Icarus and his father attempt to escape from Crete by means of wings that his father constructed from feathers and wax. Icarus' father warns him first of complacency and then of hubris, asking that he fly neither too low nor too high, so the sea's dampness would not clog his wings nor the sun's heat melt them. Icarus ignored his father's instructions not to fly too close to the sun; when the wax in his wings melted, he tumbled out of the sky and fell into the sea where he drowned, sparking the idiom "don't fly too close to the sun".
I received an email…not recently. This one is from Scott Thomason, from March 2017. I have kept it in my inbox all of this time; it was too important to archive and forget, yet I wasn’t sure what, if anything, I would someday do with it. I have decided now, obviously, to do something with it. Thomason has given me permission to give his name. To his email – but only snippets; I have considered posting the entire email, but I cannot bring myself to something approaching a guest writer….
Your writings on culture and libertarianism have made me think. Culture and tradition provide us a sense of the permanent and a tether across time to our ancestors. They add an aspect to our human identity without which we seem incomplete.
By this point, I had been writing on the intersection of libertarianism and culture for a couple of years, with some intellectual prep work done even before that on the issues I saw coming from left-libertarianism. I was quite focused on the aspect of a cultural foundation if one wanted to achieve and maintain something approaching liberty.
But I hadn’t yet connected it to this idea of an “incomplete…human identity,” as Thomason had done – in other words, I hadn’t connected it to the meaning crisis engulfing the West today. Of course, in a society where life is given no meaning, we should not expect liberty to bloom. I have come to understand this over the last year or two.
Thomason looked at this loss of meaning – the fruits of leftist thinking, where “leftist” means anything opposed to traditional morality and values.
The Left in my view seems to be circling the drain. Where are they going? What is their unifying cause? Other than a hatred for everything traditional I do not know.
This will be their undoing, eventually. In the meantime, we all must suffer. And what of libertarians? Let’s just push the hypothetical button – Thanos does his deed, but only aimed at those who lord over us. Does this result in happiness for the libertarian, a fulfilled life?
There is the urge in most of us to make libertarianism more than it is. …For me, libertarianism once had a certain messianic feel to it. The state was the only thing separating man from his complete fulfillment.
It is a topic that C. Jay Engel has tackled – or, I should say, is in the process of tackling. Libertarians are sucked into the political game of the state; everything is politicized today, therefore libertarians look to the problem being political and the solution to be found only by using the political to eliminate the political.
Let’s imagine we’ve all pushed that button. We all have our freedom, our glorious private law society. And then what? I hardly see an end to libertarian bickering. What is our purpose now? What is our meaning? How can we find either of them?
This is where I have come to the idea that the cart is before the horse. Without purpose, meaning – built on cultural tradition and Natural Law – it will not be liberty that survives the pushing of the button; the mainstream culture cannot support this. Per Thomason, the left looks to scientism as savior. He also points to libertarians who lean on pure reason – reason without tradition, without God.
Wonder is ridiculed, if not lost. The world fades to black and white. And where reason cannot extend, serious questions are dismissed. Rather than admit reason’s shortcomings, inconvenient questions are ridiculed. In an age of drive-thru answers, who can ask real questions?
Shortly after the time of this email, I posted a few of these “real questions” that many libertarians would not ask or would ignore. I am not sure that I had Thomason’s email in mind; obviously the subject was in the air at the blog at the time.
There is no room for culture, tradition, or what is labeled metaphysics. If it cannot be tested, proven, falsified, etc., it means nothing in this enlightened world. Where does it leave this enlightened libertarian – leaning on scientism and pure reason – now that the button has been pushed?
The average libertarian who doesn’t believe in Old World truth—the heroic and aristocratic virtues and the Christian truth in self-sacrifice—a truth beyond the rational and the empirical, is a sitting duck for relativism if he believes in the NAP and the NAP alone.
Libertarianism gives us something akin to the Silver Rule, but it is the Golden Rule that offers some hope of preserving liberty. Relativism, when it comes to ethics, is a dead end for liberty.
There is no comprehension of the dual nature of real freedom, that if it is to last, it must be accompanied by responsibility, duty, honor, etc.
There is also no comprehension of the need for an objective ethics, ethics derived from the nature of man – Natural Law. One need not speak of rights – even the right to not be hit first or the right to property – if one first does not have a theory of law, a theory built on principles that one is not entitled to look beyond – principles that are only to be accepted as given.
