannot be built by merely changing the structure of government.

The minute libertarians start giving equal time to private injustice, I predict they'll become a significant factor in electoral politics in America. The unfair politics and public policy and management that prevail in our often illiberal society bother the American people a lot. Classical liberals have superior answers to these problems, but voters won't take them seriously until they see in libertarian thought a far more energetic intellectual engagement with the problem of private injustice.

The second thing classical liberals need to do to keep their movement at the forefront of the next quarter century's politics is to become tireless advocates of measures to improve and strengthen the state. Not to enlarge it—the state, of course, is far too big, continues to grow at an alarming rate, and should be urgently and drastically scaled back. But this shrinking can be brought about only by the state itself, and for that to happen, the policy-making institutions of government must acquire a greatly enhanced ability to represent, deliberate, refine public opinion, and legislate.

Classical-liberal ideals can't be put into operation by just any collection of idiots in just any institutional context. As the founding fathers well knew, a classical-liberal polity requires intelligent, dedicated, principled leaders; institutions with a capacity both to resist and reflect public opinion; and processes able to make fine distinctions and sweeping decisions. The truth about our big government today is that it has been made big by its intellectual and moral weakness, its inability to represent and interpret public needs in a principled and effective way.

Real progress in bringing the activities of government in some semblance of political control and regaining some sense of moral proportion will take place only when legislators are restored to a status more akin to that envisioned by the founding fathers, who of course were acutely aware of the dangers of precisely the kind of politics we have today and who did everything they could think of to prevent it.

You'd think that classical liberals, having read their Madison and Jefferson, would be avid government strengtheners, but they aren't. They decry the lack of coherence of modern government, they express the wish that a more principled pattern of decision making would prevail—and then they opt for punitive measures that are all but certain to further demoralize decision makers, further fragment the decision-making process, and in general render the government even more promiscuously responsive to self-serving political pressures than it is now.

An example is the Fully Informed Jury Amendment (FIJA), which would make explicit and emphatic the vague common-law tradition authorizing juries to invalidate odious laws. This measure would, in effect, introduce into the legislative process an indefinite veto power that would be present every time someone attempted to administer a legitimate act of the state. It is a script not for intelligent limited government that furthers individual rights but for chaos and injustice.

Similarly problematic was L.P. candidate Andre Marrou's oft-repeated pledge during last year's campaign to abolish the IRS, as if the IRS caused tax policy and as if the country would be better off without an agency to collect taxes while still keeping the tax laws on the books. This isn't to say that one might not eventually decide to change tax policy in a way that would make the IRS unnecessary. It is merely to say that the policy change has to come first and is the important and substantial part of the exercise. Getting rid of the agency, by itself, is, again, a script for chaos and injustice.

In this and other areas, the underlying assumption has been that big government is the enemy and that anything that harms the enemy must be good for the values the enemy is assailing. The fallacy, of course, is that big government, while something to be resisted, can't be dealt with as an enemy. The classical-liberal enterprise requires government of the right size and function. What harms the hypertrophied version of that government also harms the limited government inside trying to get out.

Classical liberals need to become not just government reformers but government strengtheners. They should be pushing not just the term-limitation amendment (which, in combination with other reforms, would help reconnect government with the public) but also more drastic reforms. My favorite is the notion of switching to a parliamentary system based on multi-member districts and proportional representation. Compared to the presidential system, with its separate institutions sharing powers, this would give a superior blend of insulation and answerability, representation and deliberation.

Last and not least, classical liberal have to become do-gooders and idealist and principled busybodies if they are to make progress in building a classical-liberal political culture. In private life, they should be entrepreneurs, tinkerers, free thinkers, meliorists, inveterate volunteers, sterling neighbors, faithful friends, devoted parents, attentive lovers. They should cultivate and exhibit the virtues associated with voluntary, mutually beneficial relationships among equals. They should be fervent egalitarians. They should lean against academic social science's hierarchical vision of society, insist on the moral equality of all human bearers of natural and civil rights, and relate to fellow citizens with the active interest and warm human sympathy that is implied by the idea of taking each individual's rights seriously.

Both historically and logically, the classical liberal is a person devoted to liberal notions of human relations, to ideals of self-improvement, active citizenship, social fraternity, reason, and toleration. Classical liberals need not just to acknowledge but to get comfortable and involved with the communitarian and subjective dimensions of political life and human nature. We are individuals with rights, but we are also political beings for whom conducting a politics of rights and limits is a need and a source of personal fulfillment as well as a necessity.

In my opinion, in short, the way for libertarians to succeed in the decades ahead as they've succeeded in the decades just past is to self-consciously emulate the first American classical liberals, the founding fathers. In the personal examples of Washington, Madison, Jefferson, et al. are to be found the keys to the future as well as to the past. America today is at an impasse not so dissimilar to that which prevailed in the first new nation during the last quarter century of the 18th century. The answer now, as then, is to be found not in ideology or principle alone but equally in its embodiment in character, in active citizenship, in community, and in constitutional institutions and processes through which individual rights and community needs are reconciled intelligently and effectively with one another.

Contributing Editor Paul H. Weaver is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author of News and the Culture of Lying, to be published this year by The Free Press.