Slouching towards somewhere or other

A "dozen or so pages of ignorance and silliness". That’s how Andrew Norton describes Christine Wallace’s recent article for the Griffith Review — ‘Libertarian nation by stealth’. Wallace’s major offence is to confuse Robert Bork’s moralistic conservatism with libertarianism. She writes:

The all embracing sweep of the libertarian approach is, generally speaking, not well understood. US legal scholar and Reagan favourite Robert H. Bork spelled out in his influential Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline (HarperCollins, 1996), published the year Howard won office: “Culture eventually makes politics.” Bork wrote: “‘Culture,’ as used here, refers to all human behaviour and institutions, including popular entertainment, art, religion, education, scholarship, economic activity, science, technology, law, and morality. [It] seems highly unlikely that a vigorous economy can be sustained in an enfeebled, hedonistic culture, particularly when that culture distorts incentives by increasingly rejecting personal achievement as the criterion for the distribution of rewards.”

The libertarian logic is that, since personal freedom and the existence of free markets are inextricably entwined, and since – as Bork puts it – “vigorous” economies are vulnerable to being “enfeebled” by particular cultural practices, then the champions of personal freedom have a licence to police cultural practices – in the interests of freedom and economic vigour. Thus libertarians can reason that difference (for example, multiculturalism, homosexuality) must be eliminated so that the economy can function better – reasoning that is absurd, to say the least.

Bork may once have been a libertarian, but most libertarians now regard him as a menace to the cause. In Reason, Walter Olson writes that Slouching Towards Gomorrah finished off "any reputation that Judge Bork, who once studied economics at the University of Chicago, might have retained as even vaguely sympathetic to libertarian ideas and concerns." At the Cato Institute Robert Levy accuses him of undermining the free market by supporting the US Justice Department’s antitrust action against Microsoft. Bork is increasingly unpopular among libertarians.

Unlike culture warriors like Robert Bork, libertarians oppose censorship. Bork himself says that "libertarians are not to be confused, as they often are, with conservatives". Bork’s position on cultural issues is closer to that of neoconservatives like Irving Kristol and his wife Gertrude Himmelfarb. While libertarians have tended to orbit around think tanks like the Cato Institute, Kristol and his allies have attached themselves to the American Enterprise Institute and drawn financial support from foundations like Olin and Bradley. As James Piereson explained in an article for Commentary, these funding bodies "were more self-consciously conservative than libertarian." The neoconservatives "understood the moral foundations of a free society to be prior to and more important than its economic foundations." While they supported free market causes like law and economics (and even the Cato Institute), they moved beyond economics and into the culture wars.

Peter Saunders — now with the Centre for Independent Studies — has also argued that moral and cultural decay risks undermining the foundations of the free market society. In the last chapter of his book Capitalism he argues that we have "normalized and legitimized behaviour which was one regarded as abnormal and illegitimate, while stigmatizing and discrediting behaviour which was once normal and respectable." These ideas are not unique to the United States.

While Wallace has identified a real tendency in the American and Australian free market movement, it is wrong to call it libertarianism.

This entry was posted in Politics - international. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Slouching towards somewhere or other

  1. JC says:

    Slouching is a very depressing read. I used to have good opinion of Bork based primarily on the fact that I would have to like anyone the Dems hated with such passion with equal passion.

    After reading the book I came to the conclusion that it was better he never made it to the Supremre court despite his high intellect.

    He gets the 60’s wrong I think. Most conservtives think the 60’s was a leftist plot. Some of it may have been (not a plot), but the rump of the 60’s rebellion I think was an anti-government libertarian push. In other words it was a good thing.

    I think the borking of Bork may have also had a hand in souring him to no end.

  2. I did single out the passage you cite because even after 20 years of reading nonsense about the right I still come across things like that (or Martin Feil’s claim that free market theories assume business will altruistically give away productivity gains) that are original errors – major mistakes that I have not seen before.

    But Wallace’s article included old mistakes as well. For example, she claims that Howard government does not see a role for the public sector across the policy framework. Has she been asleep the last 11 years? She thinks Hayek and Friedman form the intellectual foundations of the Howard government, though she later admits that nobody has seen Howard with a Hayek book and offers no evidence in support of her claim.

    The original error aside, the article is just a collection of the soft-left analytical cliches you see in the media and around the blogosphere all the time – even if they were insightful they are so common that they would not be worth repeating in a journal like Griffith Review.

  3. JC says:

    “free market theories assume business will altruistically give away productivity gains”

    Free market theory has never for a moment even suggested that. What it says is that business had better give away some of its gains if it wants to keep its wrokers otherwise they will be competed away. And this does happen.

  4. JC – I don’t think anyone except Feil is confused on this point.

  5. Jason Soon says:

    One can’t be critical of aspects of contemporary culture without being a cultural warrior like Bork?

    Ridiculous post, Don.

    Saunders is a conservative with libertarian tendencies but he’s no Robert Bork.

  6. Don Arthur says:

    Jason – That’s a more emphatic response than I expected!

    I’ve been wondering about libertarianism and how it relates to conservatism.

    As a movement libertarianism seems to be focused on winding back the power and authority of the state. But the state isn’t society’s only source of power and authority.

    Like libertarians, many conservatives are keen on reducing the state’s power and authority (but not necessarily in all domains). But it seems to me that the reasons are different. Conservatives see welfare entitlements, multiculturalism etc as a threat because they undermine the power and authority of parents, husbands, religious leaders and other traditional authority figures.

    For example, when a woman can apply for welfare benefits she can leave her husband and still be able to support her children. When the government promotes multiculturalism it erodes the authority of religion and traditional morality. Some conservatives worry that the state allows individuals to be more independent and autonomous when they should be dependent and deferential.

