"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Monday, February 08, 2016

Is libertarianism a perversion of the American idea?




America is the idea that a people could form a government by consent and intent and not through accident and fraud. The America idea is expressed through its constitution, where We, the People, created a new government. We note that the We, the people, was set against the King, an individual, who ruled tyrannically.



The Americans rejected that the individual would rule the people at the expense of common good. Instead, they created a government born of the common good and created a more perfect union to protect and promote those individual rights. The common good succeeds to the extent that Americans can practice self-government. Self-government, though, is more than the pursuit of individual liberty, it requires that the individual participate in the public domain with a willingness to forego their own individual good to form a more perfect union. For an individual to participate in the public domain, they have to sacrifice their own individual good for the common good just as they relinquish revenge in return for the law as a neutral judge. Far from being the threat to our liberty, government is what binds American together and makes Americans Americans.

At seminal events, Americans have focused on the common good over their individual good. When Lincoln renewed America’s founding when he gave his Gettysburg Address[1], he reminded us of that common good. He spoke of a government, of the people, by the people, and for the people. He spoke of self-government and whether men could design and consent to a government that constituted to promote liberty. Individual liberty, he explained, was found in self-government that required that the individuals devote themselves to something larger and more important than their own interests. The Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address, refer to a res publica, a public thing that is held in common. Neither document puts individual liberty before the common good. They both are based on the idea that the common good is necessary for individual liberty and individual liberty is necessary for the common good.

Self-government is the surest defense of individual rights, why is it so difficult?
The American idea, as expressed by Lincoln and the Federalists, is based on an implicit trust in the government that is of the people, by the people, and for the people. Today, though, that trust is at a historic low corroded by an unremitting attack on government and the rule of law. The most vociferous critics have attacked the government in the name of liberty. In this attack, the critics encourage lawlessness and claim it is the only way to liberty. They forget that Americans believe that liberty develops from self-government and law abidingness that is America’s political religion. Those who attack the republic idea of government flatter the people with appeals to individual liberty. Their flattery masks tyrannical beliefs and behaviours.



Throughout the ages demagogues have arisen who would flatter the people about their rights and freedoms and then impose a tyranny. America has known such demagogues who have touted individual good so that they could achieve their political aims. We recall Huey Long who proudly proclaimed that he would make Every Man a King. He would flatter everyone with the promise for their individual good at the expense of the common good. He promised tyranny for what is a king but a tyrant to an American in the name of liberty.

Flattery of individuals is often a prelude to tyranny.
The founders feared demagogues who begin by flattery and end with tyranny.

It will be forgotten, on the one hand, that jealousy is the usual concomitant of love, and that the noble enthusiasm of liberty is apt to be infected with a spirit of narrow and illiberal distrust. On the other hand, it will be equally forgotten that the vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty; that, in the contemplation of a sound and well-informed judgment, their interest can never be separated; and that a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidden appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants. (Federalist 1) [2]

If the individual pursues their own good does that lead to tyranny?
As Socrates pointed out, the tyrannical life for non-philosophers is one in which the common goods are subordinated to one’s own individual good.[3] Unlike Socrates who believes that his particular or individual good is derived from the universal good, the libertarian believes that the common good must serve the individual good as it comes before the common good.[4] By contrast, the American founding is based on the idea of a universal good by which we judge any individual good. The individual good, according to the Federalist Papers, is found within the common good. Thus, we see the idea of a people creating a union; it is not individuals, as suggested by Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan, that will create it.

Soldiers sacrifice their individual good for the common good.
Our veterans understand their liberty requires devotion to a higher, common, good beyond their own good. We honour their service because they are patriots. A patriot loves his country and sacrifices their life for it if needed because it is good. Though they may be asked to the “last full measure of devotion”, they do sacrifice their time, their health, to the higher cause. They do this for something that is more important than themselves.[5] To cheapen this sacrifice by confusing sacrifice for selfishness dishonours their memory.[6] The patriot loves his country enough to sacrifice himself for it just as a parent would sacrifice their life for their family. Perhaps in the Libertarian America of Ayn Rand parents are to sacrifice their children for themselves. Our private good comes before the public good.

Can we recover the public life when we are told liberty depends on privacy?
Privacy and libertarianism leads us away from the res publica, the public thing. Are we pursuing liberty or slavery when we surrender the public domain for the pursuit of private pleasures?


[3] Harry Neumann, Socrates in Plato and Aristophanes: In Memory of Ludwig Edelstein (1902-1965) The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 90, No. 2 (Apr., 1969), pp. 201-214 http://www.jstor.org/stable/293427  Accessed: 22-05-2015
[4] Ayn Rand had an abiding hatred for the common good. She detested the idea and her hatred for it is found within her followers who never question what it means for the American idea. http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/common_good.html
[5] Consider the famous saying by Hillel “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if not now, when? And if I am only for myself, what am I?”

1 comment:

Tom Van Dyke said...

Very timely. Conservatives forget the irony that they share with liberals a communitarianism, a commitment to the primacy of the public good, that libertarians do not.