Monday, January 21, 2008

Individualism vs. Conservatism

Timothy Sandefur has a terrific post in which he shows how divergent the paleo-libertarian view of the world is from the traditional Rand-inspired individualism that has historically been the central characteristic of libertarianism.

The post to which Sandefur is responding (by Nick Bradley of is here. Bradley's post attacks the derisively named "cosmotarians" (which includes Cato, Reason, pro-choice libertarians, and pro-immigrant libertarians). Bradley's argument is summed up in these few sentences:

"Those on the Postrel crowd [sic] are nothing more than "fans of the cool": technology, drug use, prostitution, warfare (before 2004), etc. -- their creed is atomistic individualism, to hell with communities, churches, families, and all non-coercive communities. To them, the individual must stand alone, only to be crushed by the state. They'd support (and do support) a federal ban on the local regulation of abortion long before they'd support a city council's right to put up a Christmas tree, a nativity scene, or teach intelligent design in their schools. "

Since individualism is absolutely the core of libertarianism, and collectivism (of any stripe) is its enemy, Sandefur points out that Bradley is essentially acknowledging that the libertarianism of Ayn Rand, Thoreau, Emerson, etc. has nothing whatsoever to do with the self-styled libertarianism of the Rockwell brigades. Indeed, Bradley himself links to an old LRC article that praises "conservatism" over "libertinism."

I wanted to add a few things to Sandefur's argument, though.

1. Bradley seems to argue that the core of paleo-libertarianism is the non-coercive community. If that is true, then it seems to me that he has several hurdles to overcome: first, if you restrict immigration, communities are not, in fact, non-coercive- you are using the power of the state to force people who wish to leave their communities to remain in them; in addition you are using the power of the state to prevent local communities who wish to have more immigrants from actually receiving such immigrants. I might also add that Bradley's arguments in favor of local governments teaching ID and eliminating church/state separation in fact are ways of saying that local governments should have coercive authority over those who live within their jurisdiction, regardless of whether those persons agree with the sentiments of that coercive authority. Call that what you will, but please don't claim it is a non-coercive community.

2. Bradley's argument falls into the same fallacy as other conservatives (which is what Bradley is, as Sandefur points out) who pay homage to "free markets." Bradley argues that "[t]he public hears "libertarian" and thinks "heroin addict" "prostitute", and "private military contractor", not "peace", "free markets", and "local communities" -- all thanks to the libertines." Bradley repeats the oft-stated fallacy that libertarians who support legalized, well, most everything, are libertines. But really Bradley is just showing a selective understanding and acceptance of free markets. In other words, for someone who claims to be in favor of absolutely free markets, Bradley seems to have no problem with the state imposing restrictions (ie, bans) on markets in drugs, prostitution, and yes, labor (via immigration restrictions). He is perfectly comfortable with forcing those things into a black market, rather than exposing them to sunshine in a free market. In his mind, supply and demand curves apply to goods and services in virtue, but somehow don't apply to goods and services in vice and migration.

The fact is that we "cosmotarians" have no problem whatsoever with voluntary communities, churches, etc. Indeed, we (or at least I) generally think that each of those things have tremendous value; but the value that they have arises from their very voluntariness. When people are forced to remain in communities they do not like or when they cannot join in voluntary associations (as is the case with bans on gay marriage and/or on civil unions), the result is detrimental to society.

Bradley is arguing not for individualism, or for diversity of factions a la Federalist Number 10, but for local majoritarianism. He is thus arguing in favor of a tyranny of the majority - just so long as that majority is sufficiently local for his tastes. The irony is that his ideal communities are in fact quite coercive because of his support of restrictions on immigration and opposition to allowing people to choose just about anything on their own so long as the local community chooses to forbid it. If we have learned anything from American history (and, for that matter, world history) it ought to be that more local governments are every bit as capable of trampling on individual rights as are national governments. Or were Jim Crow laws justified?