Free spirits, the ambitious, ex-socialists, drug users, and sexual eccentrics often find an attractive political philosophy in libertarianism, the idea that individual freedom should be the sole rule of ethics and government. Libertarianism offers its believers a clear conscience to do things society presently restrains, like make more money, have more sex, or take more drugs. It promises a consistent formula for ethics, a rigorous framework for policy analysis, a foundation in American history, and the application of capitalist efficiencies to the whole of society. But while it contains substantial grains of truth, as a whole it is a seductive mistake.
There are many varieties of libertarianism, from natural-law libertarianism (the least crazy) to anarcho-capitalism (the most), and some varieties avoid some of the criticisms below. But many are still subject to most of them, and some of the more successful varieties—I recently heard a respected pundit insist that classical liberalism is libertarianism—enter a gray area where it is not really clear that they are libertarians at all. But because 95 percent of the libertarianism one encounters at cocktail parties, on editorial pages, and on Capitol Hill is a kind of commonplace “street” libertarianism, I decline to allow libertarians the sophistical trick of using a vulgar libertarianism to agitate for what they want by defending a refined version of their doctrine when challenged philosophically. We’ve seen Marxists pull that before.
This is no surprise, as libertarianism is basically the Marxism of the Right. If Marxism is the delusion that one can run society purely on altruism and collectivism, then libertarianism is the mirror-image delusion that one can run it purely on selfishness and individualism. Society in fact requires both individualism and collectivism, both selfishness and altruism, to function. Like Marxism, libertarianism offers the fraudulent intellectual security of a complete a priori account of the political good without the effort of empirical investigation. Like Marxism, it aspires, overtly or covertly, to reduce social life to economics. And like Marxism, it has its historical myths and a genius for making its followers feel like an elect unbound by the moral rules of their society.
Read the rest: Marxism of the Right.
A just economic order, to say nothing of a just civil society, requires not only good laws but a virtuous citizenry. Good laws in the hands of bad men, as Plato reminds us, makes us worse than slaves, they make us fools.
In my understanding, the American Experiment is based not so much on a rejection of government but on the conviction that it the social institution least able to make us virtuous men and women. Fostering virtue–private and public–is the task of the family, the religion and the myriad other mediating social institutions that once were common in American society.
At AEI, Metropolitan Jonah, rightly I think, pointed out that the Orthodox Christian contribution to a just civil society and economic order is found in our deep and practical understanding of asceticism. What else is the ascetical struggle, but the willingness of the person to bring his life more and more into conformity with the Divine Will?
Or, to put the matter another way, if you want justice and peace, take up the ascetical life.
In Christian asceticism, I first learn to say no to my sinful desires. But over time, I learn to bring even my best desires into harmony with the will of God for my life and yours. It is this harmony that the Scriptures refer to as “justice” or “peace.”
Christians must not simply argue against the error of Marxism and various forms of libertarianism. Both have their place to be sure. But without offering a positive word about the ascetical life–and its essential connection to the sacraments, above all the Eucharist–we fail to respond as Christians to the excesses and errors of our time.