Conservatives And Libertarians: "My Spouse Is Too Goddamn Boring For Words"


The American Conservative puts out a really uninteresting debate about whether libertarians have anything to offer conservatism. Daniel "Neocons Rip My Flesh" McCarthy gets the ball rolling with "In Defense of Freedom," a classic argument for rolling back government, even if it means socializing with weirdos:

The free market sometimes involves things that conservatives dislike, such as pornography. What should be considered here, however, is not how the market performs relative to some idealized abstraction of the state run by wise and pure censors, but how a specific market compares to a particular state. If there is a market for pornography there is sure to be a constituency for it, too. Moreover, the state produces far worse depravities of its own: Playboy may be bad, but one is not forced to subsidize it, unlike public-school sex ed, Andres Serrano';s "Piss Christ" (funded by the National Endowment for the Arts), and Lynndie England's S&M jamboree with Iraqi prisoners of war. One can avoid pornography on the market, but everyone pays for the depravities of the political class.

That is not about to change. The state, since it acts by compulsion, cannot inculcate real virtue in anyone but only a hypocritical and ersatz kind. One can compel action but not belief. No wonder then that as the scope of the state has grown, patriotism has degenerated into warmongering and religion has succumbed to politicization and scandal. The moral muscles atrophy in the absence of personal responsibility. That some self-identified conservatives cannot seem to tell the difference between self-responsibility and compulsion, or between the standards of civil society and those of the state, demonstrates just how thorough the process of crowding out genuine virtue with the coercive counterfeit actually is.

Consider the involvement of the state in marriage. Presently the state defines marriage for all, and there is considerable angst among traditionalists that government will redefine the institution to include homosexual unions. This concern is not misplaced: if gay marriage is given state sanction, the force of law will support demands by wedded homosexuals to receive the same privileges from civil society–including churches and religious charities–that married heterosexuals receive. In the absence of state involvement in marriage and in telling businesses and nonprofit organizations whom they can hire, however, individuals, churches, and businesses could make up their own minds as to which marriages they considered legitimate and could act accordingly.

Robert "Rise of the Coloured Empires" Locke shoots back with "Marxism of the Right," a Dr. Zaius-style laundry list (without a single example, citation, or attributed quote) of vices that will flourish if libertarians are freed from the dank, slimy id:

There are many varieties of libertarianism, from natural-law libertarianism (the least crazy) to anarcho-capitalism (the most), and some varieties avoid some of the criticisms below. But many are still subject to most of them, and some of the more successful varieties–I recently heard a respected pundit insist that classical liberalism is libertarianism–enter a gray area where it is not really clear that they are libertarians at all. But because 95 percent of the libertarianism one encounters at cocktail parties, on editorial pages, and on Capitol Hill is a kind of commonplace "street" libertarianism, I decline to allow libertarians the sophistical trick of using a vulgar libertarianism to agitate for what they want by defending a refined version of their doctrine when challenged philosophically…

Libertarians in real life rarely live up to their own theory but tend to indulge in the pleasant parts while declining to live up to the difficult portions. They flout the drug laws but continue to collect government benefits they consider illegitimate. This is not just an accidental failing of libertarianism's believers but an intrinsic temptation of the doctrine that sets it up to fail whenever tried, just like Marxism.

Libertarians need to be asked some hard questions. What if a free society needed to draft its citizens in order to remain free? What if it needed to limit oil imports to protect the economic freedom of its citizens from unfriendly foreigners? What if it needed to force its citizens to become sufficiently educated to sustain a free society? What if it needed to deprive landowners of the freedom to refuse to sell their property as a precondition for giving everyone freedom of movement on highways? What if it needed to deprive citizens of the freedom to import cheap foreign labor in order to keep out poor foreigners who would vote for socialistic wealth redistribution?…

Libertarians are also naive about the range and perversity of human desires they propose to unleash. They can imagine nothing more threatening than a bit of Sunday-afternoon sadomasochism, followed by some recreational drug use and work on Monday. They assume that if people are given freedom, they will gravitate towards essentially bourgeois lives, but this takes for granted things like the deferral of gratification that were pounded into them as children without their being free to refuse. They forget that for much of the population, preaching maximum freedom merely results in drunkenness, drugs, failure to hold a job, and pregnancy out of wedlock. Society is dependent upon inculcated self-restraint if it is not to slide into barbarism, and libertarians attack this self-restraint. Ironically, this often results in internal restraints being replaced by the external restraints of police and prison, resulting in less freedom, not more.

