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22. September 2012

Why I’m not a libertarian

Filed under: natural law and rights,philosophy,worldview — admin @ 19:22

300 pages into Ludwig von Mises’ economic masterpiece, Human Action, and I’ve found myself stopping for air.  I’m not fatigued, as I was 300 pages into John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion; I’m not confused, like I was in the last portion of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling.  Mises is a mastermind, too interesting and fresh to find tedious (though Calvin is mostly enjoyable), and far too clear and concise to be confusing.  No, Human Action is one of the most profound books I’ve ever read.  My momentary pause has far less to do with Mises’ difficulty, and far more to do with his spiritual emptiness: he must be read in segments because my soul buckles under the total burden of his meaninglessness.

I believe my reaction to Mises’ work underscores my particular problem with libertarianism in general, the fact that it has little to no soul, reducing man to a rational, pleasure-seeking animal. The central premise of Human Action, the basic theory of Mises’ praxeology, is that all men are united by one logic, one universal bent toward happiness, which they seek in the most advantageous way possible.  In short, man, though capable of making poor decisions, will even in failure choose the most logical poor decision known to him; he furthermore always desires one object more than everything else at any given moment, and the object of his desire is revealed only by his logical action.  Praxeology, the study of human action, doesn’t concern itself with whether men want the right things; it concerns itself with man’s attempt to become happy.  Instead of making value judgments, as religions and ethics do, it simply says men want to experience happiness, and then concerns itself with whether or not a certain approach to society results in the desired ends.

Surely all thinkers can agree about man’s primary pursuit: both St Francis of Assissi and the banking tycoon did what they did because it brought them happiness.  And voluntary cooperation, libertarians say, is the best method by which men may achieve their goals; but cooperation towards what?  Mises says that division of labor brings societies together and provides them with luxuries unprecedented; he says this is the reason why men banded together in the first place, and gave themselves a collective name (I’m more inclined to believe men united in self-defense).  But if man’s community, his happiness, can be largely predicated upon material gain, if men cooperate and behave ethically mainly because of production, and worldliness comprises our entire civilization, then it’s only fair to say that living man died long ago.  His society is little more than a comfortable coffin, his family a breed of intelligent gnats.

I have no problem with the idea of man as a logical being (although I believe he’s frequently blinded by desire), nor do I find wealth and free markets offensive, nor do I find the pursuit of happiness to be insulting to virtue, provided that pursuit takes place within moral boundaries.  The problem lies in the fact that Mises says society exists primarily for purposes of production, and must essentially create law to result in the maximum protection thereof.  In reducing civilization to production, every ounce of romance is lost, every bit of glory stripped, and every ounce of patriotism defiled.  If our ancestors died so that we could experience wealth, I suppose there’s some quasi-goodness in that.  But if all for which civilization exists is luxury, not for defending justice in the name of God, the triumph of good over evil, nor other high ideals, then not only is their sacrifice cheapened, it is almost a waste. Mises’ work makes virtue and vice distinguishable only by outcome, and makes the tragic hero merely tragic; it entirely circumvents the wisdom of Madison, who said that justice is the sole aim of government, and that should justice not be pursued, that liberty would be lost.  Mises didn’t revere our Founding Fathers; he intended to establish a new form of society, antithetical to our founding principles and Christianity.

Consider, further, what Mises’ philosophy implicitly declares about practicality.   In making subjectively defined pleasurable cooperation the chief measure of morality, libertarianism proclaims that virtue needn’t be heeded when she beckons men to suffer, that justice is not the end of government, but the means.  Will our chaplains call soldiers to fight valiantly, providing a mathematical formula which explains how the greater pleasure will be achieved on the whole? Mises says such calculations would be absurd, but yet how else could one argue to a truly praxeologically-minded society?  Are we dogs, begging at Pleasure’s table for scraps of food, rolling and sitting, wagging and lifting the paw only on Her command?  Or do we suffer in dignity, even should Pleasure retract her scraps?  Doesn’t true pleasure come from something higher, a call to duty, the rallying cry to honor, to immortality, to heaven?  Mises’ civilization defends nothing of the sort; it lowers man’s gaze from the sky to the barren desert sand, and confuses the human soul with that of a logical ape’s.

One may of course say that men, living under a libertarian government, aren’t necessarily bound to fight simply for the reasons the government says they fight: we say they can fight in the name of family, or friends, or even in the name of God.  But subjectivity is a poor banner under which to die, a foundation comprising anything but the meaningful.  Yes, men may individually stand for meaningful things: as Bastiat reasoned, the state’s refusal to subsidize farming doesn’t imply that it is against grain.  But grain is very different from unalienable rights.  Grain doesn’t need a firm metaphysical foundation for farming to exist; unalienable rights require a specific Deity. And while I wouldn’t for one second infer that the state must form its own religion, religious principles are the foundation for any meaningful system of law, a common discernment between what is right and what seems right, regardless of whether or not what’s right is pleasurable.  One can only wonder how long justice can possibly last, when men are swindled, with statistical calculations and empty promises, into trampling the rights of others to find jobs, to balance the distribution of wealth and joy, to promote happiness for their particular race.

