Most college students claiming to be libertarians are actually just traditional conservatives misidentifying themselves. It’s because universities still take libertarian arguments seriously.
It is becoming all but conventional wisdom that libertarianism is the philosophy in vogue for many college-aged students and young professionals. Labeling oneself as libertarian has become almost as prevalent for this demographic as calling oneself “spiritual but not religious.” One 2015 survey concluded that 1 in 5 “millennials” would describe themselves as libertarian. Time will tell whether these young people shed this identity and become less individualistic as they grow older. However, in the meantime, one wonders if this trend is more the consequence of libertarianism’s style of argument fitting in the current academic climate rather than a product of genuine belief in the ideology’s tenets and conclusions.
Libertarianism certainly makes valid points. There is something to be said for an inviolable respect for individual rights from property to privacy. Perhaps more fundamentally, though, libertarianism recognizes that government often struggles to restrain itself, and well-intentioned, small-scale government programs can balloon to the point of becoming intrusive into the private lives of citizens.
On the other hand, libertarianism’s adulation of the individual often fails to situate a human being in the context of relationships to others, from family-life to civic organizations. It can ignore the importance of churches and the boy scouts. Sometimes libertarianism, implicitly or otherwise, fails to affirm that social relationships are essential for human flourishing.
The concern here, however, is not the advantages and drawbacks of the libertarian school of thought. Rather the suggestion is that many young people self-identifying as “libertarian” do not actually subscribe to many of the assumptions that, in fact, underpin libertarianism. Although they call themselves libertarian, many of these young adults, are actually traditional conservatives. However, since the types of arguments that conservatives often use have fallen out of fashion in the current academic climate, these young people are forced to use libertarian arguments to get to conservative conclusions. In doing so, they may misrecognize themselves as libertarians. This is the unfortunate result of a university environment that only admits a certain type of argument as valid. Libertarianism, despite leading to different conclusions than those held by most academics, at least fits the framework of thinking preferred by those who create the modern intellectual space.
The current university environment has been greatly influenced by the twentieth century push towards what is called “analytical philosophy.” This school of thought regards the universal consistency between premises and conclusions as the apotheosis of human thinking. Arguments, to be considered valid, must be universalizable and be immune from a single counter-example. This type of thinking certainly has its merits for building interesting thought experiments and indeed makes worthwhile points. However, many arguments used by conservatives such as favoring gradualism over radical change, respecting norms that have been long working, appealing to the lessons of history, and valuing what Leon Kass might call “the wisdom of repugnance,” are not reducible to the rigid formula of premises and conclusions favored by the current syllogism-engrossed academic environment.
Libertarianism, however, uses the logical framework and types of language compatible with the generally left-leaning modern academic philosopher. Although it leads to prioritizing autonomy instead of redistribution, it is based in the same concepts of inviolability and universality. Just as utilitarianism can always answer that it is preferable to kill one man to save two, libertarianism can claim, at every turn, that we can never violate one man’s autonomy, even if it means saving the world entire. For the traditional conservative, distrustful of extremism and abstractions alike, the more worthwhile answer is to say: “Well, it depends.”
The criticisms of abstract philosophies from utilitarianism to Marxism have been repeated time and again. But one critique that applies to each is the tendency to push their respective tenets to the most extreme conclusions. Utilitarian Peter Singer, who believes all organisms should be valued equally on the basis of their ability to feel pleasure and pain, was once asked: If a house is on fire, and it is filled with one human baby and many rats, each equally capable of experiencing pleasure and pain, how many rats would it take before we leave behind the baby? Peter Singer, only-half-jokingly, responded 12.
Just the same, the theorists on fundamental equality might want to push these beliefs to the extreme and demand a French-revolution style destruction of the upper class, befit even with ransacking the graves of historical landowners. Libertarianism’s belief in the unbending integrity of contracts can lead to similarly extreme conclusions such as a defense of Armin Meiwes, who cannibalized a consenting victim he met online. Similarly, more than one philosophy instructor, seeing the world only in terms of consent and contracts, has gained notoriety for persuading his students that there is nothing inherently wrong with incest so long as it is freely consented to and contraception is used. These systems of thought, which are the only ones taken seriously in certain university settings, prefer perfect philosophical consistency over prudence, moderation, or a “proof-is-in-the-pudding” style defense of functioning social norms.
In the minds of many, these abstruse theories are not worth the paper they are written on. Thinkers from Edmund Burke to the “humorist-philosopher” Will Rogers have believed that the best safeguard to the essential values of a society is the everyday wisdom of the average man or woman. Does a proposed agenda or abstraction pass “the smell test”? This skepticism of valuing abstract systems of thought more than everyday horsesense is not dissimilar from a particularly apt passage from The Chicago Tribune’s statement of philosophy: “It is suspicious of untested ideas.”
Many young people voting for Gary Johnson do not share some of the conclusions that follow from the libertarian worldview. These voters might believe that marijuana should be legal but balk at the thought of a nation where one can walk into a convenience store and buy powerful narcotics. They may oppose redistributive taxes but not to the point of creating a nation that lets its most vulnerable starve.Although it may be consistent with libertarianism to demand a gold standard, a more moderate voice might favor erring on the side of what is currently, for the most part, working. But these answers are not good enough for the academics that grade these students’ papers and cross-examine them in the classroom.
So, it is not so much that these young people have decided that libertarianism is preferable to traditional conservatism. But rather many of the tenets of traditional conservatism are condescendingly rejected out-of-hand for their inability to be mapped onto any scenario and always produce the same predictable answer. The living breathing world most of us inhabit is more complex and requires more circumspection than the one conjured by those who create the current intellectual sphere. Unfortunately, they require students to translate arguments on the traditional respect for property and individual liberty into a system of thought that leads to many unintended conclusions and an overly individualistic worldview.
Erich Prince studies political science at Yale University.
This article appeared originally in the April 7, 2017 edition of The American Thinker.