Libertarians and the Greater Good of the Commonwealth

Through several recent columns, I’ve struggled finding ways to use the language of conservative values to frame progressive ideas for restoration of the American Dream in a more just and sustainable way. While I believe that remains important, I’ve become more aware of how difficult it will be because we have different starting points. Progressives tend to start with what is needed to build a more just society, the greater good, the commonwealth of all, “a more perfect union,” as the Constitution puts it. Conservatives tend to start with the absolute rights of individuals that can only be eroded by encroachment of demands for the commonwealth’s greater good. Moreover, conservative is a misnomer. What was once classic conservatism is now right wing libertarianism.

An older generation of conservatives was strongly invested in the greater good of the commonwealth in which they lived. Although it was defined by a white middle class that excluded others, the injustice of it was largely ignored as long as possible. They were reluctant to move ahead too quickly with changes that might upset the promise of domestic peace and prosperity when the rest of the world looked politically and economically unstable. It’s a conservatism fondly remembered but dead and buried under the rhetoric of libertarians who assumed the conservative mantle even though they have little in common with the old values.

The libertarian ethos of today arrived in contemporary American politics with Goldwater’s presidential run, and became the standard bearer for conservatism during the Reagan era. But it wasn’t new; it was a product of Enlightenment philosophers such as Locke, Bentham, and Smith who championed individual rights, utilitarian ethics, and the morality of an unrestricted competitive market. What libertarianism needed was a voice giving it coherence that could accommodate American Protestant evangelicalism in the context of westward expansion and industrialization. Rummaging through an old text, I rediscovered someone I’d forgotten: Francis Wayland (1796-1865), Baptist minister and long time president of Brown.

Wayland was an early convert to Laissez-Faire economics who wrote two books reconciling it with Protestant evangelical ideals of personal responsibility: “The Elements of Moral Society,” and “The Elements of Political Economy.” I’ve read neither, only about them, and what follows is taken mostly from Donald Frey’s “America’s Economic Moralists: a history of rival ethics and economics.”

Wayland declared that society, as it should exist, consists of autonomous individuals acting in their own self interest. Although self interest can lead to sin, there are innocent self interests that don’t. An innocent act of self interest doesn’t actively infringe on someone else’s autonomous rights. Since many choices are equally innocent, those of greatest self interest are morally acceptable. Left on their own, innocent acts of self interest lead to a Panglossian best of all possible societies. Individuals acting in their innocent self interest have no moral obligation to proactively contribute to the benefit of others, nor to the greater good of the community. Individuals are not without social moral obligation. There are two of them: honor the autonomous rights of others; and defend one’s own rights when threatened. Minimal government is necessary, but must be prevented from interfering with one’s autonomy. The most important autonomous right is property and the unrestrained right to use it as one pleases. Those who are better off have no obligation to the poor, although voluntary church based charity for the deserving poor is a worthy endeavor. Poverty is, after all, a choice. Any non-lazy American (man) can certainly earn enough to support a family.

Wayland wasn’t the only voice on politics and economics. Some agreed and many didn’t. Nevertheless, his two books were college classroom fixtures until the end of the 19th century. What he wrote in the 1830s established a uniquely American libertarian manifesto that hasn’t changed in 190 years. None of my libertarian acquaintances have heard of Wayland, but they’ve internalized his curious evangelically endorsed philosophy of autonomous self interest having no moral obligation to the commonwealth’s greater good, and believes poverty is a choice.

Libertarians who put a high priority on individual rights of autonomous individuals, and progressives who put a high priority on a commonwealth providing equal and equitable opportunity to all persons, have little common ground to work with. And I’m undecided about whether any is needed. Wayland’s libertarianism now expressed by the likes of Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity, and the guy down the street, is immoral and unacceptable.

Individual rights are important and to be protected because they’re integral to the life of the commonwealth in whose prosperity lies the prosperity of each. Government has a significant role in making that happen. It’s not the enemy, it’s the agency of the people to guarantee the rights of the individual within the context of a free and just society. Of necessity it will restrain the avarice of some who would exercise their rights to the degradation of the rights of others. That’s not eroding rights, that’s protecting them.

Libertarianism, given its way, ends in undemocratic oligarchy antithetical to everything American democracy stands for. It creates de facto state control of the means of production that old line conservatives and gullible libertarians most fear.

Leave a Reply