Really Strange Bedfellows II

A final word (for now) on libertarians vs. conservatives


It's been a long, long while since I've been accused of impairing the morals of a minor (really). In fact, the last time I can remember such a claim being leveled against me was back in high school when I coaxed some classmates at good old Mater Dei High School into seeing Monty Python's Life of Brian rather than a less theologically charged movie. Some of my friends' mothers--and a buttinsky parish priest--saw my actions as proof positive of heretical tendencies (this, even in a very post-Vatican II atmosphere).

So the recent charges by National Review Online Editor Jonah Goldberg that what he calls my brand of "cultural libertarianism" is partly to blame both for 20-year-old John Walker's defection to the Taliban and for "campuses today [being] infested with so many silly radicals" really make me feel young again. For that early Christmas present, I thank him. He's recently signaled that he's putting this particular hobbyhorse back in the closet for a while and I fully intend to follow suit after these few more words on the matter.

Beyond its particulars, this exchange--prompted by Jonah's taking exception to my editor's note in the January Reason--helps clarify important ideological differences not only between our respective publications but between libertarians and conservatives more generally. These differences are worth underscoring, if only because they are not going away anytime soon. Indeed, especially with the hardcore Marxian left becoming increasingly irrelevant and centrist liberals essentially acknowledging the efficiency of markets and grappling more and more with libertarian arguments for free expression and lifestyle choice, the debate between libertarians and conservatives is likely to assume greater and greater significance as the 21st century unfolds. These two positions--roughly representing forces of choice vs. forces of control--are where the action is, and will be, for a long time to come.

Arrogant Nihilism vs. Social Tolerance

In his original formulation, Jonah claimed that libertarians espouse a form of "arrogant nihilism" and that John Walker's participation in a retrograde fundamentalist regime was "a logical consequence" of such a misguided "political agenda." He wrote, "According to cultural libertarianism, we should all start believing in absolutely nothing, until we find whichever creed or ideology fits us best. We can pick from across the vast menu of human diversity -- from all religions and cultures, real and imagined -- until we find one that fits our own personal preferences."

He is not, I think, particularly mistaken in emphasizing libertarianism's interest in what he derisively terms "Chinese-menu culture" and "designer cultures." I'd argue, in fact, that all cultures are precisely admixtures put together by individuals to serve their particular needs and ends. No one questions that "cultures"--an imprecise term at best--change over time and in response to the demands of the people comprising them. Consider Roman Catholicism, which I alluded to at the start of this piece: Despite official claims to a consistent, unbroken, and self-evident tradition dating back to the first century A.D., the plain fact is that a Catholic from 1901 would barely recognize today's church as his own. Things change, and in response to specific and ongoing, if not always articulate, demands.

One of the defining characteristics of contemporary America and the modern world writ large is that more individuals have the means and motivation to insist on a "culture" that reflects their particular needs and sensibilities. Jonah ridicules this as underwriting such apparently clear absurdities as "Buddhists for Jesus" (as if Christianity itself had no precursor forms that violated existing categories). Dictating the limits of culture used to be the province of small, typically aristocratic elites, who could enforce their vision on the masses. Nowadays, that ability is effectively becoming decentralized, the result being a proliferation of standards, not a flight from them. This trend, which I've written about at length in terms of creative expression, frustrates and frightens conservatives and other gatekeepers who prize stability and hierarchy, for they mistake it as an end to standards.

Where Jonah is absolutely wrong, however, is to assert that an appreciation for this dynamic is tantamount to nihilism. To suggest that is to argue that tolerance is nihilism. It isn't: Tolerance, particularly in a libertarian framework, is grounded in respect for individuals as equal and autonomous agents, as long as they recognize others' similar standing--the right to swing one's fist ends at my nose and all that. Tolerance is a universal principle that underwrites all sorts of local differences. To believe in tolerance is manifestly not to believe in nothing.

Get Yer Hayeks Out

Which is precisely why F.A. Hayek, in his widely read essay "Why I Am Not a Conservative," placed tolerance at the heart of a truly liberal--or, properly, libertarian--order. In his column titled "The Libertarian Lie," Jonah makes great hay over the fact that Hayek explicitly rejected the term "libertarian," calling it "singularly unattractive." There's no question Hayek dissed the particular word, claiming that "it carries too much the flavor of the manufactured term and of a substitute." Yet he unreservedly embraced the substance of it, too, talking repeatedly about "the party of life, the party that favors free growth and spontaneous evolution." "The liberal," wrote Hayek, "is aware that it is of the essence of human achievement that it produces something new; and he is prepared to come to terms with new knowledge, whether he likes its immediate effects or not." This seems to me much more a description of "cultural libertarianism" than of National Review conservatism, which seems to groan at every change in women's status, say, or every new development in genetic engineering.

