Book reviews Libertarians miss holistic nature of society

Tom Flanagan
David Boaz
June 21, 1997

(Free Press, 1997. 314 pages) $31

POLITICS IN MODERN DEMOCRACY is organized around a left-right axis. Other axes may represent ethnic, religious, or regional cleavages, but the left-right spectrum is always present. Parties on the left, whether called liberal as in North America or social democratic as in Europe, advocate a mixture of economic interventionism and social liberation. Parties on the right, usually called conservative, stand for a reverse mixture of free market economics and social restraint.

Some observers, such as Reform leader Preston Manning, think that the left-right spectrum is out of date and should be discarded. Others criticize it for being internally inconsistent. They find it illogical for liberals or socialists to favor government control of people’s economic decisions (rent control, utility and transit monopolies) while simultaneously extending personal freedom in other spheres (abortion on demand, legalized pornography). Similarly, they find it illogical for conservatives to insist on economic freedom (privatization, deregulation) while also demanding social conformity (school prayer, public decency).

The consistency critics seem to have a point. If we distinguish between economic and social policy, there are not just two but four possible ideologies: liberalism, conservatism, libertarianism, and authoritarianism. Authoritarians and libertarians are consistent: an authoritarian would favor more government intervention in social and economic affairs, while a libertarian would oppose government intervention in both.

In the table below, the current political spectrum of muddled alternatives (liberalism versus conservatism) lies along one diagonal, while the different spectrum of internally consistent alternatives (libertarianism versus authoritarianism) lies along the other.

Eloquent new books by American think tankers Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute and David Boaz of the Cato Institute expound the libertarian alternative. As both authors freely admit, libertarianism is but a new label for the so-called classical liberalism of philosophers like John Stuart Mill. The starting point for both Murray and Boaz is the “one very simple principle” that Mill asserted in On Liberty, “That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.” Or, as Boaz paraphrases Herbert Spencer’s law of equal freedom, “Individuals have the right to do whatever they want to, so long as they respect the equal rights of others.”

Murray and Boaz apply this principle relentlessly to the issues crowding the American public policy agenda. They would do away with virtually all government programs and services except for law enforcement and national defence, which would also be substantially trimmed back. They are at their best in showing the welfare state to be inefficient, ineffectual, and even counterproductive. Public education has become steadily more expensive as scores on standardized tests have fallen. Massive increases in public spending on health care haven’t affected the trend for improvements in longevity. The rising economic opportunities for racial minorities didn’t accelerate with the creation of a heavy-handed human-rights apparatus.

As an alternative to government services, libertarians put their faith in nonprofit organizations to channel people’s charitable impulses, in profit-seeking ventures in the economy, and in greater mutual care among family and friends — what their hero, economist Friedrich Hayek, called the “spontaneous order” of civil society. We will all take greater personal responsibility for supporting ourselves and our families, raising and educating our children, looking after aging relatives, helping friends in their time of need, contributing to community projects. To Murray, this is “the stuff of life.” To replace passive consumption of impersonal government services with personal production is not a burden but an opportunity.

Indeed, personal responsibility is a key theme in all of this. People will not rise to the challenge of civil society if government removes the challenge. They will not save to educate their children or to support their own retirement if they expect government to offer free public education and pay universal pensions. It is telling that Murray, who favors the legalization of all drugs, would not carry out that policy until the welfare state withers away, making it impossible for people to avoid the consequences of their own choices.

Although I consider myself a conservative, I like to read a libertarian book every year or two; and whenever I do, I find myself teetering on the brink of libertarianism. But I always catch myself before I jump. While I endorse completely the libertarian critique of economic interventionism, I find libertarian social theory, though tempting and persuasive in parts, ultimately unconvincing.

First, the persuasive bits. I agree wholeheartedly with Murray and Boaz, as well as other libertarians such as Milton Friedman and Thomas Szasz, with legalizing drugs; the war on drugs, like the prohibition of alcohol earlier in the century, has been a costly fiasco. And I further agree that conservative preoccupations would disappear if government stopped providing services. Questions about school prayer or the moral content of the curriculum would hardly arise without a public monopoly on education that prevents parents from picking the type of school they want for their children.

But how far can we push freedom of contract? Boaz wants to resolve the debate about homosexual marriage by getting the state out of marriage altogether, except for enforcing whatever contracts of cohabitation people choose to sign with each other. Men and women, gays and straights, would draw up their own agreements and call themselves whatever they wished. Appealing? Perhaps. But are we ready for polygamy, plus assorted varieties of group cohabitation? And what about support for children and discarded mates?