I find this kind of woolgathering too dull to bother responding to. You may feel otherwise. (Is Playboy really porn?)

Update: I have been advised that just saying "this is too boring to bother with" is a copout. Fair enough:

I didn't think the McCarthy story set the world on fire, and it relies too heavily on the presumption that the Bush foreign policy has spawned unmitigated catastrophe and endangered our country—a presumption that is, at the very least, of questionable timeliness these past few weeks. Nevertheless, I thought it was a nice salute from the paleos, and would have been inclined just to cite it with a kind word, but that it is paired, debate-style, with the execrable Locke piece.

To take merely the parts of Locke's ramble I quoted above (that is, to skip the part where he asserts that libertarians would like to give the green light to child molestation): I don't know who these libertarians are Locke has been talking to, but if there are some illegitimate government benefits I'm supposed to be accepting, all I can say is "Over here, Uncle Sam!" As for the idea that libertarians "need to be asked some hard questions" about the draft, protectionism, public education, eminent domain, and immigration, he's simply revealing (as he does repeatedly throughout the rest of the article) that he not only knows nothing about the subject (which is no disgrace) but can't be bothered to find out (which is). Libertarian philosophers and publications, and even the unscrubb'd "street" libertarians (Yo!) Locke dreads, discuss all these questions at a length that puts the "nauseum" in ad nauseum. As for the claim that a "range and perversity of human desires" will be unleashed by lack of "self-restraint," well Jesus Suckin' Zeus, aren't we the ones who want school vouchers so kids can be taught by nuns?

I could go on, but any effort put into refuting an article that, as an editor, I would have rejected as a lazy, ill-informed, glancing piece of undergraduate posturing would be a waste of time. Conversing with somebody who brings nothing to the conversation is like getting your pocket picked. (And as a libertarian I object to pocket-picking as a violation of property rights.) I'll leave it to our own thoreau, who has cracked the code in the comments section:

As I look some more at the excerpt from Robert Locke's piece I find myself forced to conclude that he is, in fact, a libertarian (gasp!):

-He draws fine distinctions between various libertarian sects
-He castigates self-described libertarians for hypocrisy
-He wants to debate some points that would never occur in the real world…
-I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that Locke doesn't like the LP.

Congratulations, Mr. Locke, you are a libertarian!

NEXT: Americanized Italian Food in Addis Ababa

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  1. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz…hmph? Wha?

  2. Oh, I don’t know, Tim: I’ve been more bored with magazines. The 900th Reason editorial on cloning gay marriage by Nick “I Can’t Afford A Decent Leather Jack” Gillespie comes to mind. And at least TAC is good on foreign policy.

    By the way, could you ask Michael Young and Walid Jumblatt about that secret tunnel under the street by the St. George Hotel (& Yacht Club), you know, the one where the evil Syrians supposedly planted the bomb? Have either of them admitted that no such tunnel exists?

    Just wondering.

  3. The first paragraph quoted from Locke’s piece indulges in one of the worst habits of many libertarians: Drawing fine distinctions to figure out what a REAL libertarian is.

    Which is ironic, because he seems to have a low opinion of us.

  4. “There are many varieties of libertarianism, from natural-law libertarianism (the least crazy) to anarcho-capitalism (the most)…”

    I’d love to know why the author thinks “natural law” libertarianism is “less crazy” than anarho-capitalism. But I guess it’s hard to explain something that you obviously know very little about.

  5. That last message was supposed to be from me, btw. I posted as Robert Nowak in another thread, as part of a joke.

    But at least I’m not the unborn angel! 😉

  6. I don’t know, I think we ought to pay attention to guys like this. I mean it’ll be people like him that will be deciding the color and design of the insignia each of us “un”-americans will have to wear in the new order.