But of all libertarianism’s flaws, perhaps its most fallacious and destructive pertains to the notion of its neutrality, when libertarianism is anything but neutral.  In a statement almost too ironic to bear, Mises himself stated that his philosophy accepts all religions — but only insofar as they bow to the golden goddess of libertarianism: Pleasure.  Those whose purpose in life contradicts the sacred unity, overwatched by Her iron gaze, needn’t feel too comfortable: they are technically enemies of the state.  Like to Daniel, who refused to bow to Nebuchadnezzar’s golden statue under penalty of death, libertarianism grants all the hand of friendship, provided they acknowledge their supreme lord and master.  The difference is, Mises’ system pretends the golden statue doesn’t exist.  Libertarianism promises liberty for all, under its own subjective terms.

What am I to make of Mises and libertarianism?  In the end, though I find them destructive to Western civilization, I pity them.  They seek civilization in earthly pleasure, and meaning in meaninglessness.  I have a destiny, have a God, have glory, have unalienable rights and The Law, have incorruptible joy — and should Pleasure ever stand between these and me, then with the Almighty’s help, She will know where Her dominion ends. Take your stand where you may; I cannot but with my whole heart reject libertarianism.

11 Comments

  1. I’m sorry you misunderstand libertarianism.

    Comment by HappyAcres — 22. September 2012 @ 22:16

  2. Mr. Egerer,

    I will let Von Mises answer your charge from his book Classical Liberalism. I hope in the future you will study and understand an idea more before rejecting it. I also pass on to you a Bible passage that I hope will help you understand that even God warns man against the dangers of having a King or government.

    http://mises.org/liberal/isec2.asp
    http://www.enduringword.com/commentaries/0908.htm

    Comment by Eddie — 22. September 2012 @ 23:55

  3. Eddie, your comment was by far the most meaningful refutation of my article yet. But that being said, I would have included more about Mises’ stance had I been allowed more words (AT places a 1200 word cap on their articles); Mises and I both deserved a better defense, and I regret not being able to give Mises more space for his own philosophy. The man is one of the greatest geniuses I’ve ever read, and though I disagree with him on the fundamental purpose of society, I’ll be quoting him for some time to come.

    Thanks again!

    Comment by admin — 23. September 2012 @ 00:10

  4. I have not stopped thinking about your article since I read it. It seems there are a few contradictions in your reasoning which I will address but most of all I am bothered by the fact that you are judging libertarianism because Mises focused his book on economic man and not on spiritual man. To me it makes sense that when we want to know about the next world we talk to a priest, when we want to know about math we talk to a math teacher, and when we want to know about economics, we talk to an economist. If we went to an economist and he started taking to us about religion we should all be suspect about his knowledge of economics. So Mises defined a specific limit about which he would focus the subject of his book. Is there, afterall, such a thing as Muslim economics and Christian economics that people of both faiths would accept and live under? Libertarianism is an economic philosophy and, in the past, economics was not a science it was known as political philosophy. This was because economists recognized that economics and politics were intwined to a significant degree. In order to produce a legitimate work on economics it must be free of religion, otherwise it will only be accepted by those who live a religious lifestyle.

    The beauty of Libertarianism is that it is the only political/economic philosophy that respects all religions by not being a religion itself. It simply tells us how to get along given our human limitations and those things we can all agree upon, such as that there is a sun. We in the west do not want to live under Sharia law, and the Muslims do not agree with our freedoms here. There is not another political system that I am aware of that describes how we shall all get along and that places a limit on the amount of violence that it is willing to let people in power exercise over others. It is this limit of power and the importance of individual freedom that draws me to Libertarianism. It is not about earthly pleasure but about mutual respect. Just as Christianity is not about The Bible, but the message in The Bible. So too is Libertarianism not about the pleasure and the world, but about individual freedom, and what has been proven time and again is that personal property is the foundation of individual freedom not religious principles. If religious principles are to be the foundation of law how will a democracy function? Will the God of Islam have equal say as the Christian God? And if not religion, than what basis will there be for a foundation of law, in a free and equal society, other than private property?

    “The essential teaching of liberalism is that social cooperation and the division of labor can be achieved only in a system of private ownership of the means of production, i.e., within a market society, or capitalism. All the other principles of liberalismdemocracy, personal freedom of the individual, freedom of speech and of the press, religious tolerance, peace among the nations are consequences of this basic postulate. They can be realized only within a society based on private property.” –Ludwig Von Mises, Omnipotent Government

    The next point in your essay I would like to address is the idea of pleasure and your assumption that all pleasure is worldly. But I think you would be committing the same sin you accuse Mises of if you think that pleasure is simply of this world. After all is there a difference in the definition of pleasure if one man takes pleasure in overindulgence and another takes it in fasting. Are not both taking pleasure, one by overconsumption and the other by under consumption? One finds joy in the moment in the physical and the other in the mental or future thought of pleasure which, at this particular instant, brings him more pleasure and thus he acts in the manner that brings him the most pleasure, joy or happiness. He would not be acting out of a denial of pleasure but simply based on his beliefs choosing a different pleasure in a different manner, even if that means forgoing physical pleasure to experience heavenly pleasure at a later time. It is the desire for pleasure or happiness that drives each mans actions.