The contested role of Hayek in this is worth lingering over, less because Hayek is some sort of high priest with divine insight and more because the appeals made in his name demonstrate core beliefs of his petitioners. At the heart of the Hayekian project, as I quoted in my earlier rejoinder to Jonah, is a belief that "to live and work successfully with others requires more than faithfulness to one's concrete aims. It requires an intellectual commitment to a type of order in which, even on issues which to one are fundamental, others are allowed to pursue different ends." For Hayek, such tolerance had a strong instrumental component: He argued for a maximally defined private, "protected sphere," one free of all sorts of coercion, because it allows for decentralized experiments in living through which individuals and groups gain meaningful knowledge and social institutions evolve. Elsewhere, he defined a free society as one in which individuals "could at least attempt to shape their own li[ves], where [they] gained the opportunity of knowing and choosing different forms of life." To limit choices, for Hayek, was to risk impoverishing a robust "extended order."

Hayek's insistence on the necessary limits of human knowledge similarly distances him from contemporary conservatives, who typically sound a very different tone in their proclamations. "The liberal is very much aware that we do not know all the answers and that he is not sure that the answers he has are certainly the right ones or even that we can find all the answers," wrote Hayek. At another point, Hayek, true to his Humean roots, notes that "in some respects the liberal fundamentally a skeptic." Compare these positively postmodern emphases on the limits of knowledge to Jonah's exasperation that "to the cultural libertarian, all authoritative cultural norms should be scrutinized again and again" (emphasis in the original).

Jonah is right to note that the "conservatives" specifically alluded to in Hayek's title are "conservatives in the European tradition (de Maistre, Coleridge, et al)," yet he merely ignores the question of whether that brand of conservatism is a part of his own. Hayek may well have noted, as Jonah writes, "that United States was the one place in the world where you could call yourself a 'conservative' and be a lover of liberty" because of America's peculiar past as a liberal nation. Yet that doesn't mean that all aspects of U.S. conservatism are classically liberal. Hayek notes that conservatives have a reflexive "distrust of the new and strange," essentially a fear of change.

This calls to mind Jonah's argument against another "cultural libertarian," Andrew Sullivan, who supports gay marriage. Titled, "Patience, Andrew, Patience: The Case for Temperamental Conservatism," the column seems an illustration of Hayek's idea that conservatism, "by its very nature cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving. It may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments, but…it cannot prevent their continuance." Jonah essentially grants that gay marriage will come one day--a concession that no conservative would have made 30 years ago--but that we should just hold off on it for the time being. (Click here to read the explicitly Hayekian case for gay marriage I made in Reason some five years ago.)

Choice vs. Control

Regardless of where or whether Hayek fits into all this, there can be little question that libertarians and conservatives break sharply over issues of choice vs. control, with libs opting for more of the former in all areas of human activity and conservatives emphasizing the latter, whether the topic is gay marriage, biotech, or drug use. There can be little question that we are facing increasing choice--not simply in economic but cultural and social terms, too, where the "Chinese menu" has exploded into a wide-ranging buffet. Anthropologist Grant McCracken has observed what he terms "plenitude," or the "quickening speciation" of social groups, gender types and lifestyles. "Where once there was simplicity and limitation … there is now social difference, and that difference proliferates into ever more diversity, variety, heterogeneity," writes McCracken in 1997's "Plenitude."

For conservatives, such thoroughgoing choice is problematic, whether we're talking politics or culture, because it allows for unregulated experimentation ("Buddhists for Jesus"). Jonah notes that "personal liberty is vitally important. But it isn't everything. If you emphasize personal liberty over all else, you undermine the development of character and citizenship" and all forms of "established authority."

Maybe, maybe not. This much is certain, though: Such an understanding misses the key point that individual liberty is the starting point of "established authority," whether political, social, or cultural. Reeling off a list of "the ingredients for Western civilization," Jonah counts, "Christianity and religion in general, sexual norms, individualism, patriotism, the Canon, community of standards, democracy, the rule of law, fairness, modesty, self-denial, and the patriarchy." All of these things are under construction, reconstruction, and deconstruction on a daily basis, as different individuals opt in or out. But they all require buy-in from individuals too, even if the choice, as it often is, is to bind oneself to particular rules and conventions.

"Choosing determines all human action," wrote a different Austrian economist (and Hayek's mentor), Ludwig von Mises. "In making his choice, man chooses not only between various materials and services. All human values are offered for option. All ends and all means, both material and ideal issues, the sublime and the base, the noble and the ignoble, are ranged in a single row and subjected to a decision which picks out one thing and sets aside another."

To understand that basic reality is not, pace Jonah, to "encourage the dismantling of the soapboxes [libertarians] stand on." Rather, it is the best and perhaps only way to maintain a flourishing culture.