Feb 23, 2004: Liberalism and the Real World

Liberalism must always face the accusation that it is not a realistic approach to the world. This is a question that libertarians often wrestle with, particularly in the realms of economics and security. Their answers to this question provoke the few instances of genuine internal debate permitted in the libertarian world, although such debates generally do not seem to break out into open warfare or otherwise undermine the united front against the government. Perhaps this is because, like the debate between anarchists and minarchists, it is already understood that the question is academic and is not in danger of becoming a pressing issue anytime soon.

Nevertheless, in a country which prides itself on championing the principles of democracy, liberty, individual rights, self-determination, the consent of the governed, no-taxation-without-representation”, and other such values expressed in the Declaration of Independence, there are not a few who will at least listen to radical libertarian ideas. And, after carefully listening to explanations about how the libertarian position is the only ideology that could possibly conform to the self-declared principles held dear by Americans, potential converts almost universally ask the question of its practicality.

It is the wisest of questions. We are undoubtedly citizens of a remarkable country. It is a blessing or a stroke of luck that should not be thrown away foolishly or haphazardly. That our movement often treats it as such may make it easier for us to make arguments for radical change, but it rightly scares those whom we seek to convince and invites justified skepticism about our aims and competency.

The question can take any number of forms and touches upon an infinite number of issues, since the authority of the government extends across virtually all areas of life, and that authority is something upon which most people are highly dependent. Social security, health care, welfare, crime, education, discrimination, individual rights (!), foreign relations, defense, crisis management, environmental protection, consumer protection, transportation, labor rights, economic stability, and on and on and on.

It is impossible to convincingly answer questions of this sort, because the very radicalism of the liberal proposal prevents even the most visionary revolutionary from imagining the totality of the change. One is caught between the temptation of side-stepping such questions, exasperated by the inquirers willingness to have an established coercive power in their lives, on the one hand, and the rather depressing compulsion to attempt to address all of their concerns, while insisting that one is not (somehow) an anti-social reactionary, on the other.

The various labels within the movement are problematic, as well, with the term “anarchism” being obviously the most troublesome. For better or worse, the term is associated with gleeful chaos and destruction of apocalyptic proportions. This is a perhaps not entirely unjustified development, because those who describe themselves as anarchists too often tend to an atomistic individualism that shuns the development of norms and which, somewhat understandably, provokes convulsions at the very suggestion of cooperative action. Unsurprisingly, the doubtful are not much comforted by the assurance that there are socialist anarchists, as well.

If one insists that the liberal vision has nothing to do with an order reminiscent of a Mad Max movie (it is apparently requisite to mention Mel Gibson movies in libertarian commentary today), that an order founded on absolute individualism is not only compatible with social development but is the essential ingredient of true society, then one generally meets, if not with disgust, then with incredulity. Without the existence of coercive power, everyone knows, society will collapse into the stereotypical form of anarchy mentioned above, whether or not such a collapse was intended.

However much we may insist that we are doing our level best to fight against hate, chaos, and the survival of the fittest, and that our ideal of a peaceful, equitable order where all may pursue their destinies unfettered by others is the vision that sustains and commands us, we must answer the charge that we are unrealistic idealists in the troubled and bloody tradition of the Jacobins and communists. By removing coercive government under the banner of peace and brotherhood, will we not be, in fact, preparing a bloodbath? Hasn’t every attempt to dissolve the existence of government merely resulted in a worse and unprecedented form of tyranny?

We must, in a sense, answer yes. When the consensus that undergirds a particular government collapses, it is almost a given that chaos will prevail, until a new power that may command the fear and respect and love of the society can emerge to replace it. When the very idea of a coercive social power, the state, is wrested from a society, a totalitarian order almost inevitably replaces the older authoritarian one after a brief and somewhat liberal interlude.

Experience is on the side of the statists. Every historical example seemingly points to the necessity of authority as we know it today. And, this overwhelming evidence has been forged into a theory of human nature, that man is too corrupt or at least too imperfect to be free.

Ultimately, the experience of history can only be countered with new experiences, not new speculation. The order we advocate can not be precisely defined, and therefore we cannot confidently claim that it is correct, however much faith we may feel we have in freedom. That, in turn, means that the processes of establishing a liberal order and discovering a liberal order are one and the same.

We must, at some point, be willing to attempt to replace the current order with our own, and yet we must do so with the humility that comes with the knowledge that we cannot be sure of what we are creating and that every other such attempt has brought about destruction. Above all, it requires us to prove that liberalism is overwhelmingly a force for peace and liberty.

What we have described is a far more daunting task, we believe, than most libertarians would admit. It is not simply a matter of destroying the government or eradicating statism. Destroying the state is thoroughly counterproductive if the result is fire and brimstone. We must recognize that the state has not been history’s unwelcome guest but rather an historical necessity and that removing it will require both bold experimentation and self-sacrifice.

February 23, 2004

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