Libertarianism vs. Classical Liberalism for Beginners

A women’s basketball player, Brittney Griner, is convicted of a drug crime in Russia, and handed nearly the maximum sentence under Russian law. The U.S. federal government, at every level, expresses outrage and anger over the apparent political motives behind the trial and sentencing. Whatever the merits of that accusation, and whatever level of illegitimacy one may find in either the Russian regime or the U.S. posturing, there is one American political voice on this matter that deserves to be derided by all sides: the libertarian voice. After all, who can take Cheech and Chong seriously on foreign policy?

To the official and unofficial American criticism of Griner’s imprisonment and conviction, American libertarians as a tribe, from the Libertarian Party’s most serious official voice, Justin Amash, to its most famous loose cannon affiliate, Elon Musk, reply with a pitifully predictable and unified chorus: “Interesting that the government criticizes this illegitimate imprisonment in Russia while doing the same thing to thousands of innocent people every year on American soil.” 

In other words, they turn this minor international incident into just another excuse to play to the basest element of their base (i.e., their core support group), namely drugged-out bottom-feeders who just want to escape from the annoying realities of political responsibility and the quest for genuine freedom by spending their lives getting stoned, growing weed in the basement, and chilling with their munchies without fear of legal recriminations. Brave New World’s soma — state sanctioned and distributed drugs to placate and subdue any remnants of stability-compromising passion among the masses — is what remains today of the American political movement and party whose Ayn-Rand-inspired policy rag (and now website) still publishes under the absurdly anachronistic and inapt title Reason.

The libertarians, at least the more traditional “right wing” sort, have typically defended their defense of licentiousness on so many fronts (pornography, prostitution, promiscuity, the “drug culture,” and so on) by claiming to represent the cause of true classical liberalism. That claim smells almost as bad as what they are smoking. Allow me, therefore, to clarify the terms of modern political philosophy at a level that might still be somewhat accessible (though certainly not agreeable) to the drug-addled populace these shameful charlatans of “liberty” hope to attract at the polls.

A classical liberal says, “The government is not in the business of outlawing every private vice. If individuals choose to waste their minds and lives, even if such behavior indirectly harms their families and communities, this is, and has always been, a matter to be solved at the personal and local levels, through friends, family, church, or perhaps city ordinances.” 

The libertarian says, “If you want to get stoned without the pigs hassling you, vote for us. We are the party that’s running high, wink-wink.”

Freedom does not and cannot imply moral relativism. Amorality is incompatible with liberty in the long run, as all the great defenders of liberty throughout history have understood and argued. Classical liberalism knows this, but sees in this knowledge no justification for solving an inherent risk to freedom by dispensing with freedom, i.e., seeking to protect liberty by authoritarian means. The classical liberal therefore takes the moral high ground, accepting and advocating the imperfect, possibly even tragic, reality of a free society, risks and all, while hoping the population at large is able to maintain the boons of self-governance without losing its moral compass — “a republic, if you can keep it,” to borrow Benjamin Franklin’s famous phrase.

Libertarianism, by contrast, has forfeited all claims to a moral high ground by embracing “highness” of a lower sort at the expense of morality. The libertarian gladly advocates and celebrates behavior that will foster — and that has fostered — the breakdown of civil society for generations, hoping to gain electoral traction by promising society’s drones and weak links that a libertarian world would be a safe haven and staunch protector of their life-destroying, mind-sucking, free-will-annihilating vice.

Drug addicts are no longer fully adult (they have rejected adulthood), let alone responsible and reasonable enough to make sound decisions about their communities. They are easy prey to manipulation from nefarious or self-seeking forces of all sorts, and have little capacity for the self-denial and hardship that true self-determination, either personal or political, demands. To the na├»ve who would try to convince us that the drugs libertarians are defending and promoting are not addictive, I ask them — pretending for the moment that marijuana and hashish are the limits of the libertarian drug agenda — whether they have ever looked at this question of addiction from above the smoke, whether they have ever known a regular dope smoker personally and observed his thinking and behavior soberly, whether they have ever spent years in proximity to a man who has been a long-time substance abuser, whether they have ever stood outside the norms and attended to the general intellectual and moral tenor of a society or social group in which “recreational drug use” is pervasive. If they have, and still have no idea what I am talking about, then I end the conversation right there, since in that case I know I am talking to people who are themselves so immersed in a world of immoderate self-indulgence that they too are incapable of even discussing, let alone striving toward, the requirements of a free, civilized society in good faith. 

The difference between classical liberalism and libertarianism, summed up another way: Tolerating weakness and folly as both all-too-human and inescapable is liberal; praising weakness and folly as true strength and freedom is libertarian — and also somewhat Orwellian, by the way.

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