Sunday, August 10, 2014

A "Libertarian Moment"?

Today's NY Times Magazine has an interesting article, whose title asks "Has the 'Libertarian Moment' Finally Arrived?" In any hierarchy of morally harmful ideologies, I think that Libertarianism surely ranks among the worst. Yet anyone at all alert to today's currents can sense that certain libertarian or at least libertarian-like sentiments are on the upswing in our society - especially among younger people. So I was quite curious to read what the article's author (Robert Draper, a contributing writer for the magazine) has to say about this problematic development. Draper focus particular attention on the young - "the age group most responsible for delivering Obama his two terms," a group, Draper suggests, that "may well become a  political wild card over time, in large part because of its libertarian leanings."

Of course, some of newly popular policy positions that contribute to the supposed upsurge in libertarianism are, considered in themselves, really quite tangential to libertarian ideology, in that one could just as easily come at some of those positions from a different perspective. Obviously, isolationism is on the rise, as Americans have become even more than customarily dubious about foreign interventions. And some of the "libertarian" ideas widely supported in our society nowadays also could be interpreted in terms of growing social liberalism - conceptually different from libertarianism even if many of the outcomes are similar. That a majority of Americans now favor marriage equality, for example, and that decriminalizing marijuana and reducing sentences for minor drug offenders has become a more mainstream view (as Draper shows) are policy shifts of major import, but such developments remain susceptible of more than one ideological interpretation - including liberal and communitarian ones.

Still, something that is increasingly evident especially among younger Americans is an increasing suspicion of and disdain for government. Libertarianism as an ideology is premised on such suspicion of and disdain for community - the supposedly 'Thatcherite" view that "there is no such thing as society." Even liberals seem increasingly disillusioned with government's effectiveness, on the one hand, and have largely embraced a neo-libertarian approach to personal and family life, on the other.  This problematic development risks sapping the moral concept of community that has long been American political liberalism's greatest strength and so opening the way for increased inroads by libertarianism.

Draper quotes libertarian "applause lines," like "any tax rate above zero percent is immoral" and "there are no good cops out there." Such extremes are obviously unsustainable, short of a Hobbesian "war of all against all." On the other hand, it is easy to see how a libertarian attack on social security as a form of "generational theft," for example, could conceivably attain traction  with some younger voters.

There are still many obstacles to the full mainstreaming of libertarian values. But our society's significant failures - especially as regards an attractive future for younger generations of Americans - have not gone unnoticed. The damage already done by foreign policy failures in re-legitimizing isolationism could be replicated in other areas as well - with catastrophic consequences for whatever may be left of the fraying communal bonds of American society.

1 comment:

  1. Father, please help me understand your disdain for libertarianism. Your definition of libertarian premises above bears little resemblance to what I know of libertarianism, and I'd like to understand the point of departure. I recognize that you are a trained political scientist (and I've never met a poly-sci guy who didn't despise libertarianism), but I'm more interested in the common thread that I've found among priests who are hostile to libertarianism. Further, what do you mean by "community?" You seem to use it interchangeably with society and government. And finally, when you refer to liberalism, I assume you mean "modern liberalism" rather than the classical liberalism that libertarians identify with. But perhaps you have another usage entirely, I'm trying to understand your view that "[neo-libertarianism] risks sapping the moral concept of community that has long been American political liberalism's greatest strength." I can't reconcile this with the sustained attack, by political liberalism, on the family and the self-organized community that has continued unabated since at least the Great Society. I can only assume that we understand very different things by the words "community", "liberalism," and "libertarianism."