The libertarian emphasis on self-ownership, property rights, and freedom of contract misses the holistic nature of society, which Edmund Burke called “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Libertarians typically (mis)conceive society as the result of conscious choice — hence the great metaphor of the social contract — rather than as the ongoing network of relationships transcending the generations. Individuals do not create society; more accurately, a certain course of social evolution has created the individual. Though Hayek wrote at length on this issue, contemporary libertarians never cite those parts of his work.

AT THE HEART OF THE DEBATE is the concept of public goods, and who should pay for them. Libertarians rightly argue that many so-called public goods can be, and have been, supplied perfectly well by the market or by the nonprofit sector of civil society. Lighthouses —- the economics textbooks’ most beloved example of a public good because the light shines on all ships within the line of sight — were built and maintained by both private entrepreneurs and philanthropic organizations long before government got into the act, the necessary revenues easily raised by collecting harbor tolls. But the fact that liberals and authoritarians have exaggerated the number and extent of public goods does not mean that no public goods exist — a point that both Murray and Boaz admit, at least in theory.

The moral code and social fabric of a community have the characteristics of public goods. They are valuable because they guide us on how to act in ways both large and small. They are intrinsically public because they involve imitation; thus our actions always “spill over” (to use the jargon of economics) onto others, even if they do not cause the sort of assignable harm that John Stuart Mill had in mind.

Like libertarians, many conservatives see the social order as largely self-generating and view the need to keep government from undermining it as the single most important priority. Nonetheless, governments are at times necessary to uphold essential social norms. It is not “social engineering” to use tax policy to reinforce the role of the natural family in the social order or to use police power to prevent public displays of degrading sexual practices. Even Mill took the concept of public decency for granted. He would never have tolerated, to take a current Ontario example, topless women on public streets, though he certainly would have defended private clubs for nudists.

Though libertarianism is a fascinating intellectual construction, it ultimately fails by basing everything on the single value of individual freedom. Perhaps that is why consistent libertarianism has never become the ideology of a successful political party: The small libertarian parties in Canada and the United States are nowhere near coming to power, or even electing legislative representatives.

Boaz foresees the liberal-conservative axis replaced by a libertarian-authoritarian axis in which “the statist conservatives will find themselves aligned with the social democrats as defenders of political society against civil society, a trend that has already begun with the protectionist Buchanan movement and the growing tendency among conservatives not to limit government but to use it to impose conservative values.” Time will tell, but I remain skeptical. I see Patrick Buchanan as a temporary, albeit irritating, phenomenon rather than as the harbinger of powerful mass movements to come.

Political conservatism — the alliance between free marketers and social traditionalists — and political liberalism — the alliance between economic interventionists and social liberationists — are not as logically inconsistent as libertarians and other critics believe. A recent book by the linguist George Lakoff, Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don’t, shows the deep coherence of both conservatism and liberalism. Each has its own vision of the family, which it generalizes to the society and state. The conservative worldview is based on the “strict father” model, the liberal worldview on the “nurturant parent,” and each elaborates a moral code supported by public policies consistent with that code. The free market and traditional morality go together as ways of life, as do economic interventionism and personal liberation through self-fulfilment.

Libertarianism can never be more than an intellectual system, appealing to the few who value logical consistency above everything else. Libertarians who want to have any influence on the real world will have to throw in their lot with either liberals or conservatives. At the end of the day, most libertarians will see they have much more in common with conservatives than with liberals.


Responses to Tom Flanagan’s review

Nate Hendley, North York, Ontario, responds: July 17, 1997

While I enjoyed your well-written article, “Libertarians miss holistic nature of society,” I thought I would point out what appeared to be one error in your piece.

You stated: “The small libertarian parties in Canada and the United States are nowhere near coming to power, or even electing legislative representatives.”

In Canada, both the former and latter are true.

In the United States, only the former is correct.

I offer this paragraph of a July 6, 1997, article in the Washington Post:

“The Libertarian Party is the third-largest political party in the United States. Since it was founded 25 years ago, it has fielded a presidential and vice-presidential candidate in every presidential election. In 1992 and in 1996, Libertarian candidates for president and vice-president were on the ballot in all 50 states. Libertarians have been elected to state legislatures in Alaska and New Hampshire, and more than 190 are serving in public office in the United States.”

Otherwise, a finely written review.


Terry D. Klarr responds: August 16, 1997

It was with much interest that I read your book review: I’m a self-identified libertarian.

