We live at a point in history at which the demand for individual freedom has never been stronger — or more potentially dangerous. For this demand — the product of good things, such as the refusal to submit to arbitrary tyranny characteristic of ‘the Enlightenment’, and of bad things, such as the rise of consumerism at the expense of solidarity and sociability — threatens to make it impossible to organise a sane, collective democratic response to the immense challenges now facing us as peoples and as a species. ”How dare you interfere with my ‘right’ to burn coal / to drive / to fly; how dare you interfere with my business’s ‘right’ to pollute?” The form of such sentiments would have seemed plain bizarre, almost everywhere in the world, until a few centuries ago; and to uncaptive minds (and un-neo-liberalised societies) still does. But it is a sentiment that can seem close to ‘common sense’ in more and more of the world: even though it threatens to cut off at the knees action to prevent existential threats to our collective survival, let alone our flourishing.
Such alleged rights to complete (sic.) individual liberty are expressed most strongly by ‘libertarians’.
Now, before I go any further (because you already know from my title that this article is going to be tough on libertarians), I should like to say for the record that some of my best friends (and some of those I most intellectually admire) are libertarians. Honestly: I mean it. Being of a libertarian cast of mind can be a sign of intellectual strength, of fibre; of a healthy iconoclasm. It can entail intellectual autonomy in its true sense. A libertarian of one kind or another can be a joy to be around.
But too often, far too often, ‘libertarianism’ nowadays involves a fantasy of atomism; and an unhealthy dogmatic contrarianism. Too often, ironically, it involves precisely the dreary conformism so wonderfully satirized at the key moment in The life of Brian, where the crowd repeats, altogether, like automata, the refrain “We are all individuals”. Too often, libertarians to a man (and, tellingly, virtually all rank-and-file libertarians are males) think that they are being radical and different: by all being exactly the same as each other. Dogmatic, boringly-contrarian hyper-‘individualists’ with a fixed set of beliefs impervious to rational discussion. Adherents of an ‘ism’, in the worst sense.
Such ‘libertarianism’ is an ideology that seems to have found its moment, or at least its niche, in a consumerist economistic world that is fixated on the alleged specialness and uniqueness of the individual (albeit that, as already made plain, it is hard to square the notion that this is or could be libertarianism’s ‘moment’ with the most basic acquaintance with the social and ecological limits to growth as our societies are starting literally to encounter them). ‘Libertarianism’ is evergreen in the USA, but, bizarrely, became even more popular in the immediate wake of the financial crisis (A crisis caused, one might innocently have supposed, by too much license being granted to many powerless and powerful economic actors: in the latter category, most notably the banks and cognate dubious financial institutions…). In the UK, it is a striking element in the rise to popularity of UKIP: for, while UKIP is socially-regressive/reactionary, it is very much a would-be libertarian party, the rich man’s friend, in terms of its economic ambitions: it is for a flat tax, for ‘free-trade’-deals the world over, for a bonfire of regulations, for the selling-off of our public services, and so on. (Incidentally, this makes the apparent rise in working-class (or indeed middle-class) support for UKIP at the present time an exemplary case of turkeys voting for Christmas. Someone who isn’t one of the richest 1% who votes UKIP is acting as a brilliant ally of their own gravediggers.)
This article concerns a contradiction at the heart of the contemporary strangely-widespread ‘ism’ that is libertarianism. A contradiction that, once it is understood, essentially destroys whatever apparent attractions it may have. And, surprisingly, shows libertarianism now to be a closer ally to cod-‘Post-Modernism’ or to the most problematic elements of ‘New Age’ thinking than to that of the Enlightenment…
Libertarianism likes to present itself as a philosophy or ideology that is rigorously objective. Wedded to the truth, and rationality. Ayn Rand called her cod-philosophy ‘Objectivism’. Tibor Machan and other well-known libertarian philosophers today place a central emphasis on reason as their guide. Libertarians like to think that they are honest, where others aren’t, about ‘human nature’ (it’s thoroughly selfish), and like to claim that there is something self-deceptive or propagandistically dishonest about socialism, ecologism and other rival philosophies. Without its central claim to hard-nosed objectivity, truth and rationality, libertarianism would be nothing.
But this central commitment is in profound tension with the libertarian commitment, equally absolute, to ‘liberty’. For truth, truths, truthfulness, rationality, objectivity, impose a ‘constraint’. A massive utterly implacable constraint, on one’s license to do and believe and think whatever one wants. One cannot be Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty in a world of truth and reason. One cannot intelligibly think that freedom of thought requires complete license, or that moral freedom requires complete individual license, in such a world.
The dilemma of the libertarian was already laid bare in the progress of the thinking of a hero of some libertarians, Friedrich Nietzsche, in the great third and final essay of his masterpiece The Genealogy of Morality. Nietzsche can appear on a superficial reading of that essay to be endorsing a kind of artistic disregard for truth; it turns out, as the essay follows its remarkable course, that this is far from so; in fact, it is the opposite of the truth. In the end, taking further a line of thought that he began in the great fifth book of The Gay Science, Nietzsche lines up as a fanatical advocate of truth: he speaks of drawing the hard consequences of being no longer willing to accept the lie of theism, and of “we godless metaphysicians” as the true heirs of Plato: “Even we seekers after knowledge today”, Nietzsche writes, “we godless anti-metaphysicians still take our fire, too, from the flame lit by a faith that is thousands of years old, that Christian faith which was also the faith of Plato, that God is the truth, that truth is divine.”
