Theology & Spirituality

Out of Libertarianism

It doesn’t take much political acumen to see that the sun of libertarianism is setting. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench into the gears of globalization and exposed the weaknesses of supply chains outsourced to foreign states. Every day, the nightly news recounts the latest politically-charged interventions by Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Amazon, and the backlash from both Democrats and Republicans alike. (A swarm of antitrust hawks is circling overhead.) The culture wars are now fought over issues of immigration and national identity. And in the era of lockdowns and Paycheck Protection Programs, no one’s worrying much about the national debt anymore.

Among right-of-center young people, the political mood is different than it was a decade ago. Whether they’ll admit it or not, most know that something, somewhere, went wrong with the libertarian project. The heady energy of the “Ron Paul Revolution” is long gone, and in its place is a new wave of serious talk about religion, the limits of liberty, and the common good.

To be sure, there’s been plenty of pushback. Over the last few months I’ve seen and heard more than a few people sardonically remark that plenty of today’s self-described “postliberals” are the same people who were diehard Ayn Rand aficionados in high school, during the Tea Party’s glory days. The implication is that those who’ve made the recent turn are fundamentally insincere—chasing the political winds of the moment rather than seriously rethinking their first principles. 

Well, I was one of those aficionados. Like thousands of other students, I sent my essay on The Fountainhead off to the Ayn Rand Institute in the hopes of scoring scholarship dollars (I didn’t win). But—like many young people who grew up with right-of-center politics—I no longer identify as a libertarian today. And those of us who’ve made the shift have, I think, an obligation to explain why.

Over the last few years, most of the “liberalism has failed” commentary has followed a fairly standard script. On the standard view, libertarianism’s laissez-faire approach to moral issues has led to widespread moral decay and a public inured to genuine virtue. This, in turn, has exposed the lie of any allegedly “neutral” conception of the human good.

For better or worse, though, this argument was not what persuaded me to rethink my principles. Rather, the tipping point came when I reached a clear-eyed understanding of what libertarian politics, carried to its logical end, really means for ordinary human life. And I write this in the hope that those not persuaded by the “argument from civic morality” might perhaps be persuaded by this one.

I have never been a political dabbler, and my libertarian affiliations stretch back over years. I interned for the Institute for Humane Studies (ground zero for libertarians in academia) and spent a year as a Fréderic Bastiat Fellow for the Mercatus Center, one of the movement’s top think tanks. I’ve published (repeatedly) in the Christian Libertarian Review, and clerked for probably the most prominent libertarian jurist in the federal judiciary. This is an intellectual subculture with which I am intimately familiar.

I mention this to make it clear that I never really expected my political convictions to change. In fact, I thought I’d make a career out of them: immediately following my graduation from law school, I headed off to work for a Los Angeles employer who was a particularly brilliant star in the libertarian constellation. 

The experience was profoundly grueling. Our hours were 9:30 A.M. to 1:30 A.M., seven days a week, 365 days a year…though on weekends things usually started up around noon. At least, that was the case until I disappointed him by catching a 9:00 A.M. movie one Saturday morning (I still have no idea how he found out). From then on, office hours were enforced with an iron fist. 

“You eat, you sleep, you work for me,” he told me. “You don’t shit unless I say so.”

Needless to say, that was the end of any Sunday morning worship for months (and I’d just found a local church I really liked). It was also the end of normal human interactions, except for the times when my now-wife flew cross-country to care for me as best she could.

Why didn’t I simply quit? Because in my field, there is an uncommonly strong industry taboo against quitting jobs like the one I held—to say nothing of the problems posed by making an enemy of a very powerful person. The market had precious little tolerance for people who didn’t fall in line when told. And to make matters worse, most federal employment laws didn’t apply to my sector. 

During those crushing, sleep-deprived months, everything in me was screaming this is wrong, this is wrong, this is wrong. But my libertarian convictions did not allow me to say precisely why. I had consented to this work relationship, hadn’t I? It was a mutually beneficial transaction, wasn’t it? So what, then, was the problem?

Ultimately, the contradiction between the philosophy I held and the facts of objective reality became too much to tolerate. I was forced to come to terms with a profoundly uncomfortable truth: the arc of unrestrained capitalism bends inevitably toward the post-human.

The basic human necessities and joys of life all require time—time to sleep, time to eat, time to worship, time to sit on the patio with your spouse as the sun sets, and so on. But time is an irreducibly finite quantity: even the most zealous productivity efforts will, in the end, run up against the cosmic backstop that is the 24-hour day. So, the logic of the pristinely unfettered market runs, the answer is to cut out all other things that might distract from work. 

Silicon Valley, of course, is the representative of this tendency par excellence.There, top companies invite their workforce to live on elaborate campuses that collapse the work/life distinction altogether. Employees are invited to freeze their eggs and sperm and defer parenthood indefinitely in favor of advancement. What matters, above all else, is commitment to the job. 

