Liberty, for Society’s Sake

by Matt Cavedon

Libertarians leave a bad taste in David Brooks’ mouth. In their “worry about the way government intrudes upon economic liberty,” they fail to see that society is “a harmonious ecosystem, in which the different layers [are] nestled upon each other: individual, family, company, neighborhood, religion, city government and national government.”

Josh Haner/The New York Times

I share the concern that Mr. Brooks has for the modern GOP, which seems to “have very little to offer the less educated half of this country,” and little appeal for “Hispanic voters, who often come from cultures that place high value on communal solidarity.” But the answer should be robust support for liberty, not more expansion of the welfare state. If Mr. Brooks really wants a society in which our communities flourish and we live interdependently, then he would do well to take a second look at the ideas of people who want to “get government off our backs [and] enhance economic freedom.”

Libertarians have more to offer people who believe in the different layers of society than does Mr. Brooks, and they can make the stronger appeal to “parents, neighbors and citizens.” Libertarian ideas about school privatization, for instance, would be a far more effective way to support family responsibility than the limited school vouchers and “government income support to young men [evidently, not to young women] in exchange for work [that] would make them more marriageable” that Mr. Brooks calls for.

Paternalist conservatives (including Mr. Brooks) endorsed national health care mandates, some of them years before Obamacare came along. Libertarians, meanwhile, looked at the ways in which government interference broke down the – quite neighborly – mutual aid societies and fraternal orders that offered affordable care to Americans. And, while Mr. Brooks sings the praises of the mercantilist economic planning and government-sponsored banks of yore, libertarians envision a government which protects each citizen’s right to give her money only to those businesses which have provided her with something she wants. These are policies that would truly strengthen American communities and our sense of responsibility for each other. Mr. Brooks’ notions of giving more power to Washington’s bureaucrats won’t do that.

Admittedly, libertarians can blame themselves for their bad reputation as rugged individualists – it’s hard to remember that liberty is on the side of society and mutual dependence when you are committed to Ayn Rand and her characterization of big business as a “persecuted minority.” But that does not mean the reputation is a necessary one. Libertarians should respond to Mr. Brooks by distancing themselves from those among them who think that only the individual matters, by showing how liberty strengthens the associations and communities that help us get by. They should show how a commitment to smaller government would translate to a society where people live well, together. A robust system of liberty need not be justified by pandering to pimps and slum lords  – rather, libertarians ought to have as their paradigms the legitimate demands of parents seeking a better life for their children, and grandparents who would like their dignity honored at the airport.

They can also turn the tables by showing the downside of government over-involvement, too: anti-libertarian conservatives often talk about how government can support social institutions, but Mr. Brooks must bear in mind how it can corrode them. It’s all well and good to talk about how the feds can enhance the work of, say, churches by providing additional funding. But a conservative has to realize that to take the king’s penny means dancing to the king’s tune: when the government asks those churches to start funding abortions, a close public-private relationship starts looking a lot less attractive to conservatives. Hindsight may be 20/20, but conservatives often fail to anticipate how the “supports” they propose boil down to sites of power, which can be occupied by anyone – once the government creates that site, Republicans must assume that Democrats will eventually take hold of it (and, of course, vice versa). Democrats will then use that position to pressure groups to conform to their progressive orthodoxies, something which ought to give Republicans plenty of reason to be skeptical of extending government’s (supposedly) helping hand.

Mr. Brooks speaks glowingly of “one-nation conservatism.” This big-government flavor of right-wing politics might be capable of forging a shared American identity through shared American dependence on the federal government. But libertarianism, for all of the overemphasis its followers place on individualism, is better at fostering societies of mutual support. Big-government conservatism will only leave social groups vulnerable to manipulation by making them rely on the government. When Mr. Brooks writes about one-nation conservatism, socially-minded libertarians need to push back with their own vision of “many-communities conservatism.”


  1. Pingback: The Argument Conservatives Must Learn to Make

  2. Thoughtful article. Some data:

    Libertarians in civics are trying to move towards a society of aware, rights-based voluntarism and voluntary public programs with federal, secular and direct democracy governace..They champion a non-abusive civil society. They’re succeeding too, and working in every country.

    I suggest to better understand what the movement is doing one start at: the non-partisan Libertarian International organization.

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