Jonathan Goodwin

October 23, 2019

I Only Have a Hammer

I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.

- Abraham Maslow

C.Jay Engel has a very interesting and thought provoking piece on the topic of libertarianism and liberty, entitled “Libertarianism’s Place In Society.” I say thought provoking, because even though the general topic is one that I have worked through often, his approach is quite different and provides fascinating – and troubling – food for thought.With his opening sentence, Engel points to what he sees as the issue:

The thesis here is that libertarianism as a political theory only carries the veneer of importance and centrality due to the strength and power of the democratic, administrative, state in our time.

Engel is after the “why.” Why is it that so many libertarians see libertarianism and only libertarianism (sola libertatem?) as the cure for what ails us, so to speak?Where in the past one might have said, with some truth, that politics is downstream from culture, today we have culture downstream from the state – with the state not only consuming all relationships but even guiding these relationships; with the state not following the cultural lead of the people but taking a leading role in shaping the culture that it wishes the people to adopt.

Since the state is everywhere we look, and libertarianism has a set of particular ethical critiques against the state, it seems to follow that libertarianism plays such an important place in our lives.

The state is omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent. “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

This creates the illusion that libertarianism plays a fundamental role in society.

Because the state plays the fundamental role, libertarianism must be fundamental. In other words, many libertarians see the solution to the issue of the state in the terms that the state presents.

Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.

- Abraham Kaplan

The state makes the rules of the game and many libertarians believe that this is, therefore, the field on which they must play if they are to find liberty:

But it should be made clear that the only reason libertarianism as such seems to play such a fundamental role in the self-identity and life-meaning of so many in libertarian circles is due to the politicalization of society.

Engel has succinctly put into words the role that libertarianism can play in a society that is not totally politicized:

Under a free society that is not created by or bound up in the existence of the state, libertarianism plays much more the role of a legal theory, not a political theory.

This strikes me as not inconsistent with my idea that liberty will be found in a society grounded in natural law and Christian ethics, with libertarianism playing a role of determining when violence (e.g. self-defense, physical punishment, etc.) is appropriate.Engel notes that men are not connected to each other based on this idea of “libertarianism.” Libertarianism only binds libertarians together if we “presume the state’s politicized world!”He then comes to the point of what can be labeled (for simplicity) the left and right of society and how this relates to libertarians and libertarianism:

In this case, those of us who are beginning to pay particular attention to the rapid and concerning leftist social revolution likely have more in common with each other, outside the bounds of libertarianism as a legal theory. And as the left-libertarians and mainstream libertarians in general either praise these developments as at the culmination of the “libertarian spirit” or at least just watch it all with neutral expressions and ambivalent reaction, they likely have more in common, generally speaking, with the progressive left.

Libertarians are connected to each other in their (varying levels of) anti-statism. But this only means that libertarians see the problem only one way, through one lens, and with only one tool available to deal with it – and it is the state that has defined the way, the lens, and the tool that many libertarians choose to use.

Men form society not on the basis of a unifying legal theory, but the legal theory is adopted post-society. Libertarianism is a helpful tool in the development of peaceful civilization; it is neither the spring nor the engine from which society comes.

A common culture and tradition must come first, one that offers decentralization from the statism of today. Good law follows good people, it is incapable of creating good people.


If I had a hammerI'd hammer in the morningI'd hammer in the eveningAll over this land

And I'd hammer out dangerI'd hammer out a warningI'd hammer out love between my brothers and my sistersAll over this land

- Peter, Paul, and Mary

So maybe we could try it another way?

About the author

Jonathan Goodwin blogs under his alias Bionic Mosquito and you can find everything he has written at‍

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