It is on this intersection of objective, given ethics – to be discovered, not invented – where one will find both C.S. Lewis and Murray Rothbard. We cannot see through first principles; an objective ethic is required – an ethic we are not qualified to or entitled to look beyond. Thinkers from Aristotle to Aquinas to Rothbard have developed this string.
But beyond “don’t hit first; don’t take my stuff,” pure libertarianism offers no such theory of law and we must not expect it to. Further: libertarianism cannot offer a reason why even this simplification of the NAP should be accepted. On what basis?
I have seen with my own eyes libertarians question the point and the origin of having separate public restrooms, for example. And because they didn’t have an answer for this, they assumed that it was the “odd way that people view religion and sex.” Instead of taking this as a cultural given for which it is silly to question, no, every cultural norm must be scrutinized. Thus do they find themselves rubbing elbows with the Left.
There is no answer in libertarianism to such questions. Well, I guess there is one: let the property owner decide. For example, if the property owner next door decides to have sex orgies on his front lawn while you are taking the family to church, tough luck. This is liberty if one is to strictly consider the non-aggression principle; yet will liberty survive in such a climate?
Like Icarus, we too have flown too high. …We no longer acknowledge any natural limitations to our desires. Men can become women and women, men. Two “married” men or two “married” women can raise children as if perfectly equivalent to the normal straight couple despite no obvious precedent in world history and with no adverse consequences. The children are just afterthoughts, lucky enough to be along for the ride in this new, empowered individual’s realization of his new rights.
There is no libertarian defense against these, and many (most) libertarians are happy for this. But is there liberty at the end of this road – a road where man works against his ends, purpose, telos? What is liberty if it is not liberty toward the purpose for which a thing is made?
We recoil (or at least question the morality) whenever we see anything of creation hindered from moving toward its purpose, its ends…well, anything of creation except for humans. We take pity on the lion in a cage while at the same time condemning the father of the seven-year-old boy who believes one so young should not be forced into such a decision.
Culture has been steamrolled in the Left’s never-ending march to discover new rights. Indeed, the modern progressive concept of rights is the mortal enemy of culture.
Rights come from a theory of law. If the only theory of law is “don’t hit first; don’t take my stuff,” then all manner of behavior is a right. But liberty without a moral compass is a one-way road to hell – I am not even speaking of the Biblical hell; we live this hell on earth, today.
The “all I need is my NAP” libertarian is really at a crossroads. He has his NAP, but he will find himself bored once the party ends. Will he saddle up to the leftist herd and guzzle the salt water of rights? Or will he go the lonelier path: toward culture, meaning, a humble recognition of man’s limits, an acknowledgment of his tragedy, and — dare I say? — God?
We see where the conversation is headed: there is a meaning crisis in the West. It has brought forth an alliance of certain atheists and certain Christians. What the atheists in this alliance don’t see (or won’t admit) is that it is the Christians in the alliance that have the answers to their questions.
This alliance is opposed by an alliance of certain other atheists and other Christians, those for whom cultural foundations and traditions – and the Natural Law that is derived from these – stand in the way of complete liberation.
Culture, the heroic path, ancestry, patriarchy and manhood, Western heroes, cultural myths, religion, child-rearing, marriage—all sources of great human meaning for Western man. I ask, which of these is the march toward rights not at war with?
There is war on all of these, but this game is coming to an end as the woke will end up consuming the woke. Assigning points for the myriad intersectional ways that one is a victim of the privileged class will turn victim against victim – all in a race to the bottom to prove who deserves to be on top.
We are told endlessly what we are not to be: a racist, a “homophobe,” a sexist, or a straight white Christian male. We know what we can’t be; the mental automatons in the mainstream ensure this, but what can—what should—we be? This is the question the NAP-and-nothing-but-the-NAP libertarian must answer. Relativists hate this question. If the libertarian is not to be ensnared by the Left, he must ask this question too.
He will not find the answer in his facile reasoning. A dogmatic adherence to rationalism cannot answer this question. The NAP cannot be the libertarian’s final destination.
This is where Engel is taking his work, via his magazine, Bastion. In fact, Engel turns the question on its head – as I have done: looking to the culture as more important for liberty than is the NAP.
Icarus was warned not to fly too high, putting himself in the place of God. For Icarus – and for libertarians who lean left – this was a choice that led (and will lead) to the loss of life and liberty.
We should remember that Icarus was also warned not to fly too low – a place with the devil. “Anything peaceful” – in other words, the low bar of the non-aggression principle as the only ethical bar that is meaningful to man’s liberty – ensures that the sea's dampness will clog our wings. When “anything peaceful” is all we have, there is nothing to prevent us from sinking into the abyss.