Wednesday, February 13, 2019
From Conservatism to Libertarianism: My Personal Journey (Part III)
Part I, II.
In the previous posts, I described how my strong distaste for the Left led me to become a conservative and how my frustration with the Republican Party, particularly over Iraq, grew. So the me who was neither shocked nor horrified by Republican defeats in November 2006 (in contrast to my enthusiasm for Bush in 2004) was an independently minded Republican with a socially liberal streak. If you were paying attention to the last post, you might have noticed that I did not use the word "libertarian" and that was on purpose. When I began this blog in December 2006, I still did not identify myself as a libertarian. Going back over my early posts, you can see that I identified myself as "operating within the classical liberal tradition" and use the word "libertarian" to describe the position that the government should stay out of people's bedrooms. For me, classical liberalism meant J. S. Mill, specifically that people should be left to themselves to pursue their own understanding of the good life, in contrast to modern liberalism. (I was unaware at the time that Mill was actually more open to government intervention in the economy than would be implied by On Liberty.) I was already even ok with gay marriage as long as it was framed in terms of personal liberty and not group rights. That being said, I did not identify myself as a libertarian. The main reason for this was that I had almost no contact with libertarianism as a political movement or as an intellectual tradition. I still thought in terms of conservatism vs. liberalism. I criticized conservatism from within conservatism. I still hated the left as much as always and was not about to turn traitor.
I started identifying myself as a libertarian around 2008 during the presidential campaign. I still supported the late Sen. John McCain and did not vote for Ron Paul even during the primaries. I even attended a McCain rally in Columbus when he clinched the nomination. I identified as a libertarian conservative as a way of telling people on campus that while I did not support Obama, I did not agree with the Republican Party on social issues such as abortion. I was not one of those "close-minded" religious extremist Republicans. At this point, I still had little contact with libertarianism. My libertarianism was the product of my own thinking. But I decided that if I was going to be a libertarian, I might as well discover what libertarians actually say.
I started binge-watching Youtube clips of Milton Friedman in the summer of 2009. Friedman was a revelation to me as someone who was saying the kinds of things I had been thinking and being far more articulate about it than I ever could. At a practical level, I recognized in Friedman a roadmap for a compassionate conservatism that could expand the Republican base to include blacks and Hispanics. From Friedman, I quickly branched out to reading Hayek (I owe a debt of thanks to Simon Snowball for giving me a copy of the Constitution of Liberty and for alerting me to the existence of a something called Austrian economics), Ayn Rand, and Murry Rothbard. I attended my first IHS conference in the summer of 2011. IHS has remained my chief lifeline to libertarianism as a flesh and blood movement. People like Sarah Skwire, her husband Steve Horwitz, and Michael Munger have been models for me of how to be an intellectually serious and principled defender of liberty in all of its radicalness while keeping both feet planted in the real not yet converted to libertarianism world. As someone on the autism spectrum, that last part has proven critical.
One implication of my path to libertarianism was that, since I came to libertarianism largely through my own thinking and only discovered later that there existed people who thought like I did, I have not felt tied down by faction. For example, being an Objectivist or a Rothbardian was never what defined libertarianism for me as I did not become a libertarian through them. I could recognize some things of value in such groups and move on.
It should come as no surprise, considering that I came to libertarianism while still a registered Republican, I was firmly in the minarchist camp. In fact, when I first encountered anarcho-capitalism through David Friedman, I was quite critical of it. Granted, my defense of government was firmly planted in pragmatism over principle. For example, I made a point of teaching my students that government was a magic wand that we used to call kidnappers policemen taking people to jail, something that could never seriously be defended unless we accepted that it was necessary for the well being of society that we all participate in such an immoral delusion.
What eventually turned me against even this moderate apology for government was my growing disenchantment with the American political system. As long as I could pretend that the Republican Party was serious about economic liberty and that everything else would pull itself together from there, I could hope that the Republican Party could fix America and that that the United States could still be considered a defender of liberty (even if an imperfect one). Once I lost faith in the Republican Party, it set off a domino effect in which I could no longer defend the United States government and modern states in general.
Even today, I am on the very moderate end of the anarchist spectrum. One could even argue that I remain a minarchist at heart. I still am, fundamentally, a Burkean conservative. I am not a revolutionary seeking perfect justice. The moment you make a claim on perfect justice, you hand a loaded gun to everyone out there to pursue their perfect justice, including those whose perfect justice requires your death. I am willing to accept that human institutions will always be marred by flaws and logical contradictions. The best we can do is make a good faith effort. If that means some government, so be it.
I acknowledge that I lack the moral authority to challenge governments rooted in some traditional authority, particularly if, like England and the United States, that authority itself is the classical liberal tradition. That being said, I feel no such bind when it comes to those governments premised on progressive notions of overturning tradition in the name of perfect justice. From this perspective, my anarchist attack on progressive government is simply the other side of my defense of traditional government. Edmund Burke himself famously defended the American revolutionaries as good Englishmen forced to defend English values against a monarch intent on changing the status quo. The Americans were not the real revolutionaries. They were forced to create a new system of government for themselves (that actually was not so different from what they previously had) because their opponents had embraced revolution first. (This argument is also crucial for how Burke understood the Glorious Revolution and why it was acceptable, unlike the French Revolution.)
While in principle I oppose government as an institution of violence, I accept, in practice, that we might not be able to do better than limited government. In pursuit of that goal, I embrace using the threat of anarchy as a weapon to threaten the political establishment. If this actually leads to the overthrow of government then so be it. In my heart, I have rejected the authority of government over myself and no longer see myself as morally bound to follow its laws. My obedience is merely that of a man with a gun to his head.