  7. As I look some more at the excerpt from Robert Locke’s piece I find myself forced to conclude that he is, in fact, a libertarian (gasp!):

    -He draws fine distinctions between various libertarian sects
    -He castigates self-described libertarians for hypocrisy
    -He wants to debate some points that would never occur in the real world (e.g. “What if it needed to limit oil imports to protect the economic freedom of its citizens from unfriendly foreigners?” because, as we all know, such a sanction would hardly protect our economic freedom and would drive the price of imported oil sky high, sending the sheikhs laughing all the way to the bank)
    -I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that Locke doesn’t like the LP.

    Congratulations, Mr. Locke, you are a libertarian!

  8. I’ll assume you must be out of sorts thoreau, cause that is really, really stretchin’ it.

  9. Truly, Mr. Locke’s points are so dumb as to be a parody of the case against libertarianism. Limiting oil imports to “increase economic freedom”? Taking away property rights in exchange for the “freedom of movement on highways”?

    Maybe we should nationalize the garment and entertainment industries. That way I would be free from having to decide whether or not to wear the snappy uniform with shiny buttons to the Party rally at the stadium.

  10. Skeptikos-

    I was mostly just trying to poke fun at habits common among libertarians. I even propped up one of the stereotypes when I took the bait and engaged him on a point which I insist is bizarre and would never occur in the real world.

  11. In the end, the only thing conservatives like about Libertarians is that they think all Libertarians hate all liberals as much as they do.

  12. It’s funny enough that they’re still bitching about “Piss Christ,” butPlayboy?

    What next, French postcards?

  13. At Real Clear Politics, they ran the Locke Piece but not McCarthy’s!?

    I just wrote them and asked if they would be so kind as to run McCarthy’s as well.

  14. Matt: I want to know why he thinks a “natural-law libertarian” and an anarcho-capitalist are opposites. Last I checked, Rothbard was both.

  15. “What if a free society needed to draft its citizens in order to remain free?”

    What if I needed to kill myself to stay alive?

  16. I didn’t think that the part about “government benefits” was so ambiguous. I think that he was referring to libertarians who receive Social Security, Medicare, etc., or intend to so when they reach the necessary age. (I know that many libertarians do refuse these things on principle, but some do not.)

  17. What is hypocritical about receiving benefits for which your taxes help pay while opposing such entitlements in principal? If we all have to pay at least we should get something out of it.

  18. James Kabala,

    In that case, the principled libertarian would be unable to use a publicly-funded sidewalk, walk through a publicly-owned park, or, God forbid, drive on a public street! In short, he would have to be a shut-in.

  19. “Matt: I want to know why he thinks a “natural-law libertarian” and an anarcho-capitalist are opposites. Last I checked, Rothbard was both.”

    Yeah, good question. That’s sort of what I clumsily tried to get at in my comment.

    I consider myself a “natural rights” libertarian and “anarcho-capitalist.” (I’m guessing he’s using the term anarcho-capitalist to mean more of a David Friedman style consequentialist, but who knows). I think most radical libertarians share parts of both “types” whether they acknowledge it or not.

  20. Once the “conservatives” convince themselves that they don’t need swing voters, they’re doomed. Rave on!

  21. Although I’ve never met Mr. Locke, and I don’t know how old he is, his comments strike me as the crumudgeony grumblings of an Old Fart. He seems to be locked (no pun intended) into the a Nixonian view of America-right-or-wrong and only those damn draft-dodging, dope-smoking, hippies (no matter what their true political stripe) would oppose him. Finish your apple sauce old man, it’s time to go to bed.

    Then again, is doesn’t really come to much of a surprise. After all, isn’t the American Conservative the magazine Pat Buchanan and his brand of reactionary, Old Fart, populism we thought died out with H. Ross Perot’s presidental hopes? Wheter you call it “paleo-conserivatism.” “national greatness conservatism” or just plain “fascism,” the message is the same: You are only free to do what we tell you. So if they tell you die in some bobcage in Normandy, a rice-paddy in ‘Nam, or a dusty alley in downtown Bagdad in the name of America, you better hop to it… you pinko ingrate!

