Sunday, April 22, 2007

Helping Libertarians

My colleague, Carol Lancaster, writes a column for "The Hoya." I admire faculty who write for their college newspapers, but a recent column prompted me to write a response. The column was entitled, "Somebody Help Me, I think I'm becoming a Libertarian." She wrote of her youthful attraction to liberalism, that is, the belief that government could be a force for good in the world; as she's seen more of the foibles of government, however, she has become more inclined to adopt libertarianism as her political worldview. I thought it important to write in defense of a form of political "realism" - the realism that stretches back to Aristotle and Augustine, through Aquinas and the development of constitutionalism, and more recently Reinhold Niebuhr and my friend Lawler - especially so that students wouldn't conclude that the range of political choices "stretched" between liberalism and libertarianism. My brief response, edited by "The Hoya," follows:

Helpful Advice for Libertarian Lancaster

Friday, April 20, 2007
To the Editor:

I write in an effort to offer my colleague, Professor Carol Lancaster, the help she called for in avoiding a descent into libertarianism (“Somebody Help Me, I Think I’m Becoming a Libertarian,” The Hoya, March 27, 2007, A3).

She wrote that she was, in her youth, an “optimistic liberal” who believed in the power of government to realize good in the world, and that she thought libertarians were “anarchists in camouflage.” Yet, seeing the many mistakes and abuses that governments are prone to make, she has become more “conservative” and has begun to sympathize with libertarian sentiments.

First, it might be thought odd to conclude, as she does, that to become more “anarchist” is to become more “conservative.” Secondly, it should be noticed that, in spite of the implicit claim to the contrary, she never abandoned her youthful optimism. Libertarians, if anything, are more optimistic than the liberals with whom she affiliated in her youth. Libertarianism, by this account, holds that human society is wholly self-regulating and that government is the cause of human problems, not part of any solution.

Libertarians believe that, absent government in most forms, humans will enter a near paradisiacal condition.

It seems to me that some form of realism might offer an actual alternative to the pitfalls of her disappointed optimism. “If men were angels,” wrote James Madison in “Federalist” 51, “no government would be necessary.” Because men are not angels, he argued, government is an inescapable necessity — not to perfect us, but to restrain our worst proclivities as well as to cultivate the better.

Recognizing the reality of human sinfulness and our proneness to partiality and unreason, we come to recognize government neither as the means nor the obstacle to our individual and social perfection, but as a necessary set of institutions that restrain and chasten as much as they enable and liberate.

To suggest that the only political options that lie before us are the liberalism that seeks government transformation of the world, and the “conservatism” of anti-government anarchist libertarianism, is really to offer no choice at all. Both are species of optimistic liberalism in which the means are disputed, but the ends are not.

So, Professor Lancaster, I hope this helps.

Patrick J. Deneen

Associate Professor of Government


Anonymous said...

Professor Lancaster's quandary reminds me of a line by Thomas Carlyle who wrote that the age is 'destitute of faith, but terrified of scepticism.' A healthy dose of sceptical realism would temper the utopian visions of both the dirigistes and the libertarians.

Anonymous said...

Next, you should send your colleague a copy of your book.

aducknamedjoe said...

"Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others?"
-- Thomas Jefferson (1801)

I would submit that TRUE realism recognizes that a government, made up as it is by fallible people, is no more able to "restrain our worst proclivities as well as...cultivate the better" than individuals acting in voluntary association are.