One passage gave me sufficient pause to write: “Nonetheless, governments are at times necessary to uphold essential norms. It is not ‘social engineering’ to use tax policy to reinforce the natural family in the social order . . .”

It sure looks to me like “social engineering” — presumably you call it “upholding essential norms.” If taxpayer A is subject to a higher tax rate than taxpayer B in the name of reinforcing the natural family, A is being socially engineered out of an inordinate proportion of his earnings. As a libertarian, I would reduce A’s tax rate to the level of B’s tax rate. Apparently you offer no remedy to A, although I suppose some conservative, in the name of reinforcing the natural family, might propose a government subsidy of matrimonial agency for A and similarly situated taxpayers.

Also, whom do you propose be the arbiter: Who is to determine which norms are truly essential and which are merely desirable? Many things which are desirable have been elevated in the individual and the collective consciousness to the level of needs: Where do we draw the line, and how do we prevent the process from running amok?


Andrei Kreptul, Edmonton, responds: October 16, 1997

Professor Tom Flanagan’s book review (Summer 1997) shows how conservatives constantly misinterpret libertarians. Many conservatives reject libertarians’ belief that government should not protect and enforce social norms, and they see libertarian political parties as failures in North America. Unfortunately, these misguided criticisms scare off many thoughtful Canadian conservatives like Professor Flanagan from the libertarian camp.

Libertarians and conservatives primarily disagree over social freedoms. While Professor Flanagan “endorses completely” libertarian views on economics, he finds the social theory “ultimately unconvincing,” pointing to various cohabitation arrangements and public indecency that can result from libertarianism. He wants government to enforce social norms through public policies that “reinforce the role of the natural family” and “prevent public displays of degrading sexual practices.”

But why agonize over gay marriage and public indecency? Some communities within civil society may allow them, while others wouldn’t. It would all depend on the rules every individual member of these communities consents to. As a result, taking personal responsibility for one’s actions and being able to trust other people becomes vitally important. Regardless of what it may think, the government’s only true role is to protect the rights of individuals to pursue their ends without violating the same rights of others.

The conservative desire to protect against a creeping, anything-goes morality is certainly admirable. However, it denies the abilities of communities to develop rules and traditions, enforced by governments based on the consent of free individuals. Unlike conservatives, libertarians distinguish between the ideas of government (formed by voluntary consent) and those of the state (formed by the threat of force). Some of the most radical, cutting-edge libertarian work today involves thinking about concepts like law, morality, government, and justice without the involvement of the state. Sound crazy? In today’s political discourse, absolutely! But there was a time when the fall of communism and the reduction of the federal deficit sounded pretty off-the-wall, too.

Professor Flanagan contends that “the libertarian emphasis on self-ownership, property rights, and freedom of contract misses the holistic nature of society.” What holistic nature? The whole theme of the 20th century was to work toward achieving a holistic nature of society. Look how miserably the Nazis and the Soviet Union failed to meet this challenge (not to mention countries like Great Britain, Sweden, New Zealand, the United States, and Canada, albeit to a much smaller degree!).

A holistic society would, by its very nature, involve state planning to define exactly what it should look like. Without self-ownership, property rights, and freedom of contract, human beings do not have much left to protect themselves against the arbitrary power of the state. A society based on liberty is merely a flexible and adaptable framework that promises only to provide people with the opportunity to achieve their own ends by any lawful means.

Professor Flanagan describes society as an “ongoing network of relationships transcending the generations,” quoting Edmund Burke, the 18th-century philosopher that both libertarians and conservatives claim as their intellectual hero. But the real question is: How did this network emerge in the first place?

Libertarians realize that civil society comes of individuals needing to interact with, and depend on, others for their own survival and development. These voluntary interactions lead to the creation of many diverse communities with their own rules of conduct. In his book, David Boaz argues that “as individuals combine in countless ways, community emerges . . . of free individuals in voluntary chosen associations . . . not because anyone plans it . . . but because it must. To fulfill their needs and desires, individuals must combine with others.” Boaz sees the idea of community as “a series of intersecting circles, with myriad complex connections among them.” In other words, civil society functions in a multidirectional way, not in a holistic way.

Professor Flanagan believes that a political philosophy must have “its own vision of the family, which it generalizes to the society and state,” along with a “moral code supported by public policies consistent with that code.” Just because libertarians favor living in a society without a moral code enforced by the state does not mean that libertarians favor rampant immorality or chaos. After all, what influence do individuals have if their visions of family, society, and state are not consistent with the moral code as determined by the state? Unlike all types of statist thinkers (modern liberals, socialists, and yes, even conservatives), libertarians neither claim that there is one, unified, harmoniously functioning society nor that there should be. The focus for society should not be to what end, but rather, by what process or by what means.