  22. True, the Puke-anan wing of conservatism does tend to be isolationist (along with protectionist and nativist), however that line about supporting the draft kind of stuck in my craw. I’m pretty sure that he paleo’s would support foreign adventurism and throw our conscripted men (since conservatives also tend to oppose women in the military) into the meat grinder if they found the right cause. (e.g. Going south of the border to stop those “dirty wetbacks” from crossing into Texas and California.)

  23. citizengnat and crimethink: Oh, I wasn’t saying that I agrreed with Locke’s argument, just that unlike Mr. Cavanaugh, I didn’t think it was hard to figure out what he was referring to.

  24. Wow, quoted on the main page!

    We should compile a Jeff Foxworthy spoof. You might be a libertarian if…

    If your cousin gets arrested for drugs, and you blame the cop instead of your idiot cousin, you might be a libertarian.

    If somebody calls you a Georgist and you complain that you’re an anarch-capitalist, you might be a libertarian.

    If you punch anybody who calls you a left-libertarian, you might be a libertarian.

    If you have a diploma with the words Cum Laude on it, but you’re deeply ashamed because it’s from a public school, you might be a libertarian.


  25. If you spend election day sending your friends a 300-word e-mail on why they should vote “yes” on the concealed-carry proposition, and they all respond that they’re “disappointed” in the way you think, you might be a libertarian.

    If you lurk on and the threads about “losertarians,” “dopertarians,” and “liberaltarians” hurt your feelings, you might be a libertarian.

    If, after watching the Kevin Costner movie The Postman, you came out of the theater grumbling, “Why in hell did they pick the fucking post office as the symbol of all that was good about America!” you might be libertarian.

  26. What, no posting about the guy that got mauled by the chimps?

  27. I have to say, as a long-time non-libertarian who knows something about libertarianism, the idea that libertarians don’t spend enough time worrying about issues such as the limits of eminent domain is truly laughable.

  28. “What, no posting about the guy that got mauled by the chimps?”

    He got what he deserved for being stupide enough to believe he could “reason” with an animal. ‘Nuff said.

  29. Funny how we libertarians are always the naive ones, especially to the religious right. I am a presbyterian quasi-calvinist myself and my religion reinforces the absolute worthlessness of the state to instill morality in the public. Most of the time that you meet these moralizing conservatives they tend to be from groups that believe in true free will like the baptists, methodists or catholics. If you just give them enough state power, it’ll all be like Leave It To Beaver….

    Locke should not be throwing stones at us (classical) liberals and libertarians for our “street libertarianism” which tends to be quite refined compared to “street conservatism.” I wasn’t aware of conservatism even having an intellectual tradition worth speaking of since it is basically a parasitical philosophy that steals liberal and libertarian philosophers, calls them conservative, drains them of their value in public and then turns on libertarians in rage when they “don’t work anymore.”

    The average “street libertarian” might have holes in their philosophy and be inconsistent, but the average conservative in my experience is little more than warmed over white trash who is as quick to emotionalism as any left-liberal out there. The good thing about being a libertarian is that they assume you are partly insane and might be carrying a very high calibre hand gun on you so then tend to treat you a little nicer than they would a left-liberal 😀

    Whenever they pull the depravity rubbish with me, and mind you most of them believe they can regulate mankind back into God’s grace, I just tell them to read Romans 1:18-32. Those verses in particular are why conservatives tend to really piss me off. Human nature **IS** depraved and that is why you cannot regulate it back into virtue.

  30. did he not know man’s reasoning centers lie in our opposable thumbs?

    we could play some jokes on the aztlan crowd and the anti-immigration paleos both by creating some sort of “el qaedo” meme – a wing of al qaeda staffed by catholic mexicans WHO HATE FREEDOM.

  31. Since Tim didn’t want to waste his time on “undergraduate posturing,” being an undergraduate I just had to do it for him.

  32. The only way a Libertarian could avoid making use of government benefits would be by committing suicide. Even then, I suspect there’s some tie-ins. I’m saying this cuz a shut in would still be in a house which one could argue through government involvement the feds are involved in that mortgage, at least indirectly through fannie mae and others.

    Personally I’m tired of seeing things like that argument that Libertarians are hypocrits becuas ehtey make sure of government benefits. When I see I assume the columnist is either being lazy or hasn’t thought that argument through. Either way, I end up being more picky about other claims they end up making.

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