Friday, December 19, 2008

The Founders & "Libertarianism"

The American Revolution was the first largescale experiment in putting into practice the liberal notions that emerged from the Enlightenment. It's a juicy prize for revisionists seeking to appropriate its prestige for their own contemporary ends. There are claims made upon it all the time, but few are as persistent as those of the Libertarians, that odd splinter of American conservatism that emerged in the 1960s. We've been writing about this for several years, now. Here's a vintage piece on the subject from more than 8 years ago, slightly revised for our purposes here:

Fri., 9 June, 2000

"The American Founders." Despite the reverence in which they're held by most Americans in the abstract, we find that, when we get into the details, we're really only celebrating a handful of them. In their prescience, their wisdom, their analysis of events, Jefferson and Madison seem almost godlike at times. Gouverneur Morris, by comparison, was very nearly worthless on the best day of his life.

Over the years, Americans have disregarded these specifics, though, preferring, instead, to mash a diverse body of ideas--some great, some debatable, some deplorable--into an inchoate lump, and to elevate the concept "Founding Fathers" into a sort of god, its worship into a sort of national religion.

As the devil can quote the Bible to his own ends, opportunists of various stripes routinely take advantage of this religion. Suddenly, anything a "Founding Father" said bears the stamp of wisdom, becomes authoritative, and represents a significant hurdle that must be overcome by anyone trying to challenge the point in question. Comments by "Founding Fathers" grounded in an historical context are brutally ripped from that context and made to appear as universal absolutes. This is hardly a substitute for reasoned analysis, but that's exactly what it's often made to serve as.

One of the major offenders, in this regard, is the peculiar breed of conservatism that has, in recent decades, claimed for itself the title of Libertarianism. The Libertarians ride the gravy train by claiming to be intellectual descendants of the "Founding Fathers." Their claim here is a blatant appeal to the religion, not a genuine affinity based on an analysis of what any of the founders actually said and meant (or why). Ignoring the very real differences between the founders (in the same way far too many of us do), they say they are inheritors of "the philosophy of the Founding Fathers" (as though such a unified philosophy existed), adopting this as simply another abstraction into which they can pour whatever they want. That Americans hold to the religion of the "Founding Fathers" makes this an extremely effective appeal.

What do the Libertarians use to fill this abstraction? By and large, it's the capitalist ideologies that developed in the Industrial Revolution, read backwards into the mouths of the founders in an attempt to give them added weight. For example, Libertarians often claim Jefferson's conception of rights, but Jefferson wouldn't recognize anything they say in this regard. Rights, Jefferson held, should be inalienable because they were "natural," which is to say inherent. Granted by God. However one wants to express it. The conception of rights as simply another function of the market is a product of the 19th century, when social Darwinism replaced the older liberal notions, removing from consideration the idea that people have any intrinsic value. By this perspective, there was only market value. This is the view adopted by Libertarians, and not the Jeffersonian view.

Befitting it's nature, much of the appeal to the religion by Libertarians is entirely symbolic. Portraits of Thomas Jefferson, for example, can be found scattered throughout Libertarian websites, yet the words of Jefferson are just as generally excluded from these sites. Digging around a bit, one finds a thing called "the Jefferson School," whose tagline is "The intellectual voice of capitalism on the net." For a "school" that takes the name of Jefferson (especially in THAT way), I've been unable to find a single reference to Thomas Jefferson anywhere on the site. Admittedly, I didn't spend a good deal of time there, but I spent enough to find multiple references to the "usual suspects"--the same old crap you find on any other Libertarian sites (Austrian schoolers, Randroids, etc). This is significant, because, despite their appeals to the religion, Libertarians find precious little in the work of the founders to actually quote (except various founder's general comments about "liberty"). When David Boaz of the Cato Institute assembled THE LIBERTARIAN READER, the founders were conspicuous mostly by their absence (as I recall, there was only the Declaration of Independence, a Federalist Paper, and a pair of selections from Thomas Paine).

Associating the founders with their own economic notions is particularly disingenuous for Libertarians. "Capitalism" as we know it didn't exist in the 18th century, and the Industrial Revolution, mass migration, and the development then closing of the frontier fundamentally altered the circumstances in which Americans lived--and in which the views of the founders were originally developed. The early U.S. had it's share of wealthy aristocrats--many of the founders being prime examples--but it was rich in resources and a huge open frontier. The "economy" as it existed was based on artisan production, people were by and large able to acquire the means to become self-sufficient, and capitalist property relations as they developed in the 19th century weren't even a dot on the horizon. For many years, Jefferson hoped this state of affairs would continue, arguing, in 1787, that:

"I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries; as long as they remain chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America. When they get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt, as it Europe."

Ayn Rand's reference to "the original American system, Capitalism" is more than a little disingenuous, particularly when one considers what she means by that.

--j. of j. & Jenn

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