Impulses and Vectors
Responding to my defense of the value of libertarianism/blatant excuse to repost Mr. Henley’s Jester quote, OG regulars Michael Drew and Bob make some great points about the idea of libertarianism-as-vector that led me to some unexplored thoughts about ideological frameworks.
First, Michael wonders whether the concept of libertarianism-as-vector means that libertarianism can be a component of any and all lines of political thought, and asking “what is it that distinguishes a libertarian qua person from someone who merely allows the libertarian vector a healthy role within her thought” if libertarianism is merely a vector? Then Bob goes on to note that the libertarianism-as-vector concept that I stole from Jaybird (who stole it from an unknown source) appears to originate from an article that labels all political ideology as vector. The implication, then, is presumably that these vectors are presumably at work within all of us at a given time. I don’t know if Bob also intended to suggest this, but I think this also implies that political labels are truly meaningless for any purpose other than stating which vector a person believes carries the strongest priority at a given moment in time.
I think both Michael and Bob are basically right, here, particularly in suggesting that all ideologies are just impulse or vectors that reside in varying degrees within us all. If this is true, then, why would it be important that there be a group of people who self-identify as libertarians in our national debates?
The answer to this is, I think, non-obvious. But what it comes down to is this: depending on the core political philosophy with which we most readily identify, we are going to be more likely to ignore, more or less completely, our impulses that would ordinarily lead us in the opposite direction. It’s a confirmation bias problem that can be solved only by listening to people whose philosophical underpinnings lead them to predominantly favor other vectors.
What’s important to recognize here is that we all have philosophical underpinnings for our vectors that lead us to self-identify as libertarian, conservative, liberal, etc. I think this is true whether or not we’ve actually read Hayek, Burke, Rawls, or Marx. However, no philosophically pure state of any sort has ever existed as a stable society (maybe I’m wrong about this). There’s never been a stable anarchic society in recorded history, nor has there ever been a stable large-scale society that has managed to completely block dynamism, nor has there ever been a purely egalitarian society. Yet the lack of such societies does not invalidate any of these philosophical underpinnings, which are at root normative beliefs about the ultimate “good” that are simply unfalsifiable.
Let me illustrate (keeping in mind that this illustration will necessarily be overly-generalized):
Conservative philosophical underpinnings view dynamism as a threat to tradition and social order; a conservative will thus be relatively unconcerned with undertaking social change to solve problems, but will be quite concerned with deterring threats (whether external or internal) to established order. As such, the conservative impulse to dealing with problem X will be to either question whether problem X exists or to question whether it is a severe enough problem to warrant solving. Indeed, if the conservative believes that problem X does not, in fact, exist, he will perhaps actively work for legal changes that would prevent a solution to problem X (see, e.g., anti-gay marriage legislation), as that solution itself may be a threat to tradition and social order. If something is viewed as a threat to established social order, then that threat must be defeated. The internal contradiction here, of course, is that s0metimes government action to prevent social change can itself be a social change, which is, I think, why paleo-conservatives so often seem to sound identical to libertarians. This is not to say that conservatives are incapable of acknowledging the existence of a problem, just that the burden of proof is going to be abnormally high, and the preferred solution is going to be particularly focused, with little concern as to the direction of that solution (ie, more government/less government). Moreover, in some ways, conservatives may be abnormally far-sighted in that their concerns about threats to order and tradition ensure that they are abnormally vigilant about some future problems that don’t yet exist (see, e.g., conservative worries about the long-term cultural effects of illegal immigration).
The liberal’s philosophical underpinnings, however, will be more quick to acknowledge the existence and severity of a given ongoing problem. For liberals, the response to the problem, once acknowledged, is generally going to be to look for ways that society can fix the problem – and of course, government is the tool through which society attempts to fix problems, particularly collective action problems. So for liberals, the initial impulse once a problem is acknowledged is going to be that government is capable of solving the problem and that the problem is a result of private behavior (which is almost always true in the sense that the most immediate cause of most collective action problems is the acts of private individuals).
The self-identified libertarian will also be relatively quick to acknowledge the existence of a problem, perhaps due to the common roots of liberalism and libertarianism. To be sure, he may often acknowledge a somewhat different set of problems than the liberal, but broadly speaking, the libertarian is philosophically just as willing to enable widespread social change as the liberal.
Where libertarians diverge from liberals is that their philosophical skepticism about the capability of government ensures that their first reaction to a problem is to ask what government is doing to create that problem in the first place.
The thing is, once the conservative, liberal, or libertarian has gone down a path that separates from the status quo-preserving position of “do nothing” (whether to respond to a future threat or an immediate problem), it is extremely easy to forget your lesser impulses. Confirmation biases immediately come into play, and they are made worse by the fact that modernity is so complex that it is rarely possible to prove to an absolute certainty that problem/threat X is caused by Condition Y or will be solved by Action Z. There will usually be at least some empirical evidence supporting each position: do nothing, do more, or do less. We will look at the evidence that supports the path we have already chosen, and ignore the evidence that doesn’t.
And that’s where having opponents with a philosophically-grounded theory of government is so important. They force us to ask the question of whether our preferred response to problem X excessively undermines our lower-priority, but still important, impulses in favor of conservatism, libertarianism, or modern liberalism. They challenge whether the empirical justifications for our preferred response can be explained by our philosophical justifications. Most importantly, perhaps, they force us to consider whether there is a way of responding to problem X that is consistent with more than one (and maybe all) of those normative impulses that we all share in one degree or another.
It is at all times necessary to have each of these predominant worldviews in our national dialogue (rather than merely existing as understood but untapped impulses within each of us) if we wish democracy to be successful. The conservative worldview, by itself, can act only as a brake on the excesses of liberalism or libertarianism – it is incapable of reversing those excesses. Liberalism and libertarianism, meanwhile, would descend society into anarchy if they existed without some group that was motivated primarily by traditionalism and preservation of order – it would be difficult to to rely on the rule of law if that law was in a constant state of flux, ping-ponging between existing and not existing.
Of course, if there were no group calling itself libertarian, liberal, or conservative, those values would not just disappear since most of us possess them to some degree or another. However, having opponents who self-identify with or at least consciously adhere to something resembling those worldviews reminds us that we do, in fact, care about the values underlying that opposition. We then have to make the conscious decision not to care in that particular instance.