Ben Lewis

February 18, 2020

The Inconsistency of Libertarian Consistency

I've been mired in a prolonged period of writer's block as it relates to interacting with the divide between libertarians and conservatives, but I happened across an argument this week that I think warrants an answer. Libertarians, I've seen on multiple occasions, are touting the logical consistency of their philosophy (such as it is) as one of its most important features, and are interpreting acknowledgments on the part of conservatives that libertarianism is internally consistent as evidence that they acknowledge libertarianism's superiority. But is this right? No, I don't think it is.

In the first place, a system of thought's logical consistency is only as good as its first principles, and with the wrong first principles even a logically consistent philosophy can reach the wrong conclusions. What libertarians tend to do, though, is skip several steps in their philosophical process and then decry as unphilosophical anyone who doesn't agree with their perfectly logical conclusions.

Having started from a point not just of individual rights, but of absolute, unqualified rights, libertarians proceed directly to arguing the full logical conclusions of this definition of rights. But if their definition of rights is wrong - if, for instance, individual rights are limited by some concept of the good, or by a transcendent source, or by some requirement of human dignity - then all the logical consistency in the world isn't going to get them to the right conclusions (and these difficulties are not mitigated by reframing the question in terms of self-ownership, or principles of non-aggression). So, logical consistency alone is not an argument in favor of a system of thought.

But, perhaps more importantly, a philosophy's abstract consistency is less important than its consistency with the real life nature of man and society. Remember, libertarianism is not just a theory about the rights of man, or limitations on the state. It is a thoroughgoing abstraction of all society in that it reduce actual social arrangements, including political ones, to highly rationalistic principles. But almost no human interactions are based primarily on rationalistic principles, if they're based on them at all, and attempting to redesign society along these lines not only bears the mark of the leftist planner, it paradoxically throws society into a state of flux, to the individual's detriment.

The attempt to replace, as libertarians would do, social relationships based on love and trust with ones based on abstract concepts of liberty and coercion, is radical in its conception and often horrifying in its implementation (as a cursory look at libertarian theories of parenthood suggests). Any success for such a system depends on a vision of man as a rational chooser, willingly and consciously adopting every belief, every duty, and every virtue. But such is not man, who invariably depends for his development and protection on a variety of social structures and orders that he has not rationally accepted and that impose on him duties as a condition of belonging. Throwing all of that into the waste bin for the sake of logical consistency (which, again, is not synonymous with logical accuracy) has the obvious tendency to undermine the stability of the social order, and the peace and freedom of the individuals that depend on it (whether they realize it or not). This is why Russell Kirk believed that "to deprive [people] of their habits, customs, and precepts, in order to benefit them in some novel way, may leave them morally and socially adrift, more harmed by their loss of ethical sanctions than helped by the fancied new benefit."

A logically consistent system constructed to guide human relationships that is foreign to the way that most human relationships are actually conducted does not deserve the kind of self-righteous defense that libertarians often engage in. This is not to say that there are no good or interesting arguments for libertarianism (even if I think there are better and more interesting arguments for conservatism), and a logically coherent system is certainly to be preferred to a logically incoherent system, all other things being equal (which they aren't). But to simply hammer on the supposed superiority of libertarianism's logical consistency misses multiple marks, and is the kind of behavior that keeps libertarianism the ineffectual domain of internet pedants.

About the author

Ben is a contributing editor for Bastion Magazine. In addition to Bastion, his articles have appeared at a variety of online outlets, including the Tenth Amendment Center and The Patriot Post. He and his family live in the last refuge for traditional manners, the American Midwest.

more from the blog