    Thanks for your time and I am happy to see other reading Mises work as I also to find it to be a work a of supreme magnitude.

    Comment by Eddie — 23. September 2012 @ 23:13

  5. Eddie, you bring up two incredibly valid points, and perhaps I should have written other articles explaining them, to be provided as links, before submitting the Mises article to American Thinker.

    Regarding your first concern, to address economic man you must address spiritual man; the two aren’t necessarily separate fields. If one looks to the philosophers which birthed American values, they placed a primary value on spiritual matters, regarding them the foundation of any sensible system of government. Right now I’m looking at a logic textbook, written by Isaac Watts, the standard logic textbook at one time in our Ivy League schools, which firmly asserts that reason is a gift of God, for a particular purpose. What that purpose is, isn’t something that pure reason can say. It requires revelation.

    From Locke, to Blackstone, to Montesquieu, to Grotius, to even Thomas Paine (a deist!), the existence of God and the Scriptures provided the philosophical groundwork necessary to birth a truly lawful society. And living within the means of proper Law, our relations between man and man, is what properly comprises civilization. To construct a system of ethics and government apart from this is antithetical to our founding principles; one may argue in favor of a truly “rational” society, foregoing dependence upon Scriptural truths. But that attempt would result in something entirely different than America. This nation, as Alexis de Tocqueville plainly stated, repeatedly, in Democracy in America, was firmly founded upon Christian religiosity; our liberty and Biblical principles were entirely intertwined.

    Secondly, I hope to address the concept of utilitarianism in later essay, but I agree with your statement: the pursuit of happiness isn’t necessarily the same thing as the pursuit of pleasure, and to confuse them would be a horrible, slanderous mistake. I wish I’d had more space to clarify my position, as I was concerned people would get the wrong impression. Mises actually addressed the issue very well; but his statement about who wouldn’t fit into a liberal society (included in the article) showcases how sharply he divides from traditional Americans on what law is and isn’t used for. Once again, you may create a society which permits all kinds of vice, but historical records require us to understand how antithetical to traditional Americanism — and indeed, Biblical teaching — such a system would be.

    God bless, and thank you for your thoughtful and well-stated comment.

    -J

    Comment by admin — 24. September 2012 @ 17:33

  6. Tom Woods did you the honor of responding. http://www.tomwoods.com/blog/my-latest-video-you-libertarians-are-soulless-materialists-say-critics/

    Comment by Michael — 25. September 2012 @ 08:26

  7. I was actually honored that he did so! I’m hoping to write a defense of “meaning” as I see it, and why an economic textbook was deserving of such an accusation.

    Mr. Woods is an intelligent man, but I don’t believe he entirely understood what I was trying to say, and I hope to clear these issues up. I suppose an entire essay could be written for each one of his points, so I hope to address the issues shortly. This is an extremely important, extremely dense topic, after all.

    Thank you for passing the link along!

    Comment by admin — 25. September 2012 @ 14:42

  8. Sir,

    I read the the end of the American Thinker version, that you are a former radical liberal and now have been converted to “biblical conservatism”. That is the first time I have heard that term, what in the woirld is it and what foundational thinker is it based upon?

    btw, I thought the article lacked a solid foundation. Libertarian thought revolves around but ONE premise, non-aggression. Do not confuse economics with political philosophy. They are separate and distinct.

    Comment by Cato — 26. September 2012 @ 15:17

  9. You might check out Thomas Woods at libertyclassroom.com. He gave you a good & well deserved intellectual spanking.

    Comment by RG DeSoto — 26. September 2012 @ 20:29

  10. When did “love your neighbor as yourself” began to mean “coerce your neighbor until he does what you think is right”? Doesn’t the principle of non aggression fits much better with that basic law for a christian?

    Leaving behind economics, ethics and morals, from a religious point of view forcing someone to do anything against his will is worthless for his salvation, since the value of the action is in the will, not in the outcome. And at the same time the one that uses the violence against others only to pursue his will does an awful job for his soul…

    Besides, faith is a gift from God, some receive it, some do not. Any true believer should be able to see how dumb is trying to overcome a God`s decision on the faith others receive. Those who do not believe deserve only love, our prays and example, never our hate and confrontation.

    As long as nobody acts against our live or property there is no justification to use violence.

    A society with christian values is desirable and better, it will be a better place and will grow stronger and more than others with weak bases or hedonist. But you can only achieve that with time, love and example, never through the violent force. End does not justify the meanings, much more when they are totally incongruent (violence to impose love and peace???).
    The funny thing is that if we succeed as christians, we will find out that the society we achieve will have the very same core values proposed by liberalism…

    Comment by Juano — 26. September 2012 @ 21:38

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