James Leroy Wilson's blog

Monday, December 01, 2008

Running Forward

Thomas Knapp has interesting thoughts on the direction of the libertarian movement. Regarding "paleo"-libertarianism:
History, however, does not run backward. "Paleo" invocation of the 1930s "Old Right" is about as useful versus the ideology that displaced it as "Free Silver" or "54-40 or Fight." The Old Right was soundly whipped in the thirties, and every post-war attempt at its revival, from Taft to Paul, has proven a spectacular failure.
Very true. History does not run backward. But how does it run forward?

Some could say that history is a war on individual freedom:
  • "state of nature" to tribalism, nationalism, imperialism, bureaucratic statism, and finally global government, with the individual losing more freedom every step of the way
  • state-enforced egalitarianism at the expense of private property rights and the freedoms of speech and association
  • creative reinterpretations or outright hostility to written Constitutions and legal traditions that safeguard liberty
  • a new understanding of "liberty" that is basically limited to being allowed to sleep with whoever you want, with all of our other choices subject to regulation or prohibition
All of this appears to be true, and no wonder the Old Right is appealing. Everywhere and in every way, the rights of the individual are under assault. Older understandings of government, of law, and of international relations seem to protect individual rights better. The conservative may have stood athwart history yelling "stop!" because the State bureaucrats were destroying families, churches, and communities. Libertarians have been and still are inclined to join them because of the State's similar assault on individual rights.

But as Knapp says, we can't go backward in time. So perhaps a new libertarianism will have to look at the march of history in a more optimistic sense:
  • better health and longer life for all
  • breaking down of legally-entrenched social barriers
  • technological progress
  • widening array of consumer choices and more leisure time, allowing more people to "live their own lives as they see fit."
  • development of voluntary communities and tight social bonds based on lifestyle rather than location
Seen in this regard, we may look history as a march toward greater individualism. It might not be quite that; in many ways we are less free in the legal sense than we were ten or thirty years ago. But these are signs of progress, and are the reasons we don't want to go back to some older social order.

And so the task is to build on these positive developments. Perhaps a new libertarian populism will have to explain that, by and large, the State is the primary obstacle to greater health, prosperity, and happiness, that most of the progress that has been made could have been achieved sooner, or at less expense, without State interference.

It's a tall order, but any incremental gain we make will make future generations that much better off.

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