CONDENSED FROM THE LIBERTENNIAL, NOVEMBER 2014
Millennials have a distracted aversion to politics. Ever since the last sparks of Obama-mania fizzled in 2009, young Americans have retreated to the echo chamber of commercial culture, remaining blasé about candidates who espouse lofty ideals and use political office to fortify the status quo.
There is a disquieting sense among young Americans that both the Left and the Right have failed us — that the political system is somehow broken, but without any commensurate fervor for revolution that might have characterized previous ages. We are a generation that has, for the time being, tuned out politics and tuned in the Kardashians.
Criticism abounds over the cosseted narcissism of the Me Generation, and it is not hard to imagine that many of today’s 20-somethings prioritize rolling a joint legally over tackling the tax code. But our collective shift toward pop culture and away from hard politics may also signal reprieve from a world fraught with more complexity, trade-offs and pitfalls than ever before.
We are at once emancipated and consumed by the vertiginous rise of mobile multimedia and text messaging, struggling to preserve our internal self-dialogue amidst the constant blitz of data. We are enriched by unprecedented opportunities for global travel, yet perturbed by the chronic threat of Islamic terrorism and the intrusiveness of our inefficient bureaucracies.
We are optimistic that the market will eventually reward our degree-laden talents and tech savvy, yet frustrated by astronomical student debt, minuscule returns on savings accounts and prolonged unemployment wrought by the paradigm-smashing Great Recession.
But malaise is hardly the word to describe the Millennials. Detachment from the political process has not resulted from existential despair or antipathy to political ideals. A New York Times article notes that most Millennials are “tolerant of other lifestyles, appalled by government intrusion into their private affairs and increasingly convinced that the Obama economy is rigged against them.”
According to a Reason-Rupe poll, most Millennials aspire to start businesses and support free markets over a government-controlled economy. They want to sustain a basic social safety net without increasing the federal deficit. They endorse a hands-off approach to key social issues, favoring the legalization of marijuana and gay marriage, and objecting to Bloombergian soda bans and tobacco taxes. The worldview that emerges from these findings has more in common with libertarianism than with the respective philosophies motivating the Republicans and Democrats.
That most Millennials cannot define libertarianism is no fault of our own. It is a spectacular indictment of our educational system that only 16% of Millennials can properly define socialism as government ownership of the means of production. Furthermore, libertarianism lacks a unifying consensus, despite the procession of 20th century intellectual giants who invoked its label.
Attempts to pinpoint its essence range from “less government” to “no government,” exposing its proponents to frequent charges of advocating anarchy. A Bloomberg article chides libertarians for supposing that “societies are efficient mechanisms requiring no rules or enforcers.” Conservative writer David Frum concurs, telling the New York Times that “libertarians are like Marxists in that they have prophets like von Mises and Hayek, and they quote from their holy scripture, and they don’t have to engage.” This is completely false.
Libertarians are not anarcho-capitalists, who differ from Marxist anarchists only in their prediction that a society in which the state has withered away would practice voluntary exchange instead of egalitarian communalism. The idea that government is expendable stands starkly at odds with the incontrovertible human propensity to initiate violence, which nature hardwired into our species and which justifies collective agreements (or “social contracts”) to protect people from criminals and invaders.
This point recalls Louis CK’s quip about a lawless society: “If murder was legal…We wouldn’t trust people who didn’t murder!” The joke is funny because we take for granted that people have rights, or moral claims on their existence, whose protection is the primary function of government. Probing what people might do in the absence of laws that protect these rights lends itself to morbid hilarity.
Millennials are not hung up over whether government should exist — what they want to know is whether a principled alternative to the Left and the Right exists. It does, and its essence is the destruction of authoritarianism and the birth of a culture of freedom. This is not to be confused with “free market orthodoxy” – but rather freedom in all spheres of human life, because it is the only state of existence compatible with the universal components of our nature.
The moral reasoning that justifies the creation of government demonstrates that human nature is, in fact, the tacit and ineluctable basis for all principled discussion regarding governance. In the Aristotelian tradition of logic, to ask “What is the nature of a thing?” is to begin a quest to identify its highest end or purpose. In framing the libertarian argument in a historical context, it is worth considering the assumptions about human nature that have animated the Left and the Right in their very different attempts to control our lives.
Since at least the French Revolution, the Left has clung tenaciously to the notion that human nature is malleable, even perfectible, in the progressive saga toward communal utopia. Human obstacles to this ultimate goal — a list that began with self-interest and was expanded in the modern era to include competitiveness, family ties and even gender differences — are dismissed as social constructions, products of imperfect societies or power structures that condition human beings to sacrifice their collective potential to the materialistic interests of the dominant class.
