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Libertarians: The Chirping Sectaries by Russell Kirk

Libertarians: The Chirping Sectaries by Russell Kirk

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Published by The_Distributist
Russell Kirk describes the differences between conservatism and libertarianism.
Russell Kirk describes the differences between conservatism and libertarianism.

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Published by: The_Distributist on Jul 21, 2010
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Libertarians:
the
Chirping Sectaries
RUSSELL
KIRK
1.
The Progeny
ofJ.
S.
Mill
ANY
DISCUSSION
OF
the relationships be-tween conservatives (who now, to judge bypublic-opinion polls, are a majority amongAmerican citizens) and libertarians (who,as tested by recent elections, remain a tinythough unproscribed minority) naturallycommences with an inquiry into what thesedisparate groups hold in common. Thesetwo bodies of opinion share a detestation ofcollectivism. They set their faces againstthe totalist state and the heavy hand ofbureaucracy. That much is obviousenough.What else do conservatives and liber-tarians profess in common? The answer tothat question is simple: nothing. Nor willthey ever have.
To
talk of forming a leagueor coalition between these two is like ad-vocating a union of ice and fire.The ruinous failing of the ideologueswho call themselves libertarians is theirfanatic attachment to a simple solitaryprinciple- that is, to the notion .of per-sonal freedom as the whole end of the civilsocial order, and indeed of human ex-istence. The libertarians are oldfangledfolk, in the sense that they live by certainabstractions of the nineteenth century.They carry to absurdity the doctrines ofJohn Stuart Mill (before Mill’s wife con-verted him to socialism, that is). Tounderstand the mentality of the liber-tarians of
1981,
it may be useful to remindourselves of a little book published morethan a hundred and twenty years ago: JohnStuart Mill’s
On Liberty.
Arguments thatwere flimsy in
1859
(and were soundlyrefuted by James Fitzjames Stephen) havebecome farcical in
1981.
So
permit me todigress concerning Mill’s famous essay.Some books tend to form the character oftheir age; others to reflect it; and Mill’s
Liberty
is
of
the latter order.That tract is a product of the peaceful-ness and optimism of Victorian England;written at the summit of what Bagehotcalls the Age of Discussion,
it
is a voicefrom out the vanished past of nineteenth-century meliorism. The future,
it
turnedout, was not to the school of Mill. As Millhimself was the last of the line of Britishempiricists,
so
his
Liberty,
with itsforeboding remarks on the despotism ofthe masses, was more an epilogue to mid-dle-class liberalism than a rallying-cry.James Mill, John Stuart Mill’s austeredoctrinaire father (what sour folk many ofthese zealots for liberty turn themselves in-to!) subjected his son to a rigorous course ofprivate study.
By
the time he was eightyears old,
J.
S.
Mill knew nearly everythingthat a doctor of philosophy is supposed toknow nowadays; but his intellect was un-touched by the higher imagination, andfor that Mill groped in vain all his life long.J.
S.
Mill became all head and no heart, inwhich character he represents Jeremy Ben-tham; yet in truth
it
was Mill himself,rather than Bentham, who turned intodefecated intellect.Mill exhibited but one failing,
so
far asemotions go, and that not an uncommonone-being too fond of another man’swife.
F.
A.
Hayek has discussed thisassociation and its consequences for Milland his followers. Mill eventually marriedthis dismaying bluestocking, HarrietTaylor, the forerunner of today’s feministmilitant. He was devoted to her, and she tohumanitarian abstractions. It was underher tutelage that he wrote
On Liberty.
Theintellectual ancestors of today’s libertarianswere no very jolly crew.“By slaying all his animal spirits,RuthBorchard writes of Mill, “he was utterly cutoff from his instincts-instinct for life, in-stinctive understanding of nature, ofhuman nature in general and of his own inparticular.” It might be interesting to ex-
Modem
Age
345
 
amine how these deficiencies in Millcharacterized and vitiated the wholeliberal movement in English and Americanthought; and how they affect the vestigialform of nineteenth-century liberalism thatnow styles itself “libertarianism.” But wemust pass on, remarking only that this im-perfect apprehension of human nature isreadily discerned in the pages
of
Mill’sessay
On Liberty.
That book displays a strong power oflogic, and some eloquence: but there runsthrough it Mill’s error that the tranquilEnglish society of his own day was destinedto become the universal pattern for allmankind; and it is injured, too,
by
Mill’scurious assumption that most human be-ings, if only they were properly schooled,would think and act precisely like JohnStuart Mill.Now the younger Mill, in his essays onColeridge and Bentham, had remarkedtruly that the cardinal error of Benthamwas his supposition that the affairs of menmay be reduced to a few simple formulas,to be applied universally and inflex-ibly
-
hen actually the great mysteriousincorporation of the human race is in-finitely subtle and complex, not to bedominated by neat little abstractions.
Yet
into precisely this same pit Mill falls in his
Liberty.
In his introductory chapter, hedeclares
his
object to be the assertion of“one very simple principle, as entitled togovern absolutely the dealings of societywith the individual in the way of compul-sion and control, whether the means usedby physical force in the form
of
legalpenalties, or the moral coercion of publicopinion. That principle is, that the soleend for which mankind are warranted, in-dividually or collectively, in interferingwith the liberty of action of any of theirnumber, is self-protection. That the onlypurpose for which power can be rightfullyexercised over any member of a civilizedcommunity, against his will,
is
to preventharm to others.”This seems an attractive solitary simpleprinciple. It sufficiently defines the convic-tions of twentieth-century libertarians,
I
believe. But the trouble with
it
is
thatsolitary simple principles, however tidy,really do not describe human behavior,and certainly cannot govern it.James Fitzjames Stephen, a forthrightman of affairs and
a
scholar in the law,perceived with irritation that fallacy whichmakes Mill’s
Liberty
a frail reed introubled times; and in
Liberty,.Equality,Fruternity,
which Stephen published in
1873,
he set upon Mill with a whip of scor-pions. John Stuart Mill, in Stephen’s eyes,was hopelessly naive:
“To
me the question whether liberty is agood or a bad thing,” Stephen wrote, “ap-pears as irrational as the question whetherfire is a good or a bad thing? It is both goodand bad according to time, place, and cir-cumstance, and a complete answer to thequestion, In what cases
is
liberty good andin what is it bad? would involve not merelya universal history of mankind, but a com-plete solution of the problems which such ahistory would offer.
I
do not believe thatthe state of our knowledge is such as toenable us to enunciate any ‘very simpleprinciple as entitled to govern absolutelythe dealings of society with the individualin the way of compulsion and control.’ Wemust proceed in a far more cautious way,and confine ourselves to such remarks asexperience suggests about the advantagesand disadvantages
of
compulsion andliberty respectively in particular cases.”In every principle premise of his argu-ment, Stephen declared, Mill sufferedfrom an inadequate understanding ofhuman nature and history. All the greatmovements of humankind, Stephen said,have been achieved by force, not by freediscussion; and if we leave force out of ourcalculations, very soon we will be subject tothe intolerant wills of men who know noscruples about employing force against us.(So, one may remark, the twentieth-century libertarians would have us standdefenseless before the Soviet Russians.) It isconsummate folly to tolerate every varietyof opinion, on every topic, out of devotionto an abstract “liberty”; for opinion soonfinds its expression in action, and thefanatics whom we tolerated will nottolerate us when they have power.
346
Fall
1981
 