Professor Flanagan dislikes libertarians’ focus on ideological consistency. Libertarians do not harp on consistency for the sake of being consistent but because modern liberals, conservatives, and authoritarians, in varying degrees, favor state action to arbitrarily determine just how economically or personally free every individual in society ought to be. Although libertarians desire more personal freedoms and freer markets, they don’t make freedom an absolute value. But, libertarians do believe that individuals should give up their freedom voluntarily, by consenting to obey the rules that govern them.

Conservatives complain that libertarians don’t win elections. On a moral level, this might be because libertarians are all too aware of Lord Acton’s great statement: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” By getting too immersed in the political game, maybe libertarians are afraid of compromising their core philosophical principles.

Clearly, the Libertarian party has failed to gain any serious political support, largely because the Republican party in the U.S. and the Reform party in Canada stole libertarian ideas for their economic platforms. However, as any good political operative knows, selling a party’s ideas to voters takes time. It took conservatives 50 years of political commentary, punditry, and think-tank building before their influence as a political force peaked with the election of Ronald Reagan in the 1980 U.S. presidential election (with a little help from libertarians, of course!). For Professor Flanagan to say that libertarians should “throw in their lot with either liberals or conservatives” if they want any influence on shaping public policies is a little premature.

Given the divisions with conservatives on social issues and technology’s role in making government programs more obsolete by the minute, libertarians could soon be inspired to ditch the coalition process and build a more ideologically cohesive political movement. The fact is that libertarian ideas have not been put through the tough political ringer yet. As the 21st century approaches, Generation Xers will continue to take over positions of political power. If the opinion polls are any indication, they will be much more receptive to libertarian thinking than their ’60s generation parents.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the real differences in conservative and libertarian philosophy is to hear the opinion of a Nobel Prize winner. In his essay “Why I Am Not a Conservative,” the late Austrian economist and social philosopher, Friedrich Hayek, observed that the conservative “has no political principles which enable him to work with people whose moral values differ from his own for a political order in which both can obey their convictions. It is the recognition of such principles that permits the co-existence of different sets of values that makes it possible to build a peaceful society with a minimum of force. The acceptance of such principles means that we agree to tolerate much that we dislike.” No one could have said it any better.


Tom Flanagan replies

I can’t hope to deal with all of Mr. Kreptul’s comments, which make up an essay at least as long as my original book review. Let me simply clarify what I mean by the phrase “holistic nature of society,” to which he takes exception.

Human society has a double character. In one sense, it is a multidirectional network of voluntary associations, exactly as Mr. Kreptul describes. That’s what is usually meant by the phrase “civil society,” and I heartily endorse it. But human beings also perceive society as an entity possessing both territorial and social boundaries, as well as a directing authority. Working from the natural family as a template, we construct larger political communities such as the tribe and nation. Let me call this phenomenon “political society,” to distinguish it from Mr. Kreptul’s “civil society.” Whereas civil society institutionalizes exchange and voluntary association, political society institutionalizes authority and compulsory membership.

Libertarians find political society unattractive, and indeed it is in many respects. But it is an irrepressible outgrowth of human nature. As social animals, we evolved within societies based on hierarchy, authority, obedience, and boundary formation.

Those who are genuinely concerned about freedom and individualism must come to terms with this aspect of our nature; it cannot be wished away. Even though I share all of Hayek’s reservations about conservatism, I still think it expresses a dimension of human nature that libertarianism overlooks. That is why I prefer to call myself a conservative rather than a libertarian.

Mr. Hendley is correct in that the Libertarian party has had some modest success in state and local elections in the United States. However, that does not affect my point that libertarians everywhere in North America are a very long way from real political power and have no real likelihood of obtaining it.

In response to Mr. Klarr, today’s income tax regime in Canada is clearly weighted against the natural family. Two illustrations will suffice. First, except at low income levels, it gives no consideration to children. A married couple with four children and an income of $100,000 a year will pay the same income tax as a married couple with the same income and no children. This obviously discriminates against those who undertake the expense of having children, without which society will not continue. Second, the tax system treats single-income families less favorably than two-income families. A family with one breadwinner earning $100,000 a year will pay substantially more income tax than a family with two breadwinners earning $50,000 each. This obviously works against families in which one parent wants to stay home with the children. I hope that Mr. Klarr and I could agree that, in the present Canadian context, using tax policy “to reinforce the natural family in the social order” would mean nothing except levelling the playing field — something he should want to support.

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