By Jay B Gaskill

The modern and postmodern forms of libertarianism are a halfway house between liberalism and conservatism.

They appeal to the disenchanted liberals (who are moving right) because they support life-style freedom from all government regulation, resulting in free-market access to narcotics and other character-altering psychotropic drugs; and because their aversion to the demands of national security (the notion of actively defending liberty with force of arms is seen as a contradiction). This leads the modern and post-modern libertarians to support isolationism — limiting the USA to a small, ineffectual military tasked only to last-minute self-defense.

There is a parallel appeal to that subset of disenchanted conservatives (who are moving left), the kind that find a theocrat under every bush (or a Bush under every faith-based invasion of secular autonomy). In fact, both proto-libertarian mindsets are mirror-images – each has adopted the political theory of libertarianism as if it were a moral code. This strain of libertarianism is linked to an honor-free moral libertinism in which personal autonomy trumps all other values.

The intellectual appeal of libertarianism (or more accurately the appeal of theoretical libertarianism to certain intellectuals) is mirrored in the similar intellectual appeal of theoretical socialism. Albert Einstein wrote that he was a socialist because only “socialism is directed towards a social-ethical end” – an end that was self-evident to him. The “evils” of the “economic anarchy of capitalist society” were simply taken as a given. In this, Einstein failed to recognize that there is more than one ethical principle that can govern social organization. Counterpoised against the ethic of social control for the good of the many is the ethic of personal autonomy for the good if the individual. Both have a similar appeal to the minds of certain intellectuals – each is a clean, intellectual construct that ignores all the messy, real-world consequences. It is no coincidence that many pure libertarians and theoretical socialists agree on the desirability of pacifism.

I should note that Einstein was wise enough to express a concern about the inherent dangers of a massively planned economy, but it was not enough of a concern to cause him to question his socialist assumptions.

Which leads me to one of the 20th century’s intellectual monuments in defense of liberty, “The Road to Serfdom” by Friedrich Von Hayek, who dealt with this neglected issue head on: The real world transforms socialist good intentions into bad outcomes that many of the original socialists would condemn.

Hayek focused on how the socialist planning initiatives in Pre-Nazi Germany paved the way for hideous authoritarian evil. But in a postscript to the later-released American edition, he added that he should have included the parallel Russian experience – having given the Soviets a pass during WWII when the book was first written. Hayek’s case for economic and personal liberty was based on a sober assessment of the way things work in the real world.

In the real world, government planning for the best of purposes had led to the most malignant consequences – and it inevitably does. It is telling that Hayek introduced his book with “to my fellow socialists.”

I recall when the former Fed-Head Alan Greenspan was in the crosshairs of blame at the time of the great mortgage collapse. He was treated by his congressional enemies and former friends alike as if he had abandoned all his free market principles, as if he had suddenly shouldered all the blame for the mortgage crisis; and as if he had humbly signed on to the Obama campaign as the resident bad example, presumably to be paraded before select audiences wearing a dunce cap.

At the time, I thought – How quickly the politicians discard their former heroes when expediency trumps fidelity.

As a young graduate student in New York, Greenspan belonged to a group that was in the thrall of the author-philosopher Ayn Rand (Alisa Rosenbaum), a refugee from communist Russia (where the Soviets had essentially destroyed her parent’s business). As most of us know, she was a fiercely anticommunist atheist who defended the ethic of rational self-interest against cultural and political forces that enforce a sacrificial ethos, deride profit and sap achievement. She had no formal economic training. She loved America. She was brilliant.

Later in life, Mr. Greenspan was asked if he was still a follower of Ayn Rand’s philosophy (Objectivism). He said he was an agnostic where Ms. Rand was concerned.

Under blistering examination in congress, Mr. Greenspan was asked whether he had given up his libertarian market principles, and he said “partially”. Then he attempted the kind of nuanced answer that congress, the president and media had accepted without question when he was at the top of his game. Not this time. Nor did anyone listen carefully.

Ayn Rand despised libertarians, not so much because they “believed in” free market capitalism, but because they lacked core moral values. In Ayn Rand’s ideal world, her economic heroes were productive, hard-working, men and women of great personal honor and integrity. And they were not shielded from the consequences of failure by complex credit instruments. In a scene in one of her novels an “old fashioned” banker (when Rand uses the term old fashioned, it is intended as a complement) makes a loan to one of her heroes with no collateral other than the man’s character. No, the old fashioned banker would not “float paper”, thus “securitizing” the loan and transferring the “risk” (i.e., responsibility) to others.

Accountability for failure wonderfully concentrates the mind.

When governments or networks of financial institutions, acting like a government, mess with the natural risk consequence mechanisms that attend ordinary free transactions they rob the market at large of its internal corrective checks and balances. No regulatory scheme is perfect and no regulatory body can be more effective than a system that requires full transparency and accountability.

Markets that eliminate the consequences of failure – or transfer those consequences to innocent third parties, or try to dilute them – no longer function as rational and impartial pricing mechanisms. Put differently, such markets can no longer be trusted.

Mr. Greenspan’s problem (shared by almost everyone inside the Beltway bubble) was not a failed economic theory but failed real world practice. Compared to Ms. Rand’s “old fashioned” values, Wall Street and “post-modern” banking operate in a morally bankrupt culture. Fiscal bankruptcy followed. And that consequence was as inevitable as hypothermia and death following a naked frolic with polar bears in their natural habitat. This suggested a variation on Robert Heinlein’s TANSTAAFL[i] – “Without accountability for failure, there ain’t no such thing as a free market.” And as the conservative critics of modern libertarianism might now say, “Without the willingness to pay a real price for its ongoing defense, there ain’t no such thing as a free country.”

There is a vacuum in the heart and soul of the new libertarians. It is their inability to answer one core question: If freedom is the lynchpin value on which the political philosophy of libertarianism is based, then why should we value freedom? The Jeffersonian view is that our freedoms are granted to us by the Creator. But that pushes back the question one more level. Why on earth would our Creator do that to us? This is another way of describing the moral vacuum that holds back the new libertarians from endorsing a fierce, even deadly defense of our God-given freedoms.

Why is freedom worth defending, even to the death? There is an answer for all those who value the future of civilization itself. Humanity is the dominant predator species on the planet earth for a reason. Our force-multiplier is the social technology we call civilization. Within a civilization – even one that only does a poor job of protecting human freedom – the functional power and effective freedom of its members are far, far greater than they would be in a raw state of nature. But not all civilizations are equal. Some have allowed, even promoted productive human innovation and creativity. Those civilizations that contain useful creative communities tend to prevail over the rest. The American experiment is an ongoing demonstration that creativity thrives under conditions that foster creative freedom; safety from predators; the protection of property, especially of intellectual property; and the other rights that ensure the free, peaceful and honest exchange of goods, services, inventions and other fruits of human creativity.

This thesis is developed further in two essays:

Renaissance Conservatism { } and

The American Creative Surge { }

A full-on Marxist, an enemy of freedom is seeking a second term in the White House. Surely there is room for a working partnership among conservatives and freedom loving centrists to wholeheartedly support his opponent.

Jay B Gaskill

Copyright © 2012 by Jay B Gaskill Contact

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[i] TANSTAAFL – “There ain’t no such a thing as a free lunch” was taken from Robert Heinlein’s novel, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

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