Libertarianism and the Public Good

By virtue of its very definition, libertarianism has what they refer to in political philosophy as a neutral or attenuated vision of the public Good; or more fully, an understanding that the Right stands prior to the Good. To this mindset, expansive libertarian freedom is the sine qua non of the good and healthy society. The problem arises, however, with the practical implementation of such an abstracted political system. Indeed, any system that is so overwhelmingly predisposed towards individual human liberty is also one that is largely silent on the common moral-historical threads that comprise an integrated civic culture, the coherency of ethical restraints, and the salutary notion of a transcendent human teleology guiding the public square. If we hold that the action of immersing ourselves in freedom is the highest duty of the actualized self -- even higher than honoring the warp and weft of a civilization's accumulated wisdom, how then can we determine what are the wise web of moral/ political policies that answer the basic prudential questions we as humans must deliberate upon in our positive and negative freedoms? Truly, the libertarian premises of the minimal state are largely silent on the intricate sinews that bind community, for freedom in and of itself cannot point us to the character of the good life -- nor answer the primordial questions as to how then shall men live, or even if there is such a thing as a Good Life to be had.

Morally speaking, it is highly doubtful whether Man can abide the libertarian's ethical ambiguity and communitarian "thinness" while still retaining that connected moral vision necessary for a people's long-term survival. In contrast, it is best to consider the regime alternatives. Constitutional Conservatives posit a government that is mechanically constrained by its own rules of engagement. Moreover, it leaves ample room for private institutions and religious entities to exercise their largely voluntary prerogatives that rein in those obtuse qualities of human nature -- all while cultivating a society's shared moral-historical character. By the same token, the Progressive's moral/political edifice places its fate in the hands of a leviathan state to equalize nature's inequalities, and in turn it works singlemindedly to construct its rendition of the homogenous secular city. And while both of these antithetical incarnations of the political life assign varying weights to liberty and order in the continuum of regimes, or look to the past or to the future for their own pristine El Dorado, each has its integrated endgame in mind as they put their shoulders firmly to the plow. With the libertarian model's desiccated view of the communal good, certain incongruities arise.

Libertarianism's relative social neutrality leads us ultimately in the direction of atomism and anarchy, since it generally avoids the axiom that men are either good or fallen by nature. Instead, many libertarians (but not all) hold to the view that men are tabula rasa -- mere material that is bound only by the plasticity of their potentialities. Such an understanding stands in stark contrast to what Aristotle views as humanity's gregarious political nature -- an essence that comes into its full flowering within the self-sufficient community of proper balance, since we are in our soulish characters intended to be neither beasts nor gods. We must be careful that when we speak of liberty or freedom, we use it in the classical understanding of politics and the integrated good life. In moral terms, imagine the Libertarian City scoured clean of every ethical commandment other than "Do what thou wilt," with the only caveat being a minimalist civic morality. No City can survive upon such abstract foundations, unless men are themselves angelic in temperament. Aristotle said that we are zoon politikon -- political animals who are constantly judging, weighing, valuing. If we add to this mixture the Christian metaphysic: that we are fallen beings who are temporally severed from our necessary purposes, then discrete liberty itself is too thin a cord to bind us in unison, and too weak a master to ultimately keep us from each other's throats.

The libertarian schizophrenia between economic and social issues, as if they were mutually exclusive in their false compartmentalization, is baffling. As such, are men mindfully unaware that the venom of social liberalism on issues such as abortion, street drug legalization, casual divorce and fatherlessness, gay normalization and marriage, and the filial horrors that arise from the bowels of the deconstructed family produce the very pathologies that have plagued America and have transformed her from a republic of relative virtue to a centralized morally neutral socialist democracy in its most pejorative sense? Indeed, the cancerous seeds that are planted by libertarianism's sympathetic amalgamation with social liberalism have concealed within their ends the ability to hamstring any economic system by degrading the moral appetites of its citizenry -- and this moral cancer is manifest in those who vote.

The conservation of liberty requires the rational and clear-eyed ability to choose that which serves its interests best. That being so, the characters of morally rudderless men bound to the slavishness caused by drug addicted indolence, along with the full catalogue of ethically dissipated lifestyles that are unfit for free beings in healthy society, would soon topple and destroy the limited aims of the libertarian regime. As men succumbed to demagogues who appealed to the degraded appetites that humanity is heir to, the minimalist state would soon mimic the trajectory of our own self- intoxicated Progressive regime: a politics that has even now scorned the self-sustaining virtues of the Judeo-Christian worldview. Therein, a minimalist regime, infected with the liberal contagion of immorality and the loss of self sufficiency, could not long remain free in its qualified sense and would gradually succumb to the venal helplessness that leads to the peoples crying out for the paternalism of the welfare state or The Man on the White Horse. As in all things political, the moral character of the one and the many is the key, and how interesting it is that the Progressive and Libertarian regimes wind up at the same checkmate.

In believing that it is primarily the art of free economic exchange that stands foremost to a civilization's moral good, libertarians unwittingly succumb to the Marxian analysis by letting a materialist caricature of man creep in through the back door. But in the classical sense, Politics is about far more than wealth and its attainment, since the Virtuous City requires prudent wisdom to balance a sustainable admixture of growth, harmony, and moral education's all important cultivation of intellectual, civic, and ethical virtue. We would do well to remind ourselves that moral virtue cannot be severed from the political, despite what we are told by the bastard philosophes of Post-Modernity.

In an epoch where a society's apprehension of even the most banal wisdom can no longer be taken for granted, the enduring truths must be continually hammered upon and restated in terms that even the dullest of intellects can comprehend. Liberty cannot be a sufficient good that stands of its own. It must be tethered to a purpose greater than its own deification and cannot be abstracted from an ethical "Polaris" that leads men towards some idyllic happiness. Unpurposed liberty is an idol that when fully matured, spirals off into chaos. Yet the word "liberty" rolls off our tongues and enchants our imaginations with a million different fantasies. This is why libertarianism resounds so enticingly to the young and idealistic -- but like liberalism, fails so miserably in practice.

As we should have expected, the fruits of modernity's political extremes -- radical individualism and collectivism -- both stand as way stations on the unmarked boulevard to tyranny. In truth, both misunderstand the iron laws of human nature and both fail to perceive that there is something far greater that animates the consummation of human happiness. Ultimately, true liberty cannot be seized hold of for long in the transitory politics of men, since once one becomes ensnared in the furtive embrace of freedom gone awry, he soon finds that there is no true liberty to be had.

Glenn Fairman writes from Highland, Ca. He can be reached at or

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