Friday, June 10, 2016

Libertarianism's surprising virtue

There is a virtue which I have found--to my surprise--to be far more deeply cultivated among libertarians, as a political movement, than either progressives or conservatives. That virtue is gratitude.

I say I am surprised by this because before I started reading a certain collection of libertarian media, I associated libertarianism with a certain angry crowd who complained endlessly about the government and the downfall of freedom. Now, there is certainly room to complain endlessly about the government. But what I have found is that between Reason Magazine's regular coverage of technological and social innovation, or the quietly optimistic tone of blogs such as Marginal Revolution ("small steps toward a much better world"), or especially the Cato Institute's new project, there seems to be a trend among libertarians of a more intellectual variety to emphasize the positive.

More deeply, libertarians start with the premise that for us modern humans, especially Westerners, our entire way of life is nothing short of a miracle. They then form a political philosophy based on the study of how that way of life came into being, combined with intuitive moral reasoning (which, it is often acknowledged, is itself a product of our way of life). They conclude that a maximal amount of individual freedom and a government firmly restrained by the rule of law is not only how we got here, but also the way we continue to advance in leaps and bounds.

There is a certain cheerfulness in the whole story. Although most of humankind in all times and places struggled to get by, today we are blessed to have received the right kind of institutions which allow both freedom and prosperity to flourish. If we can but use that freedom, in part to defend those institutions but mostly to pursue whatever good ideas we are fortunate to stumble upon, then the potential for future progress is practically infinite.

Now contrast this story with progressivism. Especially when speaking about poverty, progressives tend to assume that if something is wrong in the world, it must be our fault, or more particularly the fault of big bad rich people. Never mind how any of those riches got there in the first place. The conversation most certainly does not start (or end) with gratitude, but rather with a demand. The poor are entitled to progress, and if we don't give it to them we are thieves and bandits.

Conservatives, too, suffer from a lack of gratitude, but for a different reason. While conservatives wholeheartedly agree that we ought to be thankful for having inherited the right kind of institutions, their gratefulness is soured by a pessimistic view of future progress. It seems that conservatives have very little faith in the very institutions for which they are so thankful. Especially when speaking about immigration, they bemoan any major cultural change as an existential threat to our way of life.

I don't deny that both progressive and conservative impulses are necessary. At times progress must be demanded, and at other times it must be critiqued. But I think both sides ultimately propose policies that are built on a distortion of reality, and society pays for that. Whether it is the ever expanding welfare state proposed by progressives or the ever more authoritarian federal law enforcement agencies bolstered by conservatives, the cost and burden of government continues to grow. This is truly a cause for concern.

Yet despite the continual errors of conservatives and progressives in government, I deeply appreciate how libertarians have not lost their spark of optimism. We indeed have so much to be thankful for, and we have so much at our disposal to make the world a better place. As technological progress outpaces government regulation, experimentation will lead to better ways of doing things before our leaders get their hands on the brakes. Cultural change is nothing to be afraid of, so long as we succeed in transmitting the fundamental ideas which have served us so well until now. The institutions which make freedom possible are not fragile; they are alive and well.

As a Christian, I think the very first step to a happy life is thanksgiving. We did absolutely nothing to cause our own existence. We owe every molecule in our body to inheritance. What we do with that wonderful inheritance--and in our day it is more wonderful than our ancestors could have ever imagined!--is up to us, but we will most likely do better if we start by recognizing how good it is.

So I think it is fitting that our politics should start with gratitude, as well. Let no discussion of any of society's problems begin without first acknowledging what we have to be thankful for. And once we study and determine where all these good things came from, then let's decide how we can do even better.

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