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Libertarians: The Defenders of Civilization

June 25, 2013

According to Arnold Kling’s 3 heuristics of political language model, Conservatives discuss political choices through a civilization/barbarism dichotomy. Conservatives often frame themselves as the defenders of social order and status quo. In this article, I will attempt to show that libertarians are just as good at defending civilization from barbarism as conservatives.

While liberals stereotypically seek to change the bad aspects of society, conservatives focus on the good and seek to preserve them. But what parts of society are worth preserving?

Stability is important for its own sake. Rebellion is a terrible thing for a society to go through. You have death, chaos, property destruction and you have no idea what kind of regime will replace the old one. People who do well in violent revolution are rarely the type of people to set up a peaceful democratic state.

Tolerance: The Cultural Peace Treaty
People naturally form up into tribes, but the very instincts which cause tribes to work well cause larger societies to fall apart. The bigger the cooperative group, the more tolerance is required. Members of a family share more culture than members of a town, who in turn share more cultural values than other citizens of a country. People who share a culture don’t need tolerance to work together – they are already similar enough to get along. Tolerance is only required when people of diverse cultures have to cooperate. If you want to live in a small group where everyone dresses the same, shares a religion, eats the same kinds of food, etc. that’s fine, but that’s not civilization. Modern civilization requires an ability to interact and cooperate with those who are different than yourself.

Freedom of religion is an idea forged on the anvil of centuries of war and quenched in the blood of the faithful. Those who survived realized that it was better to allow the other side to peacefully coexist rather than to continually murder one another over the issue. Equality and freedom before the law is a peace treaty. I won’t try to make you follow my way of life if you don’t try to make me follow yours. In exchange, we both get to live in peace and stability.

The justice system was built to diffuse feuds which spiraled out of control causing instability. Jury trials and due process are there to prevent the sovereign from killing those who oppose his rule without being public about it and actually accusing them of a crime. The alternative is people simply disappearing off the streets and no one knowing why, everyone living in fear, thinking they might be next.

Tolerance, due process, and basic freedoms are necessary components to a well-functioning society – even if they make people uncomfortable, even if they inconvenience the police, and even if they inconvenience the sovereign.

Ambition and Public Choice
“All democracies turn into dictatorships—but not by coup. The people give their democracy to a dictator, whether it’s Julius Caesar or Napoleon or Adolf Hitler. Ultimately, the general population goes along with the idea.”
– George Lucas

Dictatorship is the default state of humanity. Over all of human history, what percentage of societies have been democratic? How many of those democracies have been remotely egalitarian, to say nothing of the dictatorships? Very very few. The sort of liberal democracy that most people think of when they say “civilization” is fragile.

All human beings want to accumulate power for themselves. The whole point of elections and checks and balances is to limit the power of any one human being. The whole point of voting is to get policy which a large group of people agree with. Sure, it’s flawed, but it beats the alternatives.

The easier it is to get rid of a particular politician, the harder they will try to satisfy the voters and the less wiggle room they have to enact personally favored policies/be corrupt. Freedom of speech and the right to peacefully assemble are the tools of the weak to organize against the powerful. Without them, ideas cannot be tested by debate and openly evaluated and society stops advancing. Governmental transparency is necessary because how can a system be run by voters if the voters don’t even know what is going on?

The threat of concentrated power is ever-present. And why wouldn’t someone want to be dictator? Everyone alive has an idea of an ideal society. Of course they would want to implement it. And if you aren’t all that altruistic, being a dictator is a pretty sweet gig. Just compare dictators to democratic leaders. Putin stashed away a cool $70 billion, and Mubarak’s wealth is reputed to be significantly higher than that. So, are politicians trying to overthrow democracies? Yes, of course. Always and everywhere, little by little. Not all at once, mind you, because they’d likely lose the power entirely, but on the margins they are doing wherever they can get away with.

Compared to tyranny, what external threats does the U.S. have, really? We’ve got a 3,000 mile wide moat on each side, the biggest navy in the world, and enough nukes to sterilize the surface of the Earth several times over.

Economic Power
Concentrated power leads to squabbling over control of that power rather than attempts to create new wealth. When economic power is distributed, people have to create wealth for themselves. But when there is a central power which controls access to the market, everyone fights to control that central power. Hence, centralization of power makes it more, not less likely for a society to suffer from instability and infighting, even though at first it seems like centralization would lead to more stability.

Defending the System vs. Rooting for your Team
Libertarians care about rules and they care about the systems that govern society. Everyone else focuses on whether their team is winning. If you’re a Republican, torture is good if a Republican is doing the torturing and bad if a Democrat is doing it, and vice versa. Every issue is exactly like this. That’s why society needs libertarians. Libertarians fight abuses of power, violations of human rights, deviations from rule of law, etc., no matter who happens to be in office. If society is to remain stable and civilized, the rules on which it is founded need to be respected and maintained.

Further Material:
Libertarians: Champions of the Oppressed

The Crisis of Western Civilization

Michael Huemer on the history of liberalism:

3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 25, 2013 3:57 pm

    I won’t try to make you follow my way of life if you don’t try to make me follow yours. In exchange, we both get to live in peace and stability.

    That is my biggest reason for being libertarian. To me it is the great compromise, I avoid telling you how to live if you avoid telling me how to live.

    On your last paragraph I hope that you are correct about libertarians but since we have not been in power in my lifetime I am not sure that we would not defend a libertarian president’s wrong doing similar to Democrats and Republicans.

    • June 25, 2013 4:04 pm

      I hope so too. I fear it’s just wishful thinking on my part, but I do have some evidence; it seems like every libertarian candidate gets evicerated for not being libertarian enough.


  1. Libertarians: Champions of the Oppressed | azmytheconomics

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