Mar 8, 2004: Regaining Liberalism

In our previous essays, we have aligned ourselves with the anti-statism expressed by the libertarian-anarchist movement, while always attempting to remain critical of the shortcomings of that movement itself. We have attempted, often unsatisfactorily, to point to particular tendencies that we believe severely hinder the liberal cause. Such tendencies include a narrow anti-governmental focus, an obsession with policies and current events, an obsession with the free market as an ideal (rather than as a necessary liberal condition), a failure to acknowledge the moral strength and superiority of our “statist” opponents, a glee in the failures of our ‘enemies’, and anything else that serves as a distraction from the task at hand, namely the establishment of a liberal order.

These particular tendencies are the result of a more or less willful refusal within the movement to embark upon any definite course of action. The established principles of the libertarian-anarchist movement necessarily imply action and therefore thought about means and ends, but there has been no serious attempt to replace the state. Based on this incongruity between principles and deeds, one might understandably accuse the movement of hypocrisy. However, we contend that this contradiction is rooted in a more fundamental deficiency in vision that is, in turn, largely rooted in the reigning social democratic mentality. This bourgeois mentality is generally uninterested in exercising its fundamental political rights and powers and treats culture, art, and religion as high-brow extra-curricular activities rather than as inherently human endeavors. So long as its economic activity is not excessively disrupted by governmental interference, it remains, on the whole, indifferent to other considerations. This generality seems to hold true of libertarianism, which simply does not seem compelled in the slightest to truly resist the state.

Within its economistic limits, the libertarian-anarchist movement might be thought of as a fundamentalist sect of liberalism. If the holy scripture of American liberalism, the Declaration of Independence, has not been forgotten by the libertarians, nor have they forgotten their apostles, the Jeffersons, Smiths, and Bastiats, to name but a few. But, they have utterly lost hold of the revolutionary spirit of liberalism in their insistence on holding to a limited set of fundamental tenets developed by it two centuries ago in response to a particular historical situation.

If liberalism was born as the “earthly” expression of the revolutionary individualism that began turning the world upside down with the Protestant Reformation, it was a revolt that occurred in religion, philosophy, literature, politics, economics, art, science, and morals. It was fundamentally a social and religious revolution, insofar as the increasingly self-conscious and insistent spirit of individualism was destroying and rebuilding the foundations of Western civilization. But libertarian-anarchists have generally seized upon liberal principles as they were expressed in a particular historical period, especially that of 1776 America. By doing so, they have arguably stunted the growth of liberalism and undermined even their own anti-statist and free market ideals.

Nevertheless, all fundamentalist and reactionary movements are, despite themselves, necessarily innovative, and this is no less true of libertarianism, although its innovations have largely been achieved within the narrow confines of its doctrinaire anti-statism. So, while the Austrian school has further developed the economic side of liberalism, this is rather in keeping with the economistic tendencies of classical liberalism, not a break from them. And, although somewhat more encouragingly, the voluntaryists, largely in Thoreau’s tradition, have persuasively argued for the principles of non-violent non-cooperation and consensualism as necessary corollaries to the libertarian-anarchist creed, voluntaryism is both very much a minority position and is itself unable to get far beyond mere anti-statism.

When considering the current size and scope of the state and its increasing willingness to transcend the limits of its own charter, liberals must ask themselves why they have failed to counteract this development and why liberalism is such an unappealing philosophy today. The short answer is that liberalism must be rescued from anti-statism as it has been formulated and defined by the libertarian-anarchists. But, more accurately, we must gather the insights of the “Austrians” and voluntaryists and others and the dedication of the “statists” to forge the new vision we have so frequently talked about before. The spirit of radical–yet not atomistic–individualism that gave birth to liberalism must be revived and strengthened so as to subsume the anti-statist principles of contemporary libertarian-anarchism within a positive and complete religion of liberty. In future essays, we hope to point in the direction of such a religion.

March 8, 2004


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