Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to visit a close friend of mine in Georgia. During the course of my stay, I had the opportunity to watch a steady rotation of friends and neighbors trickle in and out of the family’s house, some pausing to grab a snack, some just popping by to talk about what’s been going on in their lives. There was even an impromptu party thrown for a nearby neighbor who’d just been promoted at work. For a person who comes from New England stock (at least on one side of the family), and goes to school in the “too-busy-for-you” D.C. area, the openness and friendliness stood in stark contrast to the Northern “mind your own business and I’ll mind mine” mentality.
Now don’t get me wrong. I remain a staunch Yankee, as my southern friends were keen on reminding me on a fairly regular occasion, but there’s something about the sweet-tea-and-southern-cooking hospitality that is missing in the individualistic culture of the northern United States.
The Individual vs. the Community
Now I’m not here to idealize a 1950s suburbia, but I think these examples all point to a fundamental concept in conservative theory that stands in stark contrast to libertarian thought.
Man enters a robust society. His very person is shaped by the family who raises him, the community in which he grows up, and the greater culture of which he is a part. Personal satisfaction comes from finding his place in the community – a place where he forms close relationships with people around him both to serve and be served by them. Liberty, in such a context, is a manly, ordered liberty, in the words of Edmund Burke. It is a sort of restrained freedom, a freedom that realizes that man is created for a specific purpose and true liberty comes through fulfilling that purpose. It realizes that man ought to do something, and trains him in how to do what he ought to do (for further reading on this subject, see C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man. In fact, go out and buy it right now. Actually, scratch that, go buy the entire C.S. Lewis Signature Classics series, as well as the rest of his books).
That’s not the picture you get from libertarian philosophy. Libertarian philosophy paints a picture of freedom without limits. It sees a freedom of indulgence – an opportunity to “do whatever you want as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else.” It lacks an authority from which a society can declare “this is wrong,” instead preferring a number of loose individuals who, though perhaps individually moral, are content to say “not my problem” while social values erode.
So why am I not a libertarian?
Because I believe in emphasizing others over the self, and I believe that government should share this emphasis. I believe man is obligated to his community and he derives his greatest fulfillment by participation in that community. I believe that the government can work to preserve social values by encouraging good and punishing evil.
All right, I’ll keep the series down to a three-parter though volumes more can be written on the subject. As I said in part one, every teenager with a Ron Paul sign reserves the right to define libertarianism as he sees fit, so there’s variety of unique strands of libertarianism to explore. It’s my hope that these posts have addressed the prominent form of “pop libertarianism” in America today.