He contrasts his stance with that of the legendary Assassins, who held that “Nothing is true, [and therefore] everything is permitted”. He admires their ambition, but absolutely cannot find himself able to simply agree with what they said.
Contemporary libertarianism is stuck in a completely cleft stick: stuck wanting to agree with Nietzsche’s considered position and yet wanting to endorse something like the Assassins’ creed too. Libertarianism, centred as its name makes plain on the notion of ‘complete’ individual freedom, inevitably runs up, sooner or later, against ‘shackles’: the limits imposed on one’s thought and action by adherence to truth. (Acknowledging the truth of human-induced dangerous climate change is only the most obvious case of this; there are many many others.)
This explains the extraordinary and pitiful sight of so many libertarians finding themselves attracted to climate-denial and similarly pathetic evasions of the absolute ‘constraint’ that truth and rationality force upon anyone and everyone who is prepared to face the truth, at the present time. Such denial is over-determined. Libertarians have various strong motivations for not wanting to believe in the ecological limits to growth: such limits often recommend state-action / undermine the profitability of some out-of-date businesses (e.g. coal and fracking companies) that fund some libertarian-leaning thinktank-work. Limits undermine the case for deregulation. The limits to growth evince a powerful case in point of the need for a fundamentally precautious outlook: anathema to the reckless Promethean fantasies that animate much libertarianism. Furthermore: Libertarianism depends for its credibility on our being able to determine what individuals’ rights are, and to separate out individuals completely from one another. Our massive inter-dependence as social animals in a world of ecology (even more so, actually, in an internationalised and networked world, of course) undermines this, by making for example our responsibility for pollution a profoundly complex matter of inter-dependence that flies in the face of silly notions of being able to have property-rights in everything (Are we supposed to be able to buy and sell quotas in cigarette-smoke?: Much easier to deny that passive smoking causes cancer.). Above all though: libertarians can’t stand to be told that they don’t have as much epistemic right as anyone else on any topic that they like to think they understand or have some ‘rights’ in relation to: “Who are you to tell me that I have to defer to some scientist?”
This then reaches the nub of the issue, and explains the truly-tragic spectacle of someone like Jamie Whyte — a critical thinking guru who made his name as a hardline advocate of truth, objectivity and rationality arguing (quite rightly, and against the current of our time, insofar as that current is consumeristic, individualistic, and (therefore) relativistic/subjectivistic) that no-one has an automatic right to their own opinion (You have to earn that right, through knowledge or evidence or good reasoning or the like) — becoming a climate-denier. His libertarian love for truth and reason has finally careened — crashed — right into and up against a limit: his libertarian love for (big business / the unfettered pursuit of Mammon and, more important still) having the right to — the freedom to — his own opinion, no matter what. A lover of truth and reason, driven to deny the most crucial truth about the world today (that pollution is on the verge of collapsing our civilisation); his subjectivising of everything important turning finally to destroying his love for truth itself… Truly a tragic spectacle. Or perhaps we should say: truly farcical.
The remarkable irony here is that libertarianism, allegedly congenitally against ‘political correctness’ and other post-modern fads, allegedly a staunch defender of the Enlightenment against the forces of unreason, has itself become the most ‘Post-Modern’ of doctrines. A new, extreme form of individualised relativism; an unthinking product of (the worst element of) its/our time (insofar as this is a time of ‘self-realization’, and ultimately of license). Libertarianism, including the perverse and deadly denial of ecological constraints, is, far from being a crusty enemy of the ‘New Age’, in this sense the ultimate bastard child of the 1960s.
To sum up. Libertarianism was founded on the love for truth and reason; but it is founded also, of course, on the inviolability of the individual. Taken to its ‘logical’ conclusion, truth itself is (felt as) an ‘imposition’ on the individual. The sovereign liberty of the self, in libertarianism, is at ineradicable odds with the willingness to accept ‘others” truths. And it is the former, sadly, which tends to win out. For, as we have seen, the denial, by libertarians, of elementary contemporary scientific truths such as that of the theory of greenhouse-gas-heat-build-up, is over-determined. When truth clashes with a dogmatic insistence on one’s own complete’ freedom of mental and physical manouevre, and with profit; when the truth is that we are going to have to rein in some of our appetites if we are to bequeath a habitable world to our children’s children…then the truth is: that truth itself is an obstacle easily overcome, by the will of weak only-too-human libertarians.
The obsession of libertarians with individual liberty crowds out the value of truth. In the end, their thinking becomes voluntaristic and contrarian for the sake of it. They end up believing simply what they WANT to believe. And, as explained above, they don’t WANT to accept the truths of ecology, of climate science, etc. . And so they deny them.
As Wittgenstein famously remarked: the real difficulty in philosophy is one of the will, more even than of the intellect. What is hard is to will oneself to accept things that are true that one doesn’t want to believe, and moreover that (in the case of some on the ‘hard’ Right) one’s salary or one’s stock-options or one’s ability to live with oneself depend on one not believing.
It takes strength, fibre, it takes a truly philosophical sensibility — it takes a willingness to understand that intellectual autonomy in its true sense essentially requires submission to reality — to be able to acknowledge the truth; rather than to deny it.