Not long ago, I came across a blog post by Keir Martland that I think deserves careful consideration. The article, “How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Proletariat,” points out that libertarians tend to have a blind spot when it comes to cultural and social concerns. He urges his fellow libertarians not to forget that issues of this kind exist and that they are not inconsequential. In asserting that some means of addressing such questions within libertarian parameters must be found, he calls our attention to the work of the Catholic Distrubutists, who have much to say on these matters. Martland observes that many of their insights are compatible with libertarianism and advocates that these be incorporated into libertarian discourse. If that were to happen, I believe it would be to the substantial benefit of our cause.
Reading his post, I was happy to see that a relatively recent concern of mine was shared by other libertarians and is being actively addressed by some. Namely, my concern is that the libertarian movement has failed to acknowledge the conservative nature of its soul and, in so doing, has rendered itself vulnerable to easy co-option and consigned itself to a dithering, rear-guard action that must inevitably end in defeat. Stripped of its soul, libertarianism has little to offer beyond contrarianism. As libertarians, we persistently lack a constructive platform; an actionable plan that is realistic, simply described, and inspiring to real people. A form of distributism adapted to fit within a libertarian framework may provide us with a solution.
Allow me to explain myself.
The present order is rooted in an all-encompassing leftist ideology (or group of related ideologies), while libertarianism is far more limited in scope. Libertarianism does not address many concerns of great importance to ordinary people (religion, culture, tradition, language, identity, etc.). As such, it is an insufficient response to modern leftism, the primary intellectual energy of which is devoted precisely to the socio-cultural sphere, while Statism (about which libertarianism does have something to say) is merely their preferred mechanism for carrying through the changes they desire – it is not their only one. This makes libertarianism alone inadequate to the task of challenging and defeating the left’s multi-front revolt against nature.
I do not contend that this is a flaw in libertarianism. Libertarianism is a body of thought that addresses a single social question – the use of force within society. On this question it occupies solid ground. But on other issues it has little if anything to say, nor is it meant to. It would be a mistake to stretch libertarianism beyond its proper boundaries in an attempt to address a wider array of issues than those to which it is applicable. To do so would lead to endless confusion and I wish to make it clear that I am not advocating this.
However, in admitting that libertarianism is limited in scope and is not an all-encompassing social vision in the way that leftism truly is, it must also be recognized that to achieve tangible results may require that it first be rooted in something broader. Only in this way can it offer a viable and compelling alternative to the present leftist system. We must therefore view libertarianism in the same way that the leftists view the State – the primary weapon within a larger arsenal.
We cannot win by promising a better future while offering no indication of what that future might look like and ignoring any social problems that happen to fall outside the scope of strict libertarianism. By a near total dependence on economic pedagogy and criticism of State actions, we resist our enemy’s cultural and political blitzkrieg with a wicker shield. We contend that the exercise of State violence is an evil, while they contend that the social problems State action is intended to cure are still greater evils. Statism is rooted in the fertile soil of leftist socio-cultural ideology and libertarianism lacks the scope to attack these roots. Instead, we are left to hack away ineffectually at a robust trunk.
Make no mistake, our leftist foes have already identified this weakness. It is with great glee that they challenge us to comment on societal and cultural ills, knowing that libertarians who maintain their discipline have little to say. Those who stretch libertarianism beyond its proper limits in attempting to answer such challenges do so to little benefit. Watching a libertarian attempt to explain the humanity in solutions to social questions imperfectly extrapolated from pure libertarian theory is a bit like watching a heavily autistic man struggle through a dinner party. This state of affairs persists because we have thus far refused to root libertarianism firmly in a conservative foundation.
Because of this refusal, leftist sentiments have crept in to fill the spiritual void. In this way, the left has managed to co-opt parts of the libertarian movement and split us into camps. Several of these splinters now function as an auxiliary force in the vast machinery supporting Statism and leftist ideology – I speak here of the CATO Institute, Reason Magazine, and others. They have been set to work against us in the defense of crony-capitalism, foreign intervention, oligarchs with close ties to the State and benefiting from a rigged economic system, and in the promotion of social policies with de-civilizing effects. By denying libertarianism its soul, we have left it vulnerable to this type of demonic possession.
We must fill this void if we are to maintain the integrity of our movement and achieve our goals. Such a remedy demands that we put forth an alternative vision, one that addresses a wider collection of issues than the State and which offers a feasible roadmap showing how to get from the present leftist occupation of reality to the promised libertarian future. Perhaps counter-intuitively, to do so requires that we step outside the scope of pure libertarianism. We must examine our motivations at a fundamental level and extrapolate from these a wider paradigm within which the libertarian message is properly and more effectively framed.
In its essence, our opposition to Statism is rooted in the firm conviction, based on observable patterns in nature and on moral introspection, that the long-term wellbeing of society is dependent on its being organized naturally and its patterns and limits of cooperation left to an entirely organic and undisturbed development. To live in accordance with Natural Law is to achieve the greatest sustainable happiness in society. Only from communities forged in this way can the proper exercise of justice be expected and can we be confident that our technological and material development will be accompanied by a proportionate moral or spiritual growth. To attempt to manipulate by forceful or dishonest means the speed, direction, or nature of society’s development is to inflict injury upon it.
This sentiment is fundamentally conservative in nature and stands in stark contrast to the leftist paradigm against which we are embattled – a rebellion against the limitations and qualitative differences imposed upon man by nature, waged by means of deceitful or coercive manipulation of society and its patterns of interaction. Armed with this insight, it now remains for us to do the work of constructing a proactive platform that embodies the conservative spirit undergirding libertarianism, while remaining wholly in keeping with everything libertarianism teaches us about the use of force. Coming across Martland’s post, I was pleased to see the beginning stages of this.
Distributism, passed through a libertarian filter, grants us the scope necessary to address a wider range of human concerns and paints a vivid picture of an organic, community-based society rooted in Natural Law and Subsidiarity – an image which is at once both conservative and libertarian. Such a message represents a powerful alternative to that offered (or otherwise imposed) by the left. If delivered, it is a social arrangement that would make it difficult for leftists to rebuild the State without encountering much resistance along the way from those who would then be in a position to benefit from its continued absence (or at least weakness) and who would no longer be dependent upon scraps from its table. In this way, libertarianism and distributism serve to enhance one another. Taken together, they generate a more palatable and even potent alternative to the State and the leftist ideology in which it is currently rooted than either one can manage in isolation.
Distributism may not be the full and final answer for all of our shortcomings, nor is it likely to be applicable everywhere. It is, however, something with which to start and that may have much appeal in Christian or traditionally Christian societies. I would very much like to see a wide array of groups come forward with their own conservative platforms for social reform, distributist or otherwise (as the values and customs of each locality may dictate), each having passed through a libertarian filter. In this way we can create attractive, localized, Natural Order alternatives to the present Statist system.
Integration with distributism ensures that as libertarians and as conservatives, weare equipped with such an alternative, one that offers people something they’ve not had in a very long time – a stake in society.