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Liberty, Authority, and Why Libertarians Just Don’t Get It

by Victor Tolomeo | Georgetown University

F Posted in: Election 2012, News and Politics, Voices P Posted on: June 22, 2012
Victor Tolomeo Victor Tolomeo

A few weeks ago, I was driving to meet a friend in Palo Alto, and I noticed a sign on an overpass that read “Ron Paul Revolution.” I didn’t think much of it, but later I couldn’t get it out of my mind— why was it that so many people, especially young college-aged people, were so passionate about this unassuming (and not overly youthful) Texas Congressman?

The answer, I think, lies in the philosophy that Rep. Paul preaches. Libertarianism, Anarcho-capitalism, Austrian economics—whatever you want to call it, most college students have a rough understanding of it. It’s an attractive philosophy for us millennials, probably because of the times we live in. Unemployment is high, the economy is bleak, and sometimes things seem beyond our control. People are beginning to doubt the old idea that if you work hard enough in America, you can be the next J.P. Morgan or Bill Gates. There is a sense that the deck is stacked against them. Therefore it is understandable that a philosophy that promotes transferring power from the government to the people is becoming popular. Who doesn’t want to be “free” to live their lives how they choose?

There is, however, a darker side to libertarianism, a side that is closely linked to anarchism. Murray Rothbard, one of the intellectual godfathers of modern libertarianism, once commented that the goal of the libertarian should be to “minimize State power as much as possible, down to zero.”  The notion that Government itself is inherently distortionary is closely linked to Austrian economics and underlies much of the reasoning behind the libertarian distrust of the Federal Reserve and its monetary policy.

Moreover, this notion is becoming more and more pervasive in our society, its influence far surpassing that of Mr. Paul’s relatively small base of hardcore supporters:  Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist famously asserted that his goal was to downsize the federal government until he could drown it in his bathtub, and “Government is the problem” has become a mantra of sorts to the Tea Party movement.

But why must the increase of personal liberty be tied to the minimization of state power? The answer involves the libertarian definition of liberty. Liberty (freedom) is inherently negative, that is, it is always freedom “from” something. It is the lack of external coercive force of any kind. The free individual, then, is he who is unconstrained. Government, the holder of authority, is opposed to liberty precisely because it constrains and coerces. In the libertarian mind, liberty and governmental authority are opposites in a zero-sum game: if one increases, the other must decrease.

The problem, though, is that “negative” liberty is only a part of true liberty. The freedom “to,” or positive liberty, exists, as well, and is defined as the ability to do or to engage in something. And it is this which necessarily requires some constraints on human action.

I’ll give an example. When I play chess, I constrain myself by the rules of chess. Bishops can only move diagonally, and rooks can only move horizontally or vertically. Theoretically I could move my bishop as if it was a rook, but then I wouldn’t be playing chess. I can only play chess as long as I constrain myself by its rules. Similarly, in mathematics, I have to accept certain axioms as true. For example, 2+2=4. I can say 2+2=5, but then nothing works out correctly: I’m not doing math. Somewhat paradoxically, authority becomes absolutely essential to our freedom, since it is authority that constrains and provides limits for our actions.

There is a second argument for the need for authority, and it generally involves the concept of unity of action. Suppose a family of four wants to go on vacation. The son wants to go to Aspen, the daughter to Newport Beach, the mother to Miami, and the father to the Outer Banks (this is a very wealthy family, most definitely in the 1%!).

They have three choices. 1) They can all go to their preferred vacation spot  by themselves, 2) They can forget the vacation, or 3) They can go together to one vacation spot. The first option isn’t too great, because half of the fun for this family is going together, and the second option is just downright terrible since no one will have a good time. The third option sounds best, but how to choose? Suppose they vote, but no clear majority emerges. How to decide? At this point the father exerts his authority and declares that they’ll all go to the Outer Banks. After some grumbling, they go and have a good time.

You might be asking, “What’s the point of your stupid example?” right around now. The point is that authority provides an answer to collective action problems.  Every family member wanted to go to a different vacation spot, but, in the end, they accepted Dad’s authority.

Why? Because they understood that it was reasonable to accept it— going as a family (unity of collective action) provided more utility than everyone splitting up and going alone. These sort of collective action problems pop up all the time, and when they appear on a macro level, as they do every day, some kind of authority is needed to resolve differences. We call this authority the Government. Far from being shackled by its power, we have traditionally accepted its authority willingly. Why? Because it is reasonable to do so.

The last argument for authority that I’ll present here is probably the most important, because it addresses not just the need for government but the proper role as well. There have been many iterations of this idea over the last couple thousand years, but it suffices to say that it involves some notion of the government willing the Common Good. The following example appears in Plato’s Republic.

Suppose a ship leaves port in Greece and sets sail for Carthage. The crew is made up of sailors, officers, and the captain, and each group has its own duties assigned to it. The sailors use the oars and adjust the sails, the officers oversee the sailors, and the captain navigates. The voyage goes well at first. However, a few days in, the sailors and officers mutiny against the captain and try to finish the voyage themselves. Unfortunately for them, no one can navigate as effectively as the captain, and the ship sails aimlessly through the Mediterranean, hopelessly off course. They never get to Carthage.

Plato’s ship is an allegory for society. The captain (the ruler, or the governmental authority) knows where the ship is going but needs the crew to get there, and vice versa. The ship only gets to its destination when everyone knows what their duties are and fulfills them. Again, they accept the captain’s authority, because it is reasonable. They wouldn’t get to Carthage without it. The government (captain) wills the common good for society (the ship).

Too often these days we are faced with a choice between what I call “New” Liberalism and Libertarianism, which often masquerades as Conservatism. New Liberalism says that there are basically no limits to what the government can do, while Libertarianism strives to end the government completely. The former is embodied in the busy-body, activist “government should right all wrongs” philosophy of President Obama and a large segment of the Democratic Party, while the latter is frequently found among the Tea Party and the Paul movement.

This is a false dichotomy, of course, and the answer is a healthy dose of Conservatism, which was traditionally the philosophy that government should play a limited role in society, but, more importantly, should know what those limits are. Returning to the ship analogy, New Liberalism is a captain who thinks he can run the ship entirely by himself, while Libertarianism is mutiny. Neither will get the ship to port safely. The Conservative crew fulfills their duties, and the ship sails off to Carthage.

Our duty as citizens is to recognize the need for government, and to hold it accountable for the power it wields. At the same time, the government must always understand that its power is defined by its limits, not its excesses, and that it originates from the citizens’ capacity to reason. As a former professor of mine used to say, “in order for the whole to be the whole, the parts must be the parts.” The only way the football team wins is if the quarterback plays his part, the wide receiver plays his, and so on.

The necessity of limited authority is at its core a conservative idea, and thinkers from Edmund Burke to William F. Buckley, Jr. understood it. The challenge today is to separate true conservatism from the populist libertarianism that is increasingly gaining strength in this country—one understands what liberty really means, but the other just doesn’t seem to get it.

Victor Tolomeo Victor Tolomeo Victor Tolomeo is a student at Georgetown University. He lives in Sacramento, California.

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