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The New Libertarian Generation?

June 10, 2010

Tags BiographiesThe EntrepreneurFree MarketsPolitical Theory

[This article is transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "The New Libertarian Generation."]

 Mark Lilla is a professor of humanities at Columbia University, where he specializes in the history of ideas — in particular, the intellectual legacy of the Enlightenment. Now, one of the principal intellectual legacies of the Enlightenment is the libertarian tradition, so it was not at all inappropriate that Lilla's article in the May 27, 2010, issue of The New York Review of Books is on the growing influence of libertarian ideas in American society. Lilla writes of the "libertarian impulses that have unsettled American society for half a century now." He writes of "the libertarian spirit [that] drifted into American life [over the past 50 years], first from the left [during the 1960s], then from the right [during the Reagan '80s]." He writes pessimistically of how this "libertarian spirit has spread to other areas of our lives," but he reserves his main pessimism and hand wringing for the impact of this libertarian spirit on our national political life. "Welcome," he writes, "to the politics of the libertarian mob." 

The "politics of the libertarian mob," according to Lilla, is "[a] new strain of populism" that is "anarchistic like the Sixties, selfish like the Eighties, contradicting neither." He points out that "[h]istorically, populist movements [have] use[d] the rhetoric of class solidarity to seize political power so that 'the people' can exercise it for their common benefit." But the "populist rhetoric" of the "libertarian mob" is "something altogether different.… It fires up emotions by appealing to individual opinion, individual autonomy, and individual choice."

More important, according to Lilla, this new populist rhetoric of the libertarian mob is "all in the service of neutralizing, not using, political power. It gives voice to those who feel they are being bullied, but this voice has only one, Garbo-like thing to say: I want to be left alone." This rhetoric, Lilla tells us, "appeals to petulant individuals convinced that they can do everything themselves if they are only left alone, and that others are conspiring to keep them from doing just that."

And, in Lilla's view, such "petulant individuals" are legion in America today. "Many Americans," he writes, "a vocal and varied segment of the public at large, have now convinced themselves that educated elites — politicians, bureaucrats, reporters, but also doctors, scientists, even schoolteachers — are controlling our lives. And they want them to stop."

They say they are tired of being told what counts as news or what they should think about global warming; tired of being told what their children should be taught, how much of their paychecks they get to keep, whether to insure themselves, which medicines they can have, where they can build their homes, which guns they can buy, when they have to wear seatbelts and helmets, whether they can talk on the phone while driving, which foods they can eat, how much soda they can drink … the list is long.

These disgruntled Americans, Lilla writes, "have two classic American traits that have grown much more pronounced in recent decades: blanket distrust of institutions and an astonishing — and unwarranted — confidence in the self. They are apocalyptic pessimists about public life and childlike optimists swaddled in self-esteem when it comes to their own powers."

This "apocalyptic pessimis[m] about public life" that Lilla is talking about here has been showing up in major public opinion polls. As Lilla himself puts it,

Americans have far less trust in their government [today] than they had up until the mid-Sixties. Just before the [2008] election, only a tenth of Americans said that they were "satisfied with the way things are going in the United States," a record low. They express some confidence in the presidency and the courts, but when asked in the abstract about "the government" and whether they expect it to do the right thing or whether it is run for our benefit, a relatively consistent majority says "no."

Over the past half-century, according to Lilla, a great many of these people have begun "disinvesting in our political institutions and learning to work around them, as individuals." The principal example he gives — and a very good one it is — is the homeschooling movement. "A million and a half students in the United States," he writes, "are now being taught by their parents at home, nearly double the number a decade ago, and representing about fifteen students for every public school in the country.… What's remarkable [about this] is American parents' confidence that they can do better themselves. Many of the more-educated ones probably do, though they are hardly going it alone; they rely on a national but voluntary virtual school system connecting them online, where they circulate curricula, materials, and research." More important, "they are [now] a powerful political lobby, having redirected their energy from local school systems to Washington and state capitals.… They are the only successful libertarian party," Lilla writes, "in the United States."

So far, I have to admit that I can't argue much with the essentials of Lilla's case. It seems to me that he's quite right when he claims that libertarian impulses and a libertarian spirit have been making themselves felt in various ways in American political life since the mid-1960s. It seems to me Lilla is right when he claims that the rhetoric used by those promoting libertarian ideas today (and also by those falsely claiming to promote libertarian ideas, of whom more below) does appeal to individual opinion, individual autonomy, and individual choice.

It seems to me that Lilla is right when he claims that those promoting libertarian ideas today are bent on neutralizing, not using, political power and on empowering those who say they want to be left alone. It seems to me that Lilla is absolutely and incontrovertibly right when he claims that millions of Americans are fed up with being told

what counts as news or what they should think about global warming … what their children should be taught, how much of their paychecks they get to keep, whether to insure themselves, which medicines they can have, where they can build their homes, which guns they can buy, when they have to wear seatbelts and helmets, whether they can talk on the phone while driving, which foods they can eat, how much soda they can drink … the list is long.

Lilla is also right to claim that millions of Americans no longer believe government is run for their benefit and can no longer be counted upon to do the right thing. He is right to claim that millions of Americans have long since begun looking for ways to work around our useless and intrusive political institutions. And he is right to claim that the homeschooling movement is one of the best examples of this trend. He may even be right when he calls it "the only successful libertarian party in the United States."

