Collectivism, though at its apex and seemingly more powerful than ever, is on the decline; individualism is on the rise.
With its rise, individualism, also known as libertarianism, poses threats to American culture and governance.
It also provides significant, positive opportunities that have not been available for more than a century.
It is imperative that we identify the dangers of mainstream libertarian thought and provide alternatives in order to capitalize on the opportunity to create a balanced, sustainable, free, and just society.
As is so common throughout history, we may swing the pendulum from collectivism to libertarianism to find that they are both equally dangerous and unsustainable.
The danger posed by libertarianism — or the opportunity — is predicated upon how it will be defined and practically applied.
The Decline of Collectivism
Collectivist institutions are splitting at the seams and crumbling due to financial infeasibility, dramatically changing age demographics, and the cultural mediocrity that they instill.
Foreign wars, which necessitate higher taxes and thus enable the centralization of power, are becoming less and less popular, both for financial and moral reasons.
All forms of collectivism are showing themselves to be unsustainable as a matter of empirical fact, rather than subjective value judgment.
The Fragmented Nature of Libertarianism
While there are universal tendencies shared by modern libertarians, libertarianism as a political movement and ideal has not yet gained the coherence necessary to appropriately use it as a specific, functional label.
The tagline of the Libertarian Party is “Smaller government, Lower Taxes, More Freedom,” which is about as universal as the movement gets.
However, Lew Rockwell — one of the most popular and widely read libertarian websites, boasts the tagline “Anti-State, Anti-War, Pro-Market,” which is clearly more ideological, more concentrated, and therefore more divisive.
And in contrast to Rand and Tolstoy, whose messages center on personal morals and values, Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, Henry Hazlitt, and others generally avoid such concerns and focus primarily on the economic aspect of freedom.
Attempting to define libertarianism appears to be an irony and even a contradiction, since at its core libertarianism viscerally rejects any label or identification that would even hint at forced or inauthentic uniformity.
As a response to collectivism — or sameness — libertarianism celebrates diversity and independent thought.
However, since it appears to be the default heir to the decaying throne of American politics and culture, defining it is one of the most vital steps to steer it in the right direction.
And doing so must take place within the context of identifying its flaws, in order to correct them.
Three Prominent Dangers of Libertarianism
In spite of its fragmented nature, libertarianism in general displays three universal characteristics that, unless replaced, will limit its impact and sustainability as a freedom movement.
As a disclaimer, understand that identifying them is a difficult task, since libertarianism largely remains undefined and open to interpretation.
In other words, if you identify yourself as a libertarian yet do not associate yourself with these flaws, then this does not apply to you. If the shoe fits, wear it; otherwise do your best to steer mainstream libertarianism in the right direction.
A product of Ayn Rand, who has emerged as the preeminent spokesperson for modern libertarianism, self-interest is expressed in the oath taken by Rand’s ultimate hero, John Galt:
“I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for the sake of mine.”
At the heart of libertarian thought seems to be the sentiment, “I want to be left alone to live my life the way I see fit.”
While the quest to be free from governmental oppression is natural and commendable, this is hardly an inspiring alternative to liberalism.
Wanting to be left alone to pursue one’s self-interest is a poor substitute for wanting to make the world a better place.
2. Flawed Definition of Freedom
The default definition of libertarian freedom is the freedom to do whatever a person wants, as long as they do not harm or encroach upon the natural rights of others.
In other words, “license” is probably a more accurate word than “freedom.”
Johnny Kramer, columnist for Lew Rockwell, recently wrote an article entitled What Libertarianism is Not wherein he says,
“Libertarianism is not a philosophy of morality or a guide to proper behavior. It is simply a political philosophy that holds that everyone should be legally free (in other words, free from coercion) to do as they please, so long as they don’t violate anyone’s body or property (in other words, so long as they don’t initiate coercion against anyone else); and that the State, if it should exist, should be bound by the same rules as the rest of society.”
This misguided and limited definition quickly degenerates into hedonism, decadence, and ultimately, societal decay, as displayed by the Greeks and Romans.
3. Emphasizes Individualism; Downplays Family, Community, and Religion
James Ure wrote:
“Tellingly, the word ‘individual’ appears fifteen times in the first twenty sentences of the [Libertarian Party] platform, but the words ‘family’ and ‘school’ only appear once each, the words ‘church’ or ‘religion’ only appear a few times, and the words ‘community’ and neighborhood’ do not appear at all.”
As we also learn from Mr. Ure, family, community, and religion are “institutional mediating entities” that balance the desires for individual freedom with the demands of communal cooperation.
An overly individualistic society is a fragmented, unsustainable society, lacking forms to perpetuate itself.
Three Counter-Balancing Ideals
To counteract the above three dangers of libertarianism, three ideals should replace them, with a deliberate, conscious, and transparent effort: public virtue, an expanded definition of freedom, and a shift from focusing on the individual to focusing on family, community, and religion.
1. Public Virtue
“There must be a positive Passion for the public good, the public Interest, Honour, Power and Glory, established in the Minds of the People, or there can be no Republican Government, nor any real liberty.” -John Adams
As one of the Four Foundations of Freedom, public virtue means to voluntarily sacrifice personal benefit for the good of society.
For example, Robert Morris, a relatively obscure figure in American history, was one of the wealthiest colonists who spent his entire fortune — and even borrowed from others — to finance the Revolutionary War.
