Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Libertarians and the Paradox of the American Revolution

There's always been an odd flavor to the American libertarian.

The commitment to freedom and liberty as a primary value makes perfect sense to me, which is where my circle in the socio-political Venn diagram strongly overlaps with that worldview.  Oppressive governments and regimes are an offense to our created purpose, and can crush the joy and hope out of human existence.

But the idea that the only threat to human liberty and the pursuit of happiness is the gummint?  Pish posh.  The man with the uniform and the gun is nowhere near as dangerous as the man who pays him.  

Or, in the case of American society, the man who made the campaign donations that elected the man who pays the man with the uniform and the gun.  Power and wealth are the same thing.  Seriously.  They are.  Power is the ability to effectuate an action.  That's what capital is, eh?  It's the whole basis of our economy, and every society ever.

And if you don't think businesses can be oppressive, you haven't run a little mom and pop store in a small town when the Big Box comes to play.  Or spent any time dealing with a health insurance provider.  Or worked the floor at Foxconn or an Amazon fulfillment center.

So when I hear American libertarians talking about resisting the enemies of freedom, it sounds a little half-caf to me.  It's not quite totally libertarian.  Only sort of libertarian.  American libertarians are the skim-milk of liberty, to paraphrase Ron Swanson.  

That, however, is not the irony that hit me yesterday.  That went rather deeper, into the conceptual foundations of American liberty itself.   I was blogging about William Belsham, the guy who coined the term "libertarian" back in 1789.   

What hit me, hard, was a strange paradox of the American Revolution.

Belsham's essay, which presents the "libertarians" of his day as fundamentally irrational and ignorant, is steeped in the ethic of the Enlightenment.  Belsham found the whole idea that human beings had  free will offensive.  It was an insult to reason, and an insult to the Creator of the Universe.  And then things get strange.  Belsham, though British, was a strong philosophical supporter of the American revolution.  And yet he thought that libertarians were delusional and philosophically weak.

The "why" behind Belsham's seemingly paradoxical opinion was a little bit of a gut punch, theologically and politically.  Because the God of the Founding Fathers, the Creator of the Universe as understood by the Enlightenment Deism that helped craft our Revolution?  That God was the Clockmaker God. 

The universe, as seen by the thinkers of the Enlightenment, was a carefully crafted and seamless system.  It was remarkable, and intricate, and astounding.  It was also rationally comprehensible.  In those earliest days of modern science, that seemed clear.  Everything happened according to a particular order, an order which a reasoning being could come to understand through experimentation and deduction.

In that system, though, everything was predetermined.  Providence followed a single track.  Destiny was made manifest, but it was still immutable, inescapable destiny.  It was a vast and beautiful automaton, fashioned by a distant and unknowable Creator, in which our whole lives were cogs and wheels.

And it hit me: this is a really strange conceptual foundation on which to base fundamental principles of human freedom.  If your operating principle is liberty, and your view of the universe is linear, preset, and deterministic, there's an inherent dissonance there.

Most peculiar.