All this rightness doesn't mean, however, that Lilla's article is perfect. Far from it, in fact. Consider the unfortunate title of the piece (which I know might well not have been chosen by the author): "The Tea Party Jacobins." This is utterly misleading. In the first place, there is nothing even remotely libertarian about the tea parties. There is nothing even remotely libertarian about Fox News, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, or Sarah Palin. Yet these are the specific examples Lilla refers to throughout his article, as particular instances of the "politics of the libertarian mob" he so deplores.

Now ask yourself, does either Rush Limbaugh or Sarah Palin have even the slightest interest in "neutralizing, not using, political power"? Does Glenn Beck? Do any of his colleagues on Fox News? Could you say of any of these conservative Republicans what Lilla says of the proponents of the libertarian spirit, that "they want to be people without rules"? Merely to pose such questions in so open and bald-faced a manner is to see instantly what a preposterous absurdity we would have to pretend to believe in order to answer them in the affirmative. As Johnny Carson would say, "it is to laugh."

The only sense in which the likes of Limbaugh, Beck, Palin, the majority of the tea partiers, and the best known and most representative figures on Fox News may be said to represent the growing libertarian impulse or spirit in the land is this: their employment of a lot of libertarian rhetoric that doesn't at all match the policies they endorse and proselytize for is in itself a kind of indirect symptom of the growth of the libertarian spirit. Conservatives have been using libertarian rhetoric for many decades now, but they've increased this tactic recently in response to the very phenomenon Lilla is writing about — the growing spread of the libertarian spirit through the land. Libertarian ideas have come to exercise enough influence among the general public that at least certain major party politicians and major media feel compelled to pretend to espouse them themselves and do all they can to co-opt them.

Another point about Lilla's title, "The Tea Party Jacobins": The Jacobins were a faction within the original Left, during the French Revolution. Specifically, the Jacobins were the faction which demanded not just equality before the law but equality in fact, equality of result. If Smith has more of something than Jones, take some of it away from Smith and give it to Jones. It is little wonder that the other thing the Jacobins are famous for besides their misguided egalitarianism — which, arguably has led most of the left down the road to perdition in the two centuries since then — is their advocacy and practice of violence. And it's little wonder, as I say, because only the threat of violence would lead most people to accept the forced egalitarianism of the original Jacobins.

Today's libertarians — the real libertarians, not the conservatives now so busily slinging insincere, phony libertarian rhetoric — are nonviolent partisans of peace among individuals and among nations, and they favor equality before the law, not forced equality of life result. Whatever they may be, looked at historically, they are not the heirs of the Jacobins.

Mark Lilla also has a tendency, fairly common among those who write a lot about political topics, to think that politics naturally dominates all of human life. The result is that he sometimes tends to put the cart before the horse.

He writes, for example, that

as the libertarian spirit has spread to other areas of our lives, along with distrust of elites generally, the damage has mounted. Take health care. Less than half of us say that we have "great confidence" in the medical establishment today, and the proportion of those who have "hardly any" has doubled since the early Seventies. There are plenty of things wrong with the way medicine is practiced in the United States, but it does not follow from this that anybody can cure himself. Nonetheless, a growing number of us have become our own doctors and pharmacists, aided by Internet search engines that substitute for refereed medical journals, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control.

"The trends," Lilla continues, "are not encouraging."

Because of irrational fear-mongering on the Web, the percentage of unvaccinated American children, while thankfully still low, has been rising steadily in the twenty-one states that now allow personal exemptions for unspecified "philosophical and personal reasons." This is significant: the chance of unvaccinated children getting measles, to take just one example, is twenty-two to thirty-five times higher than that of immunized children. Americans currently spend over four billion dollars a year on unregulated herbal medicines, despite total ignorance about their effectiveness, correct dosage, and side effects. And of course, many dangerous medicines banned in the United States can now be purchased online from abroad, not to mention questionable medical procedures for those who can afford the airfare.

The problems with this passage from Lilla's article are legion. Let's begin with the fact that nothing he describes here can properly be understood as "the libertarian spirit … spread[ing] to other areas of our lives." Rather it is a case of the spread from the culture generally of a generalized distrust of elites and other authorities — a spread of what I call decadent individualism into the political sphere, where it expresses itself as libertarianism. This is what happened in the '60s, when hippie individualism was born and the libertarian movement, born 20 years before, received a massive injection of growth hormone.

The general condition of cultural decadence that took hold in the late 1950s and early 1960s both discouraged individuals from taking the conventional wisdom in any field of inquiry with undue seriousness and encouraged them to think for themselves, make their own decisions, and reach their own conclusions, even if those decisions and conclusions didn't match what most people believed.

I published a book a few years back called In Praise of Decadence, in which I develop this line of argument at much greater length. It's still in print and also widely available online from secondhand book dealers, who often offer it at extremely low prices. I urge you to track down a copy and see what you think.

Whether you take me up on that suggestion or not, however, I'm sure you'll have guessed by now that the final major flaw in Mark Lilla's otherwise excellent and provocative article on "The Tea Party Jacobins" from the May 27th issue of The New York Review of Books is its smug assumption that people like Mark Lilla really do know more than you do about how to best run your life and that they therefore have the right to force you to take their advice and run your life their way, whether you like it or not.

The fact is that, exactly as Mark Lilla fears, when people distrust authority in a generalized way and start thinking for themselves, often without much relevant information to guide them, they'll make many decisions that they'll later regret. But whose decisions are they to make? Is it your right to make your own decisions about how you're going to live your life? Or does that right belong to Mark Lilla and his fellow "progressives," because they smugly know that they'll do ever so much better with it than you will?

That's the issue.

 


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