    Some libertarians seem to agree that women, children, unskilled workers and minority groups are too uppity. They want the government to butt out while superior people exercise their legitimate authority over inferiors. But others want individuals to have more more independence and autonomy — not just from the state but from other institutions as well.

    Do you think this is a fair analysis?


    Just to clarify…

    By POWER I mean the ability to coerce. Preventing people from acting can be done by force (eg attempt to walk across my land and I’ll shoot you) while making them act in a particular way is about increasing the cost of defiance (eg confess your crimes or I’ll shoot your family).

    By AUTHORITY I mean a recognition that a person or institution has a right to control how individuals act. Authority involves habits of deference. Individuals give up responsibility for their own actions when they recognise another’s authority to control those actions.

    It seems to me that conservatives have a better understanding of authority than libertarians do. Libertarians often talk as if the state controlled individuals through power. But in reality, the state has much less power than these libertarians give it credit for. Even when the state responds to defiance with violence, it controls its police force and military through authority and incentives. And without authority (voluntary deference), what is ‘the state’ anyway?

  7. Some libertarians seem to agree that women, children, unskilled workers and minority groups are too uppity. They want the government to butt out while superior people exercise their legitimate authority over inferiors.

    I dunno what ‘libertarians’ you’re mixing with, Don, but I don’t know any liberatarians like this (and I know a few).

    I’ve met quite a few coercive lefties in my time (ie people of my class and background should behave in a certain way) and coercive conservatives (people of my gender should behave in a certain way), but libertarians truly do not give a crap!

  8. Don Arthur says:

    Skepticlawyer – I’m sure you know more libertarians than I do. I was thinking about people like Hans-Hermann Hoppe. Hoppe argues that liberal democracy should be replaced by a system he calls ‘natural order’:

    Accordingly, to lower the production cost of security and improve its quality, a natural order is characterized by increased discrimination, segregation, spatial separation, uniculturalism (cultural homogeneity), exclusivity, and exclusion. In addition, whereas states have undermined intermediating social institutions (family households, churches, covenants, communities, and clubs) and the associated ranks and layers of authority so as to increase their own power vis-a-vis equal and isolated individuals, a natural order is distinctly un-egalitarian: "elitist," "hierarchical," "proprietarian," "patriarchical," and "authoritorian," and its stability depends essentially on the existence of a self-conscious natural – voluntarily acknowledged – aristocracy.

    Hoppe’s natural order relies on authority rather than power.

  9. JC says:


    How can hoppe possibly be a libertarian if as you say his “Natural order relies on authority rather than power”? That’s also a form of coercion from which all true libertarians would run a mile.

    As for preventing women leaving a failed marriage….. Most Libertarians see it as none of their business if someones relationship failed, but they do have a problem with having to finance the cost of that failure.

  10. Don Arthur says:

    JC – “Most Libertarians see it as none of their business if someones relationship failed, but they do have a problem with having to finance the cost of that failure.”

    That’s what I’d understand as the mainstream, rights-based, argument against welfare. One person’s financial need — particularly when it flows from their own life choices — doesn’t trump other people’s property rights.

    Originally I assumed that libertarians didn’t share the conservative obsession with hierarchy (and the deference inferior people owe to superior people). But now I’m not so sure. Hierarchy seems to play an important part in the thought of writers like Rand and Hoppe.

    Would you say that Hoppe is a libertarian? Or is he something else?

  11. Jason Soon says:

    I don’t know that you can really call Rand’s view of the world hierarchical. Her heroes are self-made men from modest backgrounds. The real villains of her novel are high establishment elites who have grown flabby from lounging on velvet and no longer merit their status. She also has much disdain for the other traditionalist element of the old elite – religion. Her problem is that she is too confident that capitalism would lead to meritocracy. Rand doesn’t ask for deference and any such nonsense for the ‘superior’ – the conflict in her novels is created because the John Galts groan under the weight of collectivism. In her libertarian utopia there would be no conflict between the classes, just trade.

    Hoppe on the other hand does seem to preserve a traditional notion of hierarchy in his otherwise anti-statist vision. Though both Hoppe and Rand came from Europe, I suspect this is because Hoppe has retained more of the European mentality which has a more inevitable view of stratification than the vision of social mobility of the US. You might as well blame Hoppe’s peculiar notions on his old teacher, Habermas as on libertarianism.

  12. Ken Parish says:

    “I dont know that you can really call Rands view of the world hierarchical.”

    Murray Rothbard didn’t agree.

  13. Jason Soon says:

    Rothbard’s article is mostly a complaint about the cultishness of Rand’s circle which he fell out of, and therefore he has an axe to grind.

    Rothbard veered from alliance with the Black Panthers to alliance with Pat Buchanan and his nutty political judgements are as far as I am concerned, even less sound than Rand’s.

  14. Don Arthur says:

    Jason – I agree with most of your gloss on Rand. But just because she doesn’t support traditional hierarchies doesn’t mean she was opposed to hierarchy.

    Surely Rand’s hero Howard Roark needs more from other people than his freedom. In Rand’s ideal world other people would recognise his genius and accept his direction.

    The Roarks, Galts and Reardens can’t produce anything as individuals. They need to be in charge of other people — people who defer to their superior ability.

    Rand supported capitalism because she thought it would create — as you say — a meritocracy. A society where the best individuals would have authority. This authority would be freely and rationally granted by less able individuals.

  15. Jason Soon says:

    “The Roarks, Galts and Reardens cant produce anything as individuals. They need to be in charge of other people”

    It’s called employing people, Don.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.