“There is no original perversity in the human heart,” wrote Rousseau, ever the hero of the Left, in 1762. The rejection of Original Sin sounds innocent enough, but from the very moment of its inception, the premise that humans lack any innate blueprint for behavior placed the Left at war with what evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker calls “that infuriating, endearing, mysterious, predictable, and eternally fascinating thing we call human nature.”
Robespierre guillotined thousands of equality-hating conspirators, Stalin purged millions of counterrevolutionary saboteurs, and Mao murdered countless private farming families — all grotesque monuments to the idea that rooting out perverse societal elements paves the way for natural harmony.
It is remarkable that a view of human nature that treats humanity like an ant colony — figuratively and literally — survived the gruesome specter of 20th century communism, whose failure many intellectuals ironically chalk up to the inherent perversity of its various leaders. It has apparently never occurred to the luminaries of the Left that people’s natural desires to compete, to enjoy the fruits of their own labor and to put family members ahead of strangers might deserve moral consideration.
“No woman should be authorized to stay at home to raise her children,” proclaimed feminist Simone de Beauvoir in 1975. “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that; somebody else made that happen,” President Obama declared in 2012. “We have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents,” explained MSNBC host Elizabeth Harris-Perry just last year.
The utopian-authoritarian impulse — so often disguised, diluted and even denied to camouflage the bruises of history — lives on in efforts to engineer politically correct vocabularies, regulate food choices, dictate childrearing practices, ration healthcare services, eliminate income inequality, disarm peaceful citizens, run federal agencies like activist spy organizations, and persuade college students that Marxism is “good in theory.”
Any Millennial with a degree in the humanities can attest that it is de rigueur for professors to inform students that everything we value is merely an illusion created by patriarchal capitalist oppression.
Rather incongruously with its modern disdain for freedom, the Left of the 1960s created an individualism of the spirit that warrants preservation. Reflexive questioning of moral authority and open-minded appreciation of artistic creativity are admirable remnants of a European era in which the Church still posed a palpable threat to liberty. Primitive reverence for the environment and belief in the interpersonal magic of cross-cultural experience tap into something deep within our nature, leading some Millennials to identify themselves as “liberal” in a broad cultural sense.
The Left’s monopoly on self-actualization (as opposed to financial success) and insistence on experiencing joy in personal autonomy — what Rousseau referred to as le sentiment de l’existence — may help to explain why so many young people fall into the utopian mentality as part of an aesthetically alluring package deal.
We can easily conjure an image of a “liberal by default” typical among Millennials: A well-educated and benevolent free spirit, whose Facebook pictures evoke hints of vintage and bohemian inspiration, who works hard toward her own success and yet whose peripheral interest in politics derives mainly from the totalitarian rantings of her friends at Greenpeace.
This girl is ultimately unaware that her friends promote a worldview described by one their organization’s earliest members as “anti-human…anti-business and capitalism, and ultimately, anti-civilization.” She is hardly to blame for the clichéd juxtaposition of a free and open sense of life with radical left-wing politics.
The impression that true originality involves a penchant for deconstructing sentences for hidden sexism while wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt is the height of banality.
What about our friends (sometimes), the conservatives? Their misconception of human nature is far more opaque, and an understanding of what the Right has gotten right is prerequisite to its detection.
While the religious Right employs theocratic arguments that undercut its own validity as an intellectual movement, more sophisticated conservatives expand upon the principled arguments penned by the American Founders.
In the 18th century, the Enlightenment’s commitment to truth and reason fused with a moral tradition extending back through Kant and Aquinas to Aristotle, making liberty the enduring legacy of the United States. Freedom from government control was understood to be a presumptive right arising as a logical corollary of the moral nature of human beings.
For the first time in human history, government was explicitly understood as the protector rather than the source of rights. Laws were meant to restrict people from doing only those things that they never had a moral right to do in a state of nature — initiating force, engaging in fraud, or endangering the public. The resulting principle of limited government meant that taxes and government infrastructure were to be kept to a strictly justified minimum.
Hamilton alluded in Federalist No. 31 to the existence of “moral axioms” that “command the assent of the mind” — for example, that innocent people should not be subjected to punishment, and that a punishment should be proportionate to the crime — that form the foundation of law just as geometric axioms anchor the chains of mathematical reasoning.
Lincoln displayed the same elegance of thought when he abolished slavery with reference to the principle of natural equality under the law. As a moral law that cannot logically be separated from the idea of government by consent, this principle exists antecedent to the Constitution, and therefore overrides any provision for slavery made in the text of that document.
The fact that America’s founding vision provided the solution to its gravest error is a testament to its timeless validity.
Rather than dominating human beings through monarchy, slavery, or utopian dictatorship, the distinctly American idea is to respect individual autonomy and to restrict people only on the basis of universally accessible moral understandings. Democracy should be understood as an imperfect, yet necessary mechanism for facilitating agreement on the nature and application of rational principles.
