Libertarianism is on the rise, thanks in good measure to many newly politicized techies who have married their live-and-let-live views about lifestyle to leave-me-alone views about taxes and government.I viscerally understand the libertarian mystique, but, outside the fantasy novels of Ayn Rand and Robert Heinlein, libertarianism does not make much anthropological or historical sense. As a philosophy, it may; one can build a coherent moral system from almost any starting point, be it God’s breath upon the waters; the first self-replicating, “selfish” gene; or autonomous individuals signing a social contract. And versions of libertarianism have a fierce logical consistency. Robert Nozick’s starting point is the “fact of our separate existences”; “there is no social entity . . . . there are only individual people.” Charles Murray proclaims, “Freedom is first of all our birthright.” America’s founding revolutionists, inhaling the earliest wafts of libertarianism in the 1700s, declared that we are created with “unalienable rights”; that is, people cannot sell themselves into slavery even if they want to, so fundamental is the independence of the individual.
Great ideas, to be sure, but historically odd ones. Clifford Geertz pointed out that “the Western conception of the person as a bounded, unique . . . center of awareness, emotion, judgment, and action . . . is, however incorrigible it may seem to us, a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world’s cultures.” For most of history, including Philadelphia, 1776, more humans were effectively property than free. Children, youth, women, slaves, and servants belonged to patriarchs; many patriarchs were themselves serfs to chiefs and lords. And selling oneself into slavery was routine for the poor in many societies. Most world cultures have treated the individual as a limb of the household, lineage, or tribe. We moderns abhor the idea of punishing the brother or child of a wrongdoer, but in many cultures collective punishment makes perfect sense, for each person is just part of the whole.
What difference does this history and anthropology make to libertarian arguments about the good life? Plenty. If libertarians would move real-world policy in their direction, then their premises about humans and human society should be at least remotely plausible; we are not playing SimCity here. Instead, libertarian premises arise from a worldview that was strange at its origin and is strange now, after the global triumph of liberalism.
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