The fierce current of events, in our cen-tury, has supplied the proof for Stephen’scase. Was the world improved by freediscussion of the Nazis’ thesis that Jewsought to be treated as less than human?Just this subject was presented to thepopulation of one of the most advancedand most thoroughly schooled nations ofthe modem world; and then the crew ofadventurers who had contrived to win theargument proceeded to act after thefashion with which we now are dreadfullyfamiliar. We have come to understand, toour cost, what Burke meant by a “licen-tious toleration.” An incessant zeal forrepression is not the answer to the complexdifficulties of liberty and order, either.What Stephen was saying, however, andwhat we recognize now, is that liberty can-not be maintained or extended by an ab-stract appeal to free discussion, sweetreasonableness, and solitary simple princi-ple.Since Mill, the libertarians have forgot-ten nothing and learned nothing. Milldreaded, and they dread today, obedienceto the dictates of custom. In
our
time, real-ly, the real danger is that custom andprescription and tradition may be over-thrown utterly among us-for has not thatoccurred already in most of the world?
-
yneoterism, the lust for novelty; and thatmen will be no better than the flies of asummer, oblivious to the wisdom of theirancestors, and forming every opinionmerely under the pressure of the fad, thefoible, the passion of the hour.It may be objected that libertarian no-tions extend back beyond the time of Mill.Indeed they do; and they had beenrefuted before Stephen wrote, as JohnAdams refuted them in his exchange of let-ters with Thomas Jefferson and with JohnTaylor of Caroline. The first Whig was thedevil, Samuel Johnson informs us; it mightbe truer to say that the devil was theoriginal libertarian.
“Lo,
I am proudl”The perennial libertarian, like Satan, canbear no authority temporal or spiritual. Hedesires to be different, in morals as inpolitics. In a highly tolerant society likethat of America today, such defiance ofauthority on principle may lead to perver-
sity
on principle, for lack of anything morestartling to do; there is no great gulf fixedbetween libertarianism and libertinism.Thus the typical libertarian of our daydelights in eccentricity
-
ncluding, often,sexual eccentricity (a point observed bythat mordant psychologist Dr. Ernest vanden Haag). Did not John Stuart Mill him-self commend eccentricity as
a
defenseagainst deadening democratic conformity?He rejoices, our representative libertarian,in strutting political eccentricity, as in strut-ting moral eccentricity. But, as Stephencommented on Mill, “Eccentricity is farmore often a mark of weakness than amark of strength, Weakness wishes, as arule, to attract attention by trifing distinc-tions, and strength wishes to avoid it.”Amen to that. Passing from the nine-teenth century to the twentieth, by
1929
weencounter a writer very unlike Mill expos-ing the absurdities of affected eccentricityand
of
doctrinaire libertarianism: G.
K.
Chesterton. Gabriel Gale, the intuitivehero of Chesterton’s collection of stories en-titled
The Poet and the Lunatics,
speaksup for centricity: “Genius oughtn’t to beeccentric! It ought to be the core of thecosmos, not on the revolving edges. Peopleseem to think it a compliment to accuseone of being an outsider, and to talk aboutthe eccentricities of genius. What wouldthey think if I said I only wish to God I hadthe centricities of genius?”No one ever has accused libertarians ofbeing afflicted with the centricities ofgenius: for the dream of an absoluteprivate freedom is one of those visionswhich issue from between the gates ofivory; and the dreadful speed with whichsociety moves today flings the libertariansoutward through centrifugal force, even tothe
outer
darkness, where there is wailingand gnashing of teeth. The final eman-cipation from religion, convention,custom, and order is annihilation-“whirled
/
Beyond the circuit
of
the shud-dering Bear
/
In fractured atoms.”In
The Poet and the Lunatics,
Chester-ton offers us a parable of such licentiousfreedom: a story called “The Yellow Bird.”
Modem
Age
347

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