Yet the Right falls into traps of its own creation. In overestimating the number of moral understandings that justify restrictions on freedom, a tendency caused by substituting gut moralizing and irrational animus for logic, social conservatives betray a disturbingly dark view of human nature. It often appears as if they are perpetually reacting against a mental image of a lawless society that resembles the so-called orgy scene in The Matrix Reloaded.
This view manifests in tenuous links between morality and traditional arrangements, a censorious obsession with deterring distasteful behavior through force, and a view of America as a moral superorganism with abstract needs that supersede the lives of the very individuals it was conceived to protect.
In 2009, Tony Blankley, Newt Gingrich’s former press secretary, made a case for the reinstatement of the military draft as a natural, patriotic duty whose virtue would be to demolish our “self-centered veneration of personal happiness.”
From more moderate types, we hear condemnation of the “hedonistic” consumption of marijuana, the “unnatural” adoption of children by gay couples, and the “vile” music produced by hip hop artists. These activities elicit right-wing clamors for the inherently violent restraining power of the law — even in the absence of any evidence that these behaviors violate anyone’s rights.
Senator Rick Santorum’s fetish for inserting himself into our sex lives led him to oppose contraception as “a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”
The unfortunate results of this brand of watered-down, Franco-style American fascism are often self-evident. Rand Paul frames the problem as it pertains to drug use: “I think drugs are bad…However, a 20-year-old kid who does make this mistake ought to get his right to vote back, ought not to be locked up in jail for 10 or 15 years.”
It is high time to recognize that the War on Drugs, based on the Right’s preference for coercion over education to deal with self-destructive behavior, serves no retributory purpose and vindicates no one — not the innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire in ruined neighborhoods, not the chemically dependent buyers denied treatment in prison, and not the kids in black neighborhoods who grow up without fathers.
Perhaps most of all, the Right’s exasperation on the issue of gay marriage highlights the obsolescence of its myopically narrow view of human fulfillment.
For Millennials, gay marriage brings to mind something closer to Modern Family than the polygamous cluster of bogeymen envisioned by social conservatives. Far from justifying the policing of licenses pertaining to personal lives, the undeniably natural link between traditional marriage and procreation illustrates the inevitability of its own persistence and the superfluity of “protecting” it from alternative lifestyles.
At the same time, conservatives are correct in their assessment that legalizing gay marriage — which ultimately involves the natural right to enter into contracts — leaves no principled barrier against polygamy, which merely expands the number of consenting adults. The only solution to the problem of government meddling with marriage is the separation of state and marriage, a position that appeals to the same principle as separation of state and church.
The Right’s predictable grumbles about arranging marriages with children and horses can easily be swept aside by pointing out that only consenting adults can properly enter into contracts or engage in intercourse, which amounts to an irreducible act of violence unless both parties are competent to understand it.
Their remaining argument — that children cannot be expected to thrive in the absence of the traditional household — fails on its own account, for vast swaths of the population have been raised successfully by single parents, by adoptive parents, by foster parents and by loving collections of aunts, uncles and grandparents.
The realm of established tradition mutates into a morass of intellectual impotence when pitted against people’s presumptive rights to liberty. And the pervasiveness of gut moralizing fuels the Millennials’ perception of social conservatism as an unimaginative, intellectually barren and culturally bland residue of America’s Puritan past.
Yet it is the individualism of the mind that the Right has kept alive, and which symbolizes the flip side of the humanist coin that also bears the Left’s individualism of the spirit.
The central thesis of Atlas Shrugged, a favorite among conservatives despite Ayn Rand’s atheism, is that “your life belongs to you and the good is to live it.” This sentiment encapsulates the moral axiom of self-ownership that gives rise to the principle of private property, which symbolizes the ownership of all the days of one’s life — including the productive efforts that attach to them. Without private property, no rights can be protected because no sphere of individual autonomy can be delineated across time.
While the Left tends to view financial success through alternating lenses of guilty pleasure and envious suspicion — an inner conflict stemming from the Marxist view of private property as a static phenomenon, and its resulting conflation of voluntary exchange with forced exploitation — the Right harbors no such contradictions. Chelsi P. Henry, a 26 year old black Republican and the youngest elected woman in the history of Jacksonville, Florida, frames the matter succinctly: “We believe in a less intrusive government that doesn’t get in the way of us living out our dreams…We believe in entrepreneurship and innovation.” The most curious paradox of our generation may well be the Occupy Wall Streeter clutching his iPhone at a Facebook-organized rally against free market tyranny.
Observe that in those areas in which the Left or the Right succeeds in fostering individualism, the result is a sense of personal fulfillment and flourishing — and vice versa.
To the extent that we reject the individual as the most important and fundamental minority in society, we forget that only human beings possess the capacity to feel pleasure or pain, happiness or defeat. By uniting the best qualities of both sides of the political spectrum, libertarianism allows for intriguing alliances to blossom as a result of defending the full range of our freedom.
