Why I Broke With Libertarianism
A friend of mine recently shared with me a meme detailing the four stages of Red Pilling: conventional conservative to libertarian to alt-right to reactionary. We both had a bit of a chuckle over how I’d apparently skipped stage three and gone straight to the end. In my late teens and early twenties I was certainly fully on board the libertarian train. I was a huge admirer of Ayn Rand. I quoted Milton Freedman and Margaret Thatcher and Fredrich Hayek. The welfare states? That was a road to serfdom. Society? No much thing. Social responsibility? A made up illusion the poor and the weak used to guilt trip the rich and the strong (that I was one of the latter went without question in my mind).
Then I had the good fortune to graduate from the sheltered walls of academia and, as happens with most people of all ideological backgrounds, I discovered the world was a far more complicated place in the flesh than it was in a textbook. Above all else, some very basic assumptions that had been the foundation of my political philosophy were called into question.
One was the rationality of the individual. This idea can likely be considered as the heart of most of the ideologies that developed from the Enlightenment, and very likely is the greatest miscalculation the philosophes ever made (and they made many). The appeal is easy to see. If human beings are all inherently rational then it follows that when left to their own devices they will always make the decisions that are best of them (taking into account of course the differences that come from individual priorities and perspectives). You simply do as you wish, secure in the knowledge that everyone else is doing the same and that it is the best for everyone.
The problem, though, was that upon review of the evidence it became very clear that for most people this narrative was simply untrue. Far from being wholly rational actors, individuals in fact prove to be quite rash and prone to ill judgement most of the time. It is not that most people are stupid (a word which brings to mind dunkoffs who are unable to tie their own shoelaces) but rather that they are simple. People are certainly in possession of enough common sense to manage their own day to day affairs when left to their own devices, rendering moot the progrssive who insists on mandating calorie counts onto menus or banning smoking in all public places; it is only when one moves beyond the immediate to the long term future that the irrationality of man becomes a problem.
One area where this is glaringly evident is the financial field. Most Canadians, even two high income households, have high ratio mortgages that they can only afford to service due to record low interest rates (which are going to end sooner or later), both secured and unsecured personal lines carrying high balances, and credit cards maxed out to the limit. This is at a time when savings rates are at all time lows, and most people admit they’d be unable to cope if their regular paycheque was delayed even a few days. It’s not as if managing your finances is some great mystery. The problem is that the very simple concepts of keeping within a budget and regularly saving money require a very high level of self-discipline to consistently apply (without bragging I would consider myself to be one such person and even I do so only with some difficulty).
And that is a key point. The libertarian ethos of self-reliance and personal responsibility works very well but only for individuals who happen to possess either a very high degree of natural self-mastery or adhere to moral code that demands it. When the great classically liberal revolutions of the New Right were just beginning, in days when even blue collar workers could reasonably expect lifelong pensions on retirement and home prices ranged at only a couple of hundred thousand dollars, this fact was easier to ignore: the individual only really needed to hold down steady employment and not completely go off the rails to achieve a secure lifestyle. In the New Normal of precarious contract work and no benefits this is no longer the case.
Even individuals who might have lacked the necessary personal discipline at the very least could often rely on the support of a wider network. When my parents were young, they both belonged to families and broader social communities that required them to maintain a certain degree of moral behaviour. However much post-modern progressives might scoff at such things these days as stifling, moral policing the fact remains that it worked. Older generations lived with the knowledge that if they behaved badly they would have to face the neighbours at Church on Sunday and the extended family at dinner that same evening. A lingering, post-religious version of this attitude likely explains why we still see less of the social problems rampant in the inner cities and lower income communities among the middle and upper-classes (the rich are less likely to divorce and become deadbeats because they still worry about “what the neighbours might think”).
It is when the effect of these individual maladies are magnified across society as a whole that the picture becomes very ugly. The demographic time bomb that has been created by the collapse in birth rates, the surge in single parent households, and the increasingly low levels of life satisfaction are all symptoms of a society that has become increasingly atomized and of individuals that are more isolated from one another than ever before. It turns out that the much mocked warnings of social conservatives that mass promiscuity, the normalization of single motherhood, and moral relativism would lead to a dire future were actually correct.
In case anyone is mistaking me for a born again lefty I should clarify that I do not reject libertarianism utterly. The free market, while imperfect as all human creations are, remains the single proven best system for organizing economic activity that is known to man; it is far superior than any alternative at letting each individual assume the role in society that he or she is best suited for. Here in Canada, of all the candidates currently vying for then newly vacant leadership of the Conservative Party I am most inclined to support Maxime Bernier, the most avowedly libertarian of the lot, because he is proposing a series of rather detailed policy proposals on everything from abolishing egg and diary marketing boards to loosening up competition regulations in the telecoms sector that would all have a real world benefit on ordinary Canadians bottom lines.
However, what I have realized is that a principle that works quite well for the economic sphere is not especially effective when applied to the whole of humanity. There is such a thing as society and it is something more than no just a mechanism to exchange goods and services. Most people ultimately require a guidebook to navigate life; we are not wholly rational creatures but instead highly evolved apes dressed in silk that must be bound by the chains of custom and tradition, otherwise known as De Maistre’s holy trinity of Throne, Altar and Hangman’s noose.