CJay Engel

October 23, 2019

Libertarianism and the Failure of the Libertarian

I've read two criticisms of libertarians recently. Both by Daniel McCarthy. Here is the first:

And beyond taxes and services is the question of what kind of country you want to have: what your vision of ordinary life is. Libertarians don’t have a very compelling one at this point—one that addresses the cultural questions that animate the right and left alike—so they’re stuck with utterly tertiary issues like debt.

Obviously, the failure of libertarians to create a meaningful political block has been on his mind, for the second one was similar:

And why should we care about the grandkids if we’re not having kids anyway? The common sense arguments for posterity and the national interest depend on things deeper than the national debt, and unless those things, which are under serious attack right now, are defended first, the debt is moot.
Interest rates are presently rock bottom and US creditors have few other places to put their money, so the near-term picture doesn’t suggest urgency. The long-term picture might, but to make a long-term case, you have to argue that the nation and its posterity matter, which is hard to do when you believe there’s no such thing as society."

These themes have been actively on my mind as well, so I hope I can answer them well. Is this not an echo of our own point in our summer editorial? Here is what we wrote, and labelled "atomistic libertarianism:"

The second tendency is generally a reaction to the first one, but is, despite this, also a reflection of a wider developing social problem: the disinterest in meta-human affairs. Related to the “libertarian movement,” such as it is (and such as this phrase still serves a purpose), this tendency presents itself in those libertarians who make libertarianism the only thing worth discussing and propagating.
This is not to say that these libertarians who misuse libertarianism’s thinness are intentional about their neglect of extra- political concerns, but rather, in practice and in their general habits and daily focus, this is what really attracts their daily attention. They have not theoretically traded a “thin libertarianism” for an “atomistic libertarianism,” but they have indeed done so practically. This is a product of a sort of social nihilism where all is meaningless except the single most important issue: the activities of the state.

Here is how libertarians will typically answer McCarthy's first statement: libertarianism itself doesn't address cultural questions because libertarianism is particularly a legal-political theory and is relegated to the state. Libertarians, though, can indeed have cultural opinions outside their libertarianism.

This is a good answer. It's accurate and true. Here is the thing though: libertarians (as distinct from libertarianism as a political theory) commonly do not address cultural questions in fact. That is, there really is a problem of the "atomistic libertarian" which, although he is allowed to have extra-libertarian concerns, does not really care about much at the epochal level. So indeed, they are, in fact, "stuck with tertiary issues like debt." Perhaps the reader thinks debt is secondary, even primary. Fine. This does not take away fundamentally from McCarthy's concern. It does not matter that one can be a libertarian and care about these things; what matter is that most do not.

However, in response to that, I should add the even more important observation that this is not a libertarian problem. This is a problem of modern man, of the rising generation of political participants. It's true that so many of the rising block of libertarians simply do not care about the long term, they have little interest in raising families, building communities, contributing to the social well-being of a century from now. This is the character of the new western man. After all, consider the obnoxious "conservatives" like Tom Lahren; does her non-libertarianism put her barbie-doll brand conservatism on a better, more sustainable path forward?

Thus, this folds into a proper answer to the second quote. Shawn Ritenour answered (on Facebook) with this:

He has a point, but it is not true that "libertarians," whoever they may be, "believe there's no such thing as society." Also, there is nothing in libertarianism that implies they will not have children or don't care about their family or posterity. The problem is more contemporary culture in general.

His last point is exactly right: McCarthy is on to something; but libertarianism is not to blame. Libertarians are often, though this is not caused by their political theory, characterized by the problems McCarthy observes. But such is the face of twenty-first century man. As was a theme in the present issue, and will be a theme in future ones, we need better libertarians, not more libertarians.

Libertarianism as a political block, as a political movement, is hardly in good health. This is not the fault of the theory, but of the people who inherited it from the Ron Paul years and who consider it their strategy to appeal chiefly to the rabid anti-social left. It is becoming obvious that the phrase "libertarian movement" is a past-tense phase.

Finally, one comment on the "national" problem: in terms of a juxtaposition between globalism (one great universal society) and nationalism (areas of relatively local sovereignty), there's no doubt that nationalism could play an important role– primarily, however, in Europe. In England and Ireland and Scotland and Germany and so on. As Paul Gottfried often points out (and as he expressed in our forthcoming interview with him for the fall) nationalism makes little sense in the United States. If McCarthy wants a long term focus and preserving what is left of the institutions of older generations, nationalism, in the context of the radical corporate left, strikes me as a lousy strategy. Regionalism is the path forward. The nation as a holistic political body itself is unrecoverable.

About the author

C.Jay Engel is the founder and publisher of Bastion Magazine. He has written for, LRC, David Stockman, and related. He owns several consulting business, actively works on the magazine, and lives in Northern CA.

more from the blog