As Oliver DeMille writes:
“One [historical] record remarked: ‘If it were not [proven] by official records, posterity would hardly be made to believe that the campaign…was sustained wholly on the credit of an individual merchant.’
“When the War ended, this self-made millionaire spent three and a half years in debtors prison after he lost everything. His wife…watched possession after possession disappear during the War. When Robert went to prison after giving so much to the cause of freedom, she tended a borrowed little farm and walked each day to the prison with her daughter Maria to visit her husband.
“Robert left prison a broken down old man and died shortly thereafter. The financier of the Revolution, and his family, understood public virtue…”
In most cases, such a profound display is not necessary; we simply have to do our best to serve others on a daily basis.
It’s grossly incomplete to proclaim that the government should not take care of people; those who are able and privileged have the duty to care for the handicapped and the aged, serve the underprivileged, uplift the impoverished, and educate the illiterate.
The easiest and best way to eliminate bureaucratic and illegitimate government entitlement programs is to replace them with private institutions operated voluntarily by virtuous individuals.
Most libertarians believe that the proper role of government is to protect unalienable rights. But keeping the government contained in its proper sphere is predicated upon the people expanding their love of rights to include a strict adherence to their duties to their fellow man.
As Viktor Frankl wrote,
“Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is and the more he actualized himself…Self-actualization is only possible as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”
Instead of starting with the thought, “I want to be left alone,” a better approach would be to start with, “I want to do my best to serve others so that the government doesn’t have to.”
The one says, “Leave me alone”; the other says, “How can I serve?”
It’s obvious which one leads to a more healthy, sustainable society. The incomplete sentence, “The government should not redistribute wealth” must be finished with “…and the people have the duty to ensure that all members of society are well cared for.”
The rejection of forced charity must never lead to the neglect of the right forms of voluntary charity, as does Ayn Rand’s philosophy.
2. Expand the Definition of Freedom
Freedom is so much more than being free from the illegitimate constraints of the government. Freedom is a much broader, more comprehensive concept than “freedom from“; it also includes “freedom to.”
The new definition of freedom must include two critical aspects: 1) a primary focus on how an individual can become personally, internally free regardless of external circumstance, and 2) the fusion of rights with duties.
Spiritual, financial, physical, mental, and emotional freedom are ultimately far more important than governmental freedom, since the one is predicated upon the other; the more personally free individuals are in a society, the more free their government will be.
Viktor Frankl, locked in a concentration camp cell, is more free than the drug or pornography addict in America.
As Edmund Burke said,
“Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.”
It’s nice to be free from governmental tyranny. But we must also realize that we are free to love in the face of hatred, forgive cruelty without hesitation or reservation, to love those who hurt us as much as we love those who honor us.
We are free to eradicate all feelings of revenge, bitterness, enmity, and malice; to replace hatred with love, bitterness with understanding, pride with humility, vengefulness with forgiveness, cruelty with mercy and compassion. We are free to choose how we respond to oppression.
Furthermore, we must realize that inherent with our rights to freedom are corresponding duties.
We have a right to free government; we also have the duty to maintain such a government. As Thomas Paine wrote:
“Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it.”
We have the right to do whatever we choose to do with our bodies; we have the duty to be true to marital covenants and to protect the unalienable rights of unborn children.
We have the right to view whatever we want; we have the duty to shun pornography in all its forms.
We have the right to administer our finances how we see fit; we have the duty to stay out of debt and produce more than we consume.
Political philosophy removed from personal morality is like an individual without a heart or an automobile without an engine; personal morality is what makes political and economic liberty function.
In the words of Benjamin Franklin,
“Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”
3. Shift From Individualism To Familial & Communal Association
Healthy society isn’t comprised of individualistic hedons doing whatever they feel like doing; it’s comprised of virtuous, faithful, and tight-knit families and communities who know and serve one another, who provide support and encouragement to each other, who work together, who mourn with each other, and who share a common heritage and common values.
Collectivism and individualism are opposite sides of the same imbalanced coin. Family, community, and religion provide balance. They preserve and perpetuate culture. They restore society when it has lost its way.
While collectivism leads to an oppressive, centralized breakdown of society, individualism causes divisive decay. The solution to each is to bolster the health, strength, and vitality of family, community, and religion.
Conclusion: The Opportunity
Libertarianism has an unprecedented opportunity to reclaim America’s freedom. But to do so it must eliminate its flaws and define itself appropriately.
Specifically, it must eliminate the flaws of misguided self-interest, a limited definition of freedom, and an excessive focus on individualism.
It must define itself as a movement that includes political and economic freedom from oppression, as well as personal freedom to do what’s right. It must stress duties as much as it stresses rights.
It must shift from individualism to communalism — not forced or governmentally-imposed collectivism, but voluntary familial, communal, and religious associations.
The foundation of libertarianism must be much more than wanting to be left alone; it must be based on a desire to serve, to contribute in meaningful and lasting ways to society.
Some may say that these proposed ideals stray from being universal.
While it’s imperative for any movement to stick with universals in order to create coherency and momentum, it’s even more important to define what those universals are.
If the libertarian universals are simply “smaller government, less taxes, and more freedom,” the impact and sustainability of libertarianism will be severely limited.
If, on the other hand, it expands its universal tenets to include the morality of public virtue, the depth of personal freedom beyond mere political and economic freedom, and the necessity of strong families, communities, and religious associations, it can be the movement that restores the American republic and secures liberty for generations to come.