Whither Liberty?

2005-10-26

Tyler Cowen wonders what the future holds for those of a libertarian persuasion. Realism dictates that we recognize a simple fact: a libertarian world is not in the offing. Indeed, neither is a libertarian country or even a libertarian state. As I like to say, utopia is not an option. Unfortunately, there is a strong utopian stream among libertarians. Part of the reason is that most prominent libertarian thinkers have been philosophers, economists, and other cerebral types. For better or for worse, libertarianism -- the vision of a purely voluntary society -- is an ideology. Ideologists want to change the world and will not be satisfied until the world matches their vision (joke: "A libertarian is someone who lies awake at night worrying that somehow, somewhere, there are still a few miles of publicly owned sewer pipe").

While the ideology of libertarianism was a product of the deeply ideological twentieth century, that doesn't mean that the need for freedom is an artifact of ideology. Yet, although all human beings need liberty, the practice of liberty is a cultural phenomenon that has flourished only in certain times and places. Those who value freedom would do well to study its history. In particular, the modern concept and practice of a primarily (if not fully) voluntary society emerged in northwestern Europe, most sustainably in England and the places settled by the English (Canada, America, Australia, New Zealand, etc.). In other words, the Anglosphere.

It's important to have gadflies in any society, and libertarian ideologists can and do fulfill that role. Yet I think they undercut their effectiveness by not recognizing historical realities. A voluntary society is not some unnatural, pie-in-the-sky utopia -- it can be an organic extension of existing cultural traditions of individualism, common law, volunteerism, strong civic ties, high trust, pluralism, entrepreneurship, scientific investigation, technological innovation, private property, and intellectual freedom. The key, I think, is to evolve those traditions rather than attempting to foment some kind of utopian revolution. One aspect of evolving those traditions is strengthening ties between those areas of the world that have built on these predominantly English foundations. Another aspect is clearly understanding that this inheritance is not genetic but mimetic, not a matter of blood relations among people of English descent but a matter of ideas, laws, institutions, principles, and practices. Another aspect is leading by example -- forming schools, starting companies, creating new products, defining new technologies, defending privacy and property -- rather than attempting always to stand outside of society from a position of criticism rather than a practice of engagement. This does not mean "selling out", compromising one's principles, or giving up on the dream of a fully voluntary society. But it does mean doing the intellectual and practical work necessary to make a difference in this world, not sitting around and complaining.


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