The libertarian message has broad appeal, or so we’re told. But what if that appeal isn’t lifelong? Since having children, my view of the struggle between the individual and the state has evolved. Maybe the libertarian movement should evolve too.
The most persuasive aspects of libertarianism are actually at the philosophy’s core. There is self-ownership, the notion that no one else has a property claim to your person. The non-aggression principle follows, stating that no person has the right to initiate violence against someone else.
Private property is also commonsensical, as a necessary component of freedom, allowing for voluntary trades and a division of labor that brings forth a fruitful life through each individual’s pursuit of happiness.
No other ideas have yet come along that impress me enough to give up those core libertarian principles. However, such a framing of libertarianism can lend itself to a myopic worldview that ultimately serves statism, not liberty.
How is that possible? The answer may enlighten libertarians and inform how they communicate their ideas to more of the general population.
As I arrive at that answer, I hope readers will forgive some brief autobiography. I have three kids under three years old. A new dad’s life is infinitely more joyous than any other time of his life, but at the same time, the real world is more complicated, even threatening. That’s been my experience anyway.
I share that because having kids made me consider the mid-to-long-term prospects for liberty more intensively than ever before. And yet, I can also empathize more with most people who have misgivings with libertarianism.
That’s because my political outlook is no longer limited strictly to the individual and the state. My new perspective still favors the individual against the state, but the important distinction is that the individual’s best fighting chance is when he is part of a healthy social order.
To put it another way, insofar as individualism dismisses or overlooks formative institutions, such as the family, church, and other community associations, it is insufficient for securing liberty against the state.
After entering fatherhood, I realized that I had long taken for granted the civilizing power of institutions. I fear too many libertarians are making that mistake now. Some even gasp at the idea of following traditions that keep those institutions alive, as if getting married or attending church weekly were irrational and collectivist.
Probably more often the case is simply the feeling of indifference toward institutions. That is understandable, given that many of these social structures don’t fulfill their stated purpose. They are supposed to form people into good community members or leaders, but instead, as Yuval Levin observes, they’ve largely become backdrops for futile self-aggrandizement.
“In one arena after another, we find people who should be insiders formed by institutions acting like outsiders performing on institutions,” Levin noted in a New York Times op-ed. “Many members of Congress now use their positions not to advance legislation but to express and act out the frustrations of their core constituencies. Rather than work through the institution, they use it as a stage to elevate themselves, raise their profiles, and perform for the cameras in the reality show of our unceasing culture war.”
This depletion of institutional integrity has coincided with the growth of the state, and libertarians should be painfully aware of that.
It’s clear that the state has a vital interest in usurping or undermining institutions because they intercede between the individual and the state with natural solidarity. The state’s unquenchable thirst for power and control cannot tolerate such a buffer for long. The state seeks to be the sole force of formation (or deformation) for the individual and society too.
Once a libertarian wakes up to this reality, it should only reinforce their commitment to pursuing a free society. And now hopefully they can better speak to concerns both conservatives and liberals have about the problems in society, with a greater appreciation for human attachments to God, family, and nation.
To be clear, this need not be a prescription for how to live. Libertarians need not become parents to begin to think more deeply about the mid-to-long-term prospects for liberty. Other life episodes will facilitate that.
Remember the tens of millions of Americans who lost their jobs, the businesses that shuttered, and the empty store shelves during the worst days of the government-ordered Covid-19 lockdown. That societal alarm bell going off told us to save more for a very uncertain economic future.
Don’t forget, either, the subsequent spike in suicides, exposing the fragile social fabric of the country.
Libertarians may stand to gain more supporters and converts to their ideas at this time if they recognize the crisis of institutions, especially with regard to the cornerstone that is the family.
The economist Wilhelm Röpke, who was greatly inspired by Ludwig von Mises and the Austrian School, described the “well-ordered house” ideal in his book, A Humane Economy: The Social Framework of the Free Market.
Röpke insisted that “we cannot abandon” values of self-responsibility and mutual aid “without shaking the very foundations of a free society and making its difference from Communism no more than a matter of degree.”
Calling out the problems inherent with statism is a must, but no longer should libertarians assume a free society will develop out of “free” individuals who are atomized and isolated from social orders that cultivated liberty in the first place.