The Dark Side of Libertarian Freedom (Part 2)

Why Freedom for the Sake of Freedom Leads to Bondage

Last Wednesday, the Acton Institute published an interview with Robert P. Murphy titled, “Is There an Argument for Anarchy?” Murphy, who is the author of Chaos Theory and a senior fellow with the Mises Institute, set forward the case for anarcho-capitalism—a version of libertarianism challenging the necessity of law and seeking the dissolution of all governments.

The interest shown by the Acton Institute in anarcho-capitalism reflects a wider interest among conservative circles towards libertarianism. Yet despite the newfound interest in libertarianism, very few people stop to ask what libertarians actually mean by “liberty.” In my previous post, “The Dark Side of Libertarian Freedom (Part 1),” I explored how, despite the differences in various libertarian thinkers (ranging from those favoring a minimal government like Ron Paul to advocates of “anarcho-capitalism” like Murphy), they all share one thing in common: a purely negative concept of freedom, where liberty is defined as the absence of restraint. Liberty, on their scheme of things, amounts to autonomy without limits – the freedom to not be told what to do.

This does not mean libertarians favor a chaotic every-man-to-himself type of society. Libertarian thinkers have gone to great lengths to try to demonstrate how the tasks currently undertaken by government, including policing and defense, might be taken over by voluntary associations. But at the end of the day, the workability of these proposals becomes irrelevant for strict libertarians, who have determined on a priori grounds that any other type of society falls short of being free.

The Myth of Value-Neutrality

There is a fundamental inconsistency in the libertarian understanding of freedom. On the one hand, libertarians hold to a view of freedom that is neither prescriptive nor teleological (goal-oriented), which is to say, it is not tied to any substantive notion of The Good. As Ron Paul explained, “To believe in liberty is not to believe in any particular social and economic outcome.” Abstracted from specific outcomes, liberty becomes something that is virtuous for its own sake - what we might call freedom for the sake of freedom. On this view, liberty is both outcome-neutral and value-neutral: it simply creates space for each of us to pursue our own private goods without interference. Consequently, liberty can exist without reference to the virtues since it involves merely the absence of outside restraint.

But on the other hand, libertarians routinely argue for their political prescriptions (e.g., restructuring society along anarcho-capitalist lines, creating a minimalist government, returning power to the states and counties, etc.) on the grounds that this will secure the goods appropriate to the human condition, namely happiness, prosperity, natural rights, and protection of property. Their concept of liberty thus finds legitimization in goals that are ultimately teleological and outcome-oriented, despite the pretense of teleological neutrality.

Thus, the libertarian ends up in the same place as the leftist, whose attempt to be value-neutral merely results in him smuggling in surrogate values—values that remain more pernicious for not openly announcing themselves. Moreover, the very terms by which libertarians have framed the debate about freedom preclude critical debate about what is actually the Good toward which human communities should be oriented. Why are things like property rights, happiness, prosperity, and natural rights worthy goods to seek after? By what standard? And why arbitrarily stop at these goods while excluding the outcomes sought by competing political models?

In the end, libertarians want to have their cake and eat it too; for they want to make tacit and often unacknowledged appeals to the common good without recognizing an objective truth about the good. The consequence of this inconsistency goes beyond mere conceptual incoherence. When a legal system attempts to function without open recognition of the good, or to construct society around the conceit that virtue can be privatized, then the only realities that can be publicly acknowledged are desires. But this causes society to collapse into the situation described by C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man: “When all that says ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains.”

“Manly, moral, regulated liberty”

Libertarian ideas of freedom are nothing new. When the religious and moral foundations of society were attacked at the Enlightenment, and later during the French Revolution, one consequence was that there emerged an idea of freedom for the sake of freedom. According to atheistic French philosophy of the time, liberty is not a means towards goodness and virtue, but an end in itself – something that is intrinsically virtuous in the abstract.

This non-teleological view of liberty created the context for one of the greatest conservative thinkers of all time, Edmund Burke (1729-1797). Although Burke is sometimes cited by libertarians as a progenitor of their theories, he devoted much ink to refuting the theory that freedom for the sake of freedom is a worthy goal. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, he argued that when liberty is abstracted from any particular social and economic outcome, then it ceases to be an object of either praise or blame but collapses into vacuity. I will leave you with his powerful words:

I flatter myself that I love a manly, moral, regulated liberty as I well as any gentleman… I think I envy liberty as little as they do, to any other nation. But I cannot stand forward, and give praise or blame to anything which relates to human actions and human concerns, on a simple view of the object as it stands stripped of every relation, in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction. Circumstances (which with some gentlemen pass for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour, and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind. Abstractedly speaking, government, as well as liberty, is good; yet could I, in common sense, ten years ago, have felicitated France on her enjoyment of a government (for she then had a government) without inquiry what the nature of that government was, or how it was administered? Can I now congratulate the same nation upon its freedom? Is it because liberty in the abstract may be classed amongst the blessings of mankind, that I am seriously to felicitate a madman, who has escaped from the protecting restraint and wholesome darkness of his cell, on his restoration to the enjoyment of light and liberty?

Coming soon: in a follow-up article we will explore how the libertarian conception of freedom differs from the classical (Greek and Roman) view, as well as Biblical understandings of freedom outworked during the Christian era. We will see why true freedom, both for the individual as well as the political order, can only be found in Jesus Christ.

Further Reading

has a Master’s in Historical Theology from King’s College London and a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is the blog and media managing editor for the Fellowship of St. James, and a regular contributor to Touchstone and Salvo. His work has featured in a variety of publications, including the Colson Center, World Magazine, Sky News, and the Mars Hill Audio Journal, in addition to his having worked as a ghost-writer for celebrities. Phillips is the author of Saints and Scoundrels: From King Herod to Solzhenitsyn (Canon Press, 2012), Gratitude in Life's Trenches: How to Experience the Good Life Even When Everything Is Going Wrong (Ancient Faith, 2020), and Rediscovering the Goodness of Creation: A Manuel for Recovering Gnostics (Ancient Faith, forthcoming 2023). He is a contributor to Pain, Suffering and Resilience: Orthodox Christian Perspectives (Sebastian Press, 2018), and Finding the Golden Key: Essays Towards a Recovery of the Sacramental Imagination (Eighth Day Press, forthcoming 2023). He has been featured as a guest on radio and television and has offered presentations and seminars at universities and conferences throughout the world. He operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.

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