Reasonable Doubts: Mugging Libertarians

The Weekly Standard's case against laissez faire


Brace yourself: The root cause of everything from street muggings and gang delinquency to rudeness at traffic lights to excessive lawsuit filing has finally been found, and it's…libertarianism. At least that's the view of Andrew Peyton Thomas, an attorney with the state of Arizona and a frequent contributor to conservative magazines. Writing in the August 26, 1996, Weekly Standard, Mr. Thomas referred to the above woes as "the libertarian-created problems of Southern California and elsewhere." Readers who hadn't known that libertarians got to run things in Los Angeles may rub their eyes, but Mr. Thomas isn't kidding one bit. He blames crime, rudeness, and litigiousness on the "live-and-let-live urban lifestyle" as spawned by "the moral laissez-faire disorder of libertarianism."

Mr. Thomas, author of Crime and the Roots of Order, has made a momentous discovery: "The root of our crime problem," as he informed Standard readers on March 17 of this year, "is a rights-happy radical individualism." That must be it: When kids join identically dressing gangs to which they pledge blood loyalty and discipline, it's because they've fallen for radical individualism. When they steal cars and mug passersby, it's because they've acquired an undue reverence for individual rights. And when they conduct drive-by shootings, it's because they pursue a "live-and-let-live urban lifestyle." Hence the notorious turf fights between the Friedman Brotherhood with their tattoos of "Born to Choose" and the Hayek Kings with their boom boxes blaring "Noncoercive As U Wanna Be."

More of Mr. Thomas's views in a moment. The wider theme to be illustrated here is the mounting pace at which sectors of the traditionalist right are showing signs of itching to ditch their old libertarian allies. More than a few trad writers are starting to talk themselves into piling virtually everything they dislike about the modern world onto terms like libertarian and individual rights, blaming social ills of all sorts on the West's supposed excess of freedom, choice, and autonomy.

A further puzzlement is the particular role of The Weekly Standard. When it was founded nearly two years ago, the Standard was expected to be a different animal entirely from, say, Chronicles or First Things. Many of its writers–David Frum, Christopher Caldwell, and Andrew Ferguson, to say nothing of P.J. O'Rourke–enjoyed a reputation as highly sympathetic to libertarian themes. David Brooks's 1995 introduction to the anthology Backward and Upward made an appealing case for a "new" conservative writing that would aim to be "low on puritanism," "urbane, self-assured (rather than defensive), cosmopolitan, and diverse." Moreover, the Standard soon forged as one of its leading themes the goal of preserving and expanding the coalition of the Reagan years–and it would hardly seem prudent to begin by tossing out one of that coalition's leading components.

But by this winter, when the magazine ran back-to-back attacks on the ideas contained in Charles Murray's What It Means to Be a Libertarian and David Boaz's Libertarianism: A Primer, it was clear that all bets were off. The review of What It Means was condescending (and one condescends to a writer like Charles Murray at one's peril) and full of passages dismissing libertarian thought as the stuff of college late-night bull sessions, "fringe elements and half-baked ideas," with a passing swipe at REASON as soft on polygamy.

"Absolute liberty corrupts absolutely," proclaimed Public Interest Executive Editor Adam Wolfson in his review of Boaz, no doubt thinking that an improvement over the original Acton. The libertarian tenet of self-ownership, he wrote, "appears to mean that the self is its own creator, sovereign over itself, without obligations or duties beyond self-satisfaction." Sandwich a redundancy between two absurdities, and you can turn David Boaz into Max Stirner. Since when is autonomy to be reserved for the entities (if any) that are self-created and free of moral obligation?

Editorials have kept up the friction. It's common enough for conservative publications to favor keeping drugs illegal, but the March 31 Standard goes a crucial step further, complaining that the opposing view is allowed into polite society at all, a problem it blames on an "oddly newish upper-middle-class libertarianism….It is now respectable for people to argue that cancer and glaucoma patients should have access to `medical' marijuana cigarettes, though no one has yet proved that smoking pot is ever necessary or good for you….Government should not, in principle, play facilitator to any life-denying impulse." (I called Richard Brookhiser, the National Review senior editor who emerged as a leading advocate of medical marijuana after his recent bout with cancer, for a reaction. "I think it's a life-denying impulse to prevent people with terrible symptoms and conditions from getting access to what will relieve them," he says. "It's also an evidence-denying impulse–we're talking about studies that go back a long way, as well as the testimony of people who've used it.")

My friend Charlie used to mutter "Communist!" when a driver would cut him off in traffic, and some Standard writers now employ the epithet libertarian in contexts that seem barely related to how anyone feels about the initiation of force. Waxing Chestertonian in a review of the novels of Philip K. Dick, Standard Contributing Editor J. Bottum and John Wilson deplore a "grandiose and antinomian libertarian vision of humankind" in which "everything small and human and domestic is stripped away." Well, maybe.

But then in slamming Beyond Queer, the recent anthology of non-leftist, non-adversarial-culture gay writing, Mr. Bottum charges that what the authors "typically understand as conservatism is a kind of sexualized libertarianism, with Barry Goldwater, Ross Perot, and Harvey Milk raised up as the true conservative heroes." Anyone who can figure out what's meant here by "sexualized libertarianism" can win extra points by showing how such a thing would lead to the lionization of the late Milk, a standard-issue leftist politico–or, even more incredibly, of Perot.

Unlike some of his colleagues, Andrew Peyton Thomas appears familiar enough with what libertarians actually believe. In blaming us for crime, for example, he's not getting us mixed up with the excesses of some turn-'em-loose "civil libertarians." He explains that what he's criticizing "is the philosophy of the Information Age….Libertarianism teaches that government and the community it represents should be highly limited in size and function, so that they do not infringe upon individual liberty and economic decision-making. In political circles, libertarianism can be recognized as the yuppie philosophy of fiscally conservative and socially liberal." Close enough to what a press agent for the Cato Institute might say, except for the slight difference that Thomas appears to loathe the group he's describing.

The titles from recent Standard articles tell the story: "Up from Libertarianism"; "The Libertarian Temptation" (criticizing Virginia Postrel's April REASON editorial "Laissez Fear"); "My Son the Libertarian" (he was kinda bratty today). For a believer in individual rights, there's the same kind of thrill in perusing today's Standard that a Shriner might feel in stumbling onto anti-Masonic literature. Who else would pay us so much attention, or find us so important? But it's a chill wind for those who might want to preserve the conservative coalition that's been so successful these last couple of decades.

And it may be getting chillier before long. In the February Commentary symposium on the future of conservatism, Standard Editor William Kristol writes that the "task of conservatism today" is, first, to restore transcendent as opposed to secularly based standards to discussions of the role of government, and, second, to "take on the sacred cow of contemporary liberalism–choice." He's explicitly talking not just about the abortion issue but about the role of government in general.

The Standard's emerging rap is, I fear, that libertarianism is not just a political philosophy but a character defect, if not an outright revolt against the divine order. Gertrude Himmelfarb marshals the case for the prosecution, writing summarily that "the ideology of absolute individual rights and freedom of choice" is "self-absorbed and self-indulgent."

OK, I'll admit it: I've known more than a few libertarians who were self-absorbed and self-indulgent, sometimes painfully so. And more than a few traditional conservatives as well: Having a high, even excessive regard for one's own views, interests, factions, and associates is a rather common trait in this world. What libertarians have going for them, I'd say, is this: No one else has developed a political philosophy that accords such a central role to the rights of others.