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The Death of Libertarianism? Part 3

- July 29, 2009

In considering the (possible) death of American libertarianism, it’s important to think about both the political/social events that might lead to its demise, and the philosophical reasons that Americans might come to reject it as a guiding philosophy. Yesterday, I shared my vision of at least one of the social trends that might lead to the end of American libertarianism – the changing self-perception of American business, and its move away from ideologies that are libertarian-inspired. I think that change is just one of many similar changes occurring in our political culture (though a crucial one, since it bears on regulatory questions that will be fought out in Washington over the next few weeks, “even days”:http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/29/business/29pay.html?_r=1&hp), all of which will culminate in a new, distinctly non-libertarian, public philosophy.

But I also suggested in my first post that these changes would force Americans to see the hollowness of libertarian individualism. There are many ways one could support this point about hollowness. One could cite empirical evidence that suggests the model of the individual choice-maker at the basis of libertarianism is not as closely tied to “human happiness”:http://www.amazon.com/Paradox-Choice-Why-More-Less/dp/0060005688 as libertarians sometimes suggest. Or one could make a purely philosophical argument that suggests the implausibility of some particular libertarian thinker’s take on individual human identity.

But what I’d like to do here today is begin to approach the problem historically, asking what freedom meant to at least one Founding Father, and whether many Americans are mistaken in their belief that our country was founded on libertarian principles. James Madison was not the small-government, absolute-property-rights, pro-capitalist thinker that our Founders are sometimes made out to be. And considering his own words on the subject might allow us to consider some of the ways in which his ideal of freedom if preferable to the wholly-new, 20th Century ideology of libertarianism.

A number of historical works have suggested that the American Revolutionaries were the heirs of a tradition of thinking that emphasized “civic virtue”:http://www.amazon.com/Ideological-Origins-American-Revolution/dp/0674443020 as a necessary precondition for a society’s enjoyment of liberty. In some sense they were reactionaries, writing much like the radical Whigs who had opposed Robert Walpole’s corrupt management of Parliament from about 1720 to the 1730’s. But perhaps more importantly, they inherited the radical Whigs’ suspicion of free trade, scarred as they were by the memories the South Sea Bubble of 1720, an economic crash brought on by what we might call crony-capitalist speculation in the stock of the British South Sea Company.

As the Revolution gave way to the Framing of the Constitution, it’s fair to say that the coalition of American politicians that rose to the fore were of a less radical bent. But Madison was still quite suspicious of the commercial and trading interests in American society. And to the extent that he was concerned about government interference in trade, it was the government’s corrupt attempts to foster trade (the sort of cronyism that had led to the South Sea Bubble) that Madison worried about, as much as government interferences that might put a damper on trade. As he argued in Federalist 42, commercial states must be stopped from laying indirect revenue taxes on their non-commercial neighbors, for this forces non-commercial states to turn to foreign trade as a substitute. All states, and the future of American commerce itself, would be hurt if “the clamors of an impatient avidity for immediate and immoderate gain” caused the commercial element in society to use politics to its advantage, ignoring the “enlarged and permanent interest” of all the people. Trade and commerce were, no doubt, important goods – but traders and commercial men were objects of suspicion.

So far, so good – nothing in this seems anti-libertarian, if we realize that free-traders today are as opposed to protectionism as they are to over-regulation. But, as skeptical as Madison could be about government, he often turned to government as a mechanism for meliorating the ill effects of the trading and commercial elements of society on the poorer elements (whether with or without property). For Madison was not just concerned, as in “Federalist 10″:http://www.constitution.org/fed/federa10.htm, with the faction of the propertyless riding roughshod over property owners – he was just as often concerned about the reverse. On August 7th of 1787, in the Constitutional Convention, Madison spoke in qualified support of suffrage restrictions, worrying that in the future America would be populated largely by the propertyless, who would either combine in a faction or align behind demagogues to take from the propertied. But later on that same day he wrote an addendum to his own speech, unhappy with the emphasis he had given to the rights of the propertied. “Persons and property being both essential objects of Government,” he wrote, the people who have persons but no property deserve security for their liberty as well. When he expanded on this addendum in the 1820’s for the publication of his notes from the Convention, he stressed that the propertyless have much to fear from the propertied. Speaking of the “dependence of an increasing number on the wealth of a few,” he blames this dependence (the opposite of liberty) on “the great Capitalists in Manufactures & Commerce.” He considers a series of institutional suggestions for balancing out the rights of both groups (rights of person for the many, rights of both person and property for the few), but clearly says that if forced to choose between them he would opt for the rights of the people:

bq. “…it is better that those having the greater interest at stake namely that of property and persons both, should be deprived of half their share in the Government; than, that those having the lesser interest, that of personal rights only, should be deprived of the whole.”

Indeed, in the 1792 essay “Parties,” Madison wrote that while parties of the propertied are perhaps unavoidable, they can be destructive for any republic, and must be controlled:

bq. “The great object should be to combat the evil: 1. By establishing a political equality among all. 2. By withholding _unnecessary_ opportunities from a few, to increase the inequality of property, by an immoderate, and especially an unmerited, accumulation of riches. 3. By the silent operation of laws, which, without violating the rights of property, reduce extreme wealth towards a state of mediocrity, and raise extreme indigence towards a state of comfort.”

Madison, like Jefferson, suggested that inheritance laws breaking down large estates could perform this property-smoothing function over the generations – but they were not likely to be enough, and only the widespread availability of land separated America from the sort of zero-sum fights over property that happened in the French Revolution. He feared that once all of the land in America had been claimed, there would be no way to honor the claims of the propertyless without redistribution in the here and now.

Madison supported inter-generational redistribution, and preferred it. But it is nevertheless clear that he was not an absolutist when it came to property rights: he did not imbue possession with some mystical quality that made it inviolable (neither did Locke or any other Whig writer, but that is a story for another day). In an essay in the same series in which he defines property itself, he moved beyond a definition of property that would give an individual sole and absolute control of his property: he says that property

bq. “…in its particular application means ‘that dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in exclusion of every other individual.’ In its larger and juster meaning, it embraces every thing to which a man may attach a value and have a right; and _which leaves to every one else the like advantage_.”

Madison was not anti-capitalist, anti-property, or anything of the sort. But he heavily qualified his support of these institutions, conditioning his acceptance upon the good that any plan of commerce did for the “enlarged and permanent interests” of the people. Although in his notes preparing for the Convention (a.k.a. the “Vices”:http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch5s16.html) Madison frets that the propertyless seldom heed “…a prudent regard to their own good as involved in the general and permanent good of the Community,” after his early-1800’s fight against Hamilton’s Federalist Party he was just as likely to fear the same disregard coming from the propertied classes.

But again, Madison was opposed to neither class. Instead, he thought of property rights as requiring a balance of interests: the interests of the propertied in securing what they possess; the interests of the propertyless in being free from dependence so that they can go about making some property of their own; and the interests of all in having a system that would encourage the growth of trade and make each American better off in the future. A _system_ of property does not serve the interests of owners alone, but seeks to serve the interests of all in a way that secures to everyone a “like advantage.” And if trade-offs must be made which some might think violate the sacrosanct right of property, these could be justified in the name of the right itself.

Madison’s ideas are a part of our heritage — at least as much as the more recent libertarian variant on freedom — and as such they might help us to define alternative visions of what it means to be an American.