Thursday, December 30, 2010

Libertarianism as Liberal Fundamentalism

This NY Magazine piece on the nature of libertarianism has been stirring up some commentary on the Internet and I couldn't help but be pulled in.

Overall, I found the article interesting and insightful and appreciated that it brought up that there is a lot of agreement between left and right wing libertarians on principles, if not always in politics. My take is that fundamentally both have a deep distrust of aggregate power, but vary on which aggregated power their are most concerned with be it government or business.

Something struck me wrong about this statement however:

Yet there’s no idea more fundamental to our country’s history. Every political group claims the Founders as its own, but libertarians have more purchase than most. The American Revolution was a libertarian movement, rejecting overweening government power. The Constitution was a libertarian document that limited the role of the state to society’s most basic needs, like a legislature to pass laws, a court system to interpret them, and a military to protect them. (Though some Founders, like John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, wanted to centralize power.) All the government-run trappings that came after—the Fed, highways, public schools, a $1.5 trillion-a-year entitlement system— were arguably departures from our country’s hard libertarian core.

A quick look at the Wikipedia entry for Liberalism demonstrates quite clearly that the American Revolution was the first Liberal revolution. Not Liberal in the sense that it is used in modern US politics, but in the Classical Liberal tradition of the Enlightenment and most notably Locke which is basically summed up as individual liberty and equal rights. It's exhilarating to skim the history of Liberalism from the English Civil War, to its explosion throughout Europe in the late 18th and 19th centuries, to its triumph in the Cold War. In mainstream modern American politics, there is virtually no one who does not operate within the Liberal tradition, it's more of a matter of how they deal with the tension between liberty and equal rights which determines whether they heave closer to Classical Liberalism (our Conservatives) or Welfare Liberalism (our Liberals).

But Libertarianism is from what I can tell a distinctly modern, and I will argue fundamentalist, movement and a break from the Liberal tradition. It chooses individual liberty over equal rights (or somehow conflates them) and thus relieves itself of the tension between the two. This gives it a consistency and an appeal the Liberal tradition with all its messy compromises and qualifiers cannot replicate, particularly in the modern media environment.

But why fundamentalist? I borrow from Karen Armstrong's understanding of fundamentalist religious movements as inherently modern. You can't be a fundamentalist in a traditional society because that society will encompass your entire world. Yes, you will have important practices and beliefs but these will be integrated into your day to day economic, social, political, and economic relationships so the idea of selecting which of them is fundamental is ridiculous. You won't have enough sustained contact with any other way of thinking or behaving to conceive of living differently. But in a modern, global economy, you may have to choose and if you're going to have to find a way to integrate your values with your changing world (but this may lead to dissipation or relativism) or preserving them by selecting and maintaining your fundamental practices and beliefs.

What is lost in this assertion of fundamentals are the tensions and paradoxes that were incorporated in the tradition. You avoid relativism and gain a powerful absolutist voice, but in exchange for certainty, you lose nuance and flexibility.

Now, I ask any of my libertarian friends who have read this far. Is this accurate? Is libertarianism in fact a break with Liberal tradition? If so, is such a break necessary? I by no means hold that assertive movements that break with current practice are always undesirable. Liberalism was a break too.