People can philosophize until they’re blue in the face, like Guardians of the Universe, but as I suggested in my two entries on January 1, I think property rights matter more than philosophy and politics.
It may not be possible to build a strict property rights regime without the complex scaffolding of philosophy and politics, but that scaffolding is mainly of interest only to elites and intellectuals. What the bulk of humanity desperately needs, for navigating their daily lives, improving their lot, and getting a handle on reality without taking graduate courses in political science, is the knowledge that they can use objects, make contracts, invest money, and build futures without fear of arbitrary forces from above seizing control of them and their livelihoods, regardless of the noble-sounding rationales deployed to excuse the acts of pillage.
Thus, though I may have sounded very defensive of the definitional borders of libertarianism in my “Month of Feminism” entries — and sounded saddened in last week’s Barry Goldwater centenary entry about the possible failure of conservative-libertarian fusionism — I should say this clearly: I WILL LEAVE ANY PHILOSOPHY IN THE DUST, DEAD AT THE SIDE OF THE ROAD, WITHOUT PITY IF IT IS NO LONGER ADVANCING THE CAUSE OF PROPERTY RIGHTS.
Should libertarians ever lose interest in property rights and laissez-faire capitalism (though they’ll likely be the last people on the planet to do so, if it ever comes to that), they will not by any means be the first philosophical movement to start out fighting against government and/or promoting markets and end up losing interest in those causes, gradually and without even realizing what was being lost.
We needn’t restrict that story of recurring failure to the recent spending spree by the now-ousted Republican establishment.
•We could include the gradual growth of the early-modern state itself, superseding local authority and village life, gradually drawing to itself older national and cultural allegiances that had not always translated into loyalty to government.
•One could perhaps include monarchism in the story of decline into statism, given that it was not always an absolutist affair but became one (though this is perhaps stretching things a bit).
•Certainly, though, liberalism, which succeeded the era of monarchs and aristocrats, started out quite libertarian (Adam Smith, the Constitution, nineteenth-century capitalism, utilitarianism, etc.) and became enamored of the state as a reformist tool about a hundred years ago, since then piling up ever more reasons to tax, regulate, and criticize markets, until the average citizen of Western democracies can no longer imagine a time when government was only about 8% of the economy — without assuming, Soviet-style, that government’s small role back then must explain why life was so hard.
(•And speaking of the Soviets, of course, the early socialists envisioned a withering away of the state but rarely speak credibly of such a thing now.)
•Given the wild-eyed and often violent enthusiasm of today’s most visible “anarchists” for anti-trade legislation and tariffs (for surely that is the only logical outcome to be expected from their constant “antiglobalization” protests and anti-corporate “culture-jamming” performances), I think it’s safe to say anarchism, which displayed a confused indifference to markets vs. socialism from its earliest days, has become (as a movement if not as a coherent philosophy) little more than a strange adjunct to the state and hindrance to free trade among free individuals.
•It took about a hundred years longer for American-style conservatism (as opposed to just-plain European or Latin American nostalgia for aristocracy and monarchism) to submit to the governmental yoke than it took liberalism, but after Bush II — and the often shocking pro-government cheerleading of pundits like David Brooks and William Kristol — I think it’s safe to say conservatism’s vague mix of religion, militarism, patriotism, law-and-order, and oh yeah maybe occasionally individual liberty has led to it becoming one more flavor of statism at long last. A 2008 presidential candidate with a clear, consistent, anti-statist message, especially if he won, might conceivably have achieved an eleventh-hour victory for pro-freedom conservatism, but, oh, well.
•It would be very difficult to turn libertarianism into a government-friendly philosophy — though some people like sophistical Obama advisor Cass Sunstein might like to try — but I think libertarianism runs the milder risk, which I’ve mentioned often before, of simply becoming distracted from its most valuable (and most philosophically-coherent) mission, property protection, due to fascination with numerous (usually divisive and therefore dangerously intriguing) side issues: immigration, Constitutional nuances, attitudinally-left culture issues, attitudinally-right lamentations for the Old Republic, antiwar (and sometimes pro-war) stances, religious or anti-religious stances, and various psychological suggestions a la Rand (or pro-sex feminists).
I’ll stick to property — especially in this month’s blog entries — because I see property as the only sure and objective thread amidst all this other, near-subjective hot air and confusion. And people can attach to me what labels they please — or not.
P.S. Some of this, luckily, we can hammer out over drinks this Wednesday at our Debate at Lolita Bar about intellectual property rights. Please join us. It’s a start. Or an ending.