Monday, February 22, 2010

On the Libertine Getting His Way

[NB: I am highly indebted in the content of this post to some of the fine research and writing done recently by my friend Doctor Thursday over at the American Chesterton Society. His ongoing commentary on the principle of Subsidiarity has touched upon many of the same issues that I will address here, and I will be borrowing several of the Chesterton quotations which he has culled in support of his own project.]

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."
G.K. Chesterton, The Thing
"'Common good'!? That's a Russian term!" The girl grew redder in the face as she boldly pronounced this truly novel assessment of the time-tried ethical construct.

I only overheard the interlocution she was having with my colleague, but I felt exasperated in sheer empathy. Invincible ignorance and pseudo-knowledge had married with all of the emotionalism and fear of the Red Scare in one facile phrase, and what could be done but to shrug?

The offense against reason occurred during just one of several conversations all of which followed a predictable outline. First, a youthful zealot would approach our booth at CPAC with feigned interest and invite us to expose our position. The invitation was charitable at least. I'll even give them the benefit of the doubt that more than half of them more than half listened to what we actually said in response. But even those who may have attempted to digest our reasoning had their canned reply at the ready: "I think the Government should just get out of it altogether."

The institution under consideration was Marriage. Now, it is not my intention to here debate the public good of marriage or its fundamental definition (which, indeed, lies beyond the power of any man-made authority to re-construct or de-construct); nor even is it my purpose to show that there is a benefit or at least just cause for "the Government" to be "in it."

My issue here is with Libertarians. Or, at least, that's what they called themselves. But they weren't. They were Libertines.

When I first arrived at CPAC (the Conservative Political Action Conference), I fully intended to have a good time. I largely sympathize with the Libertarian position, but I get a kick out of their rhetoric and their general posture. I thought instantly about approaching the Tea Partier in costume as a New England Minute-Man and asking whether he oughtn't to be dressed as an Aboriginal American. But I decided not. I hadn't the gumption to have a go at the gentleman with the "Pot should be legal - ask me why" tee-shirt. Perhaps I lacked the charity to offer him the opportunity of a defense; perhaps I had an inkling that I could infer his answer. Anyway, I think I was well-intended enough entering into the affair, and certainly felt that I had more in common with the revolutionary set than I did with your typical Cheneyennes and Palindrones.

I anticipated argument from Libertarians toward the position which I was representing: the defense of traditional Marriage, i.e., ya know, marriage. I even thought of it as an opportunity to provide a bit of an intro into what the Catholic Doctrine of Subsidiarity might have to offer regarding the issue: that it is a matter which the lower communities should define as they will, and that the State hasn't any rights to circumvent the logic of the institutions which sustain marriage (i.e., communities and Churches). I knew even then there would be some disagreement on whether or not marriage benefits and incentives from the State (even the independent States of the Union, which still theoretically exist) are a good thing.

But I suddenly found myself confronting a position I had not expected, and one which struck me as truly sinister. It was anarchism. Not the anarchism of passive resistance, the anarchism of mere complacency and compliance such as Dorothy Day espoused. No; this was anarchism with a gun in the pick-up truck, the anarchism of the dank holes of fin de siecle Europe, the full-bodied lowerarchy of upper Pandemonium. It was the anarchism of the Libertine.

"Government is just a loaded gun," they said, greedily licking their lips, with all the fervor of a Jacobin. Government is the enemy and sic semper tyannis; surely, these were the just progeny of our forefathers, no?

No. Because while our forefathers did revolt, they also wrote. They wrote a document of legal genius which these louts had tucked in the pockets of the breasts they thumped, with a foreword by Ron Paul to boot! It is the Constitution of the United States, and it establishes a government for the safeguarding of the common good. And this government was a free undertaking, a noble experiment, and no mere "necessary evil." It was an attempt to seat authority in Justice, the Authority derived of God in the Justice decreed by Him.

Now, please do not mistake me as criticizing the Libertarian position. I do not. Most Libertarians seem to have an implicit understanding of the principle of Subsidiarity, and also a due appreciation for concepts like authority and the common good. In short, most of them have sufficient knowledge. But a little knowledge... now that, it has been said, is a dangerous thing. These were not Libertarians at all; they were Libertines.

My young friends seemed to have at least a snippet of Mill and Locke under their belts, and certainly a Libertarian tract or two. But of deeper metaphysics and epistemology, there was sore little to be found. I tried illustrating a point about "discrimination" several times with an appeal to the square of opposition, and might as well have been stating the point in Greek.

Founded on their smattering of Enlightenment-dim reasoning, the young Libertines held forth on "victimless crimes" and sanctioned to the bedroom an obscurity and sacred inviolability fitting only to the Holy of Holies in Herod's temple. That a man's private choice of pederasty might impose a burden on society as a whole, for example, seemed a bridge too far for their principles. They made it a moot point, saying, "Anyway, that doesn't matter, because it's a crime against the other person; it's statutory rape." (Statutory, mind you - I had want of high-waters for the depth of the irony). But that such a crime was damaging to the larger culture, to the milieu of society, I dare say to society's morals: of this they would here none. To quote one, "Societies are amoral." And as for offenses against the "natural law," these too were swept curtly from the table: "Law must be decreed," one told me, he who had only minutes before commented on the "accidental" circumstance of the "shape of one's genitalia."

I wondered wryly how many of their platitudes they gleaned from textbooks purchased with Pell Grants, or whether when any of them ascended from adolescence and started trying to raise kids of their own "within the system," they might not change their tune. I wondered also whence they derived their concept of the liberty of which they were so fond, having abolished the natural law and being unable (usually) to articulate just what degree of government could even conceivably exist that would be "a good thing." How, say, would they respond to Chesterton on this point:
It is the fashion to talk of institutions as cold and cramping things. The truth is that when people are in exceptionally high spirits, really wild with freedom and invention, they always must, and they always do, create institutions. When men are weary they fall into anarchy; but while they are gay and vigorous they invariably make rules. This, which is true of all the churches and republics of history, is also true of the most trivial parlour game or the most unsophisticated meadow romp. We are never free until some institution frees us, and liberty cannot exist till it is declared by authority.
Chesterton, Manalive [emphasis added]
History is rife with warnings of the dangers of revolution. How many permutations did the French Republic endure after sweeping away its monarchy? The fickleness of the revolutionary mob is a feature to be feared, and one should be wary to take a fallen crown upon his own head, because it may be marking him the next target.

My readers surely know that this blog is not fundamentally opposed to revolutionary sentiments. But it strives to found arguments on first principles and final causes. If I seek to tear down the current system, it's only because I have a sure and definite idea I'd like to replace it with. I may be right or wrong, but at least I can say I have more than a muddy conception of what I'm going to build upon the rubble. I myself appreciate, and have offered before to others, the caution of tearing down anything without a blueprint ready to hand.

If it is liberty we seek to secure by disrupting the current system, then it must be a liberty only to bind ourselves to the dictates of justice, to a firmer solidarity with the whole society across strata of income and diversities of race, to a subsidiary order with definite functionality and proper autonomy. This, as I see it, is the true liberty of Libertarianism. But, if our liberty aims merely at doing what each pleases, at tearing down what encumbers us, damning caution and reason and natural law with its "accidental shapes" - well, then, this is the foul and festering liberty of a libertine. And if ever such libertines get their way, we should all beware. For, having torn down all constraints that might have protected them, and with no laws by which to secure the liberty they so relished, they may very soon find that one particular Libertine rising above the fray seeks to take liberties with the liberty of the rest. Sic semper tyrannis.
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