Feminist libertarian Camille Paglia recently proposed a welcome twist to traditional cultural allegiances, articulating the potential for individualism to rescue the world of art from its stifling dependence on government support: “Artists should learn to see themselves as entrepreneurs.”
Libertarians find themselves in a unique position to promote non-intervention at home and abroad, to end our perpetually wasteful wars on drugs and poverty that have contributed to a vicious cycle of mass incarceration, and to propose overhauls of bureaucratic nightmares like our antiquated tax code and Obamacare.
We can argue for school choice as a means for increasing equal access to quality education, using public vouchers as stepping stones to a privatized school system in which competition eliminates union-induced incompetence. We can oppose tax loopholes for corporations and subsidies for rich farmers while defending the right to keep more of what we earn as a generation of aspiring entrepreneurs. And in an era of global news dominated by ISIS beheadings and Putin’s Machiavellian power plays, we can give a coherent account of why the only nation founded on freedom deserves to call itself exceptional.
In our mission to undo the damage done by the Left and the Right, we cannot afford to let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Politically, we can exert influence from within the two dominant parties, choosing candidates that encapsulate our most important principles.
Philosophically, we have an obligation to eclipse the brand of libertarian purism that has long been stultified by moral gray areas and political conditions that demand imperfect judgment calls. Disbanding counterterrorism operations in the name of liberty does little good if it culminates in a nuclear attack, and the sudden elimination of welfare in a society addicted to legalized theft would precipitate national convulsions.
Exposing federal waste is a popular libertarian hobby that will be performed until the end of history unless we replace it with devising specific proposals to deflate bloated bureaucracies, destroy the current tax code and wean people off of government dependency.
Policy cannot be devised in a vacuum, and common sense springs from the same faculty of moral reasoning that justifies a regime of liberty in the first place. We can learn from those Founders who harbored profound moral reservations about slavery, yet who exercised prudence in uniting the colonies under a set of principles whose ultimate expression depended first and foremost on the inception of a Union. The fact that it may take a century for our vision to begin to be realized should not deter us from implementing modest first steps.
We also must take care to avoid the conceptual traps manufactured by leftists in ivory towers. Perhaps the most amusing consequence of the Right’s perceived ownership of morality is academia’s flight into moral relativism and postmodernism. It is as if the Left decided that the best response to bourgeois moralizing is the insouciant rejection of the existence of moral principles, or of everything whatsoever.
In college classrooms, we are often informed that since moral truths do not exist, we must rely instead on consensus. The idea that we are morally obligated to subscribe to majority opinion because there is no such thing as moral obligation is a self-refuting proposition. If we do accept consensus as the only moral standard, then we must be prepared to accept that a sudden mass preference for genocide or mandatory boozing contests for everyone over the age of 5 might indicate some new imperative for our society.
People who reject moral principles and “generalizations” about human nature must realize on some level that they appeal to both continually in their own lives. The relativist professor who files for divorce from her cheating husband, the social constructionist who signs his daughter up for self-defense lessons — both of these people must be subconsciously aware that their ersatz philosophies are inapplicable to real people outside the classroom.
As soon as we catch our intellectual opponents making assumptions about human nature, or assigning arbitrary “rights” to human beings, our debate with them shifts back into the realm of principle. And, as the stewards of academia seem to know as well as we do, this paves the way for the argument for freedom.
The new advocates of government control reside on both ends of the political spectrum. The old war of capitalism against communism has transmuted into the global encroachment of the crony-capitalist mixed economy, in which the most ominous threat is an ever-deepening alliance between government and corporations.
We live in a brave new world in which brand new industries collude with federal agencies to spy on us and to traffic in our personal data. Health insurance giants acquiesce to government control in exchange for subsidies and individual mandates that force us to buy their products. Financial institutions with the worst-performing loan portfolios and the most lobbying dollars receive the largest bailouts at taxpayer expense.
Meanwhile, the Left remains diametrically opposed to real liberty, selling us “rights” like free abortions in exchange for more of our tax dollars and more bureaucratic control over our lives. The Right is complacent about the expansion of government because it fails to consistently defend freedom.
Both sides are caught up in endless and ultimately meaningless political infighting, inventing and participating in such mythical absurdities as the “war on women.” Only a defense of our universal rights as human beings has the potential to inspire people to begin to consider themselves formerly of the Left or the Right, and now firmly in favor of liberty.
Our generation’s critics point to our entitlement complex, our low savings rate and our peevish absorption in social media as proof that we have much to gain from apathy and redistribution. Defending freedom is perilous work, especially when one’s opponents consist of intellectually bankrupt utopians and creaky corporate-elitists. But isn’t it an inspiring thing to stand up and fight for?