This is what Tara Isabella Burton calls, in her recent book Strange Rites, the “Californian ideology.” It is a quasi-religious sensibility that encompasses such phenomena as ascetic meditation practices, bizarre food preferences like Soylent, a fixation on “biohacking” or biological self-optimization, and a dogged commitment to the moral virtue of capital-P Progress.

The great enemy of this ideology, just as it was for the ancient Gnostics, is materiality as such. “Meatspace,” or the carnal world and its various physical demands, is the last intractable impediment to the emergence of the perfect worker, the vanguard of divine innovation. After all, how does pausing to do any of the “normal” functions of human existence—to eat a meal, to grow a garden, to hold a child—push forward the bleeding edge of Progress? For the Californian Ideology, those functions are evolutionary residua that the employee who truly cares about his task should be capable of transcending. The corollary of bring your whole self to work is, well, give your whole self to work.

The modern libertarian doctrine of salvation, carried to its logical conclusion, involves a teleological ascent toward the triumph of the disembodied intellect, mind unencumbered by fleshly constraints. It should be no surprise at all that so many libertarian billionaires are obsessed with the transfer of consciousness into computer systems: the apex of freedom from external constraint, after all, is freedom from the finite human body itself. 

On libertarian logic, there is no logical reason an employer could not—or should not—demand that their employees work 16 hours a day, as long as they’re physically capable of doing so. Furthermore, once the technology is rolled out, why not insist that employees submit to cybernetic or genetic enhancements in order to more effectively perform on the job? Ironically, this is the same conclusion reached by the Xenofeminist Manifesto, a recent left-wing call for evolving beyond the oppressive physical body: if nature is unjust, change nature!

None of this, of course, can be remotely squared with anything resembling a historically Christian worldview. Genesis 1 makes clear that God saw the world He had made—including man and woman in their primordial state—and it was good. The creation did not need to be “biohacked” for Adam and Eve to be worthy of their Creator’s love. And that same chapter recounts how at the end of creation God rested, inaugurating the Sabbath day which the Israelites were to keep holy. Surely in a fallen world all of us do labor by the sweat of our brows, but that does not change the fact that the essential rhythm of life—labor and rest—is woven into the very fabric of the created order.

This is, fundamentally, a point of natural law: a truly good political philosophy cannot demand that humans unmake themselves in the service of economic life. That is nihilism.

This need for a humane understanding of work is the unusually powerful insight that underpins Daniel Markovits’s recent book The Meritocracy Trap, which has largely been (mis)read as an extended demand for the reinvention of university admissions processes. That characterization is too reductive: Markovits’s central theme is the recognition that ostensibly “elite” jobs make many workers who hold them profoundly unhappy. No level of economic prosperity can possibly compensate for an unending chain of missed dinners, ruined vacations, and broken relationships. Or, put in more classical terms, a culture of work that demands ever more time and pays ever more money—the tragic yet seemingly inevitable destiny of libertarian political economy, under contemporary conditions—is fundamentally antagonistic to human flourishing.

As Malcolm Harris correctly notes, this of course hasn’t gone unnoticed by the next generation of young people, staring into the maw of an economy that exerts an ever-more-totalizing control over its workforce. Is it really any wonder Silicon Valley has a suicide epidemic among its teens?

At bottom, a philosophy calling for ever-greater “innovation” and “gales of creative destruction” in the pursuit of productivity maximization is one that has little room for the preservation and cultivation of truths and traditions, or for the simple possibility of quietly being human—being a husband, a father, or a son without any value proposition attached. And yet those latter vocations are what make life worth living in the first place.

A truly Christian economic vision is one that speaks to human beings in their createdness—that is, their finitude. Exactly what that looks like will differ across times and societies, but it ought to take seriously the centrality of the family, honor the human need for worship, and acknowledge the importance of truly meaningful leisure. It must make room for the contemplation of God as an end in itself, rather than simply encouraging “mindfulness” as a productivity-maximizing discipline.

In developing a view of politics and economics that better respects the dignity of the human person, every last “libertarian” insight need not be rejected outright. For one thing, as Thomistic philosopher Mary Hirschfeld has persuasively argued, broadly market-based economies have proven more conducive to human flourishing than centrally-planned systems. So too, libertarian thinkers are particularly good at ferreting out the unintended consequences of policy interventions, which must inform any truly prudent political judgment. And I certainly don’t intend to downplay the tremendous achievements of the post-industrial age, or to minimize the efforts of those who worked hard for them. I am writing this on a laptop, after all. 

But eventually, it is enough, and at that point, the marginal gains from further struggle become vanishingly slight in comparison to the costs to human welfare. (To name one particularly egregious example, a player’s ability to experience an open-world video game with some of the largest “in-game maps” of all time cannot possibly justify the devastating effects on the health and families of developers pushed into repeated hundred-hour workweeks.) Where market forces demand that workers shed the limits of their human nature altogether, they go too far.

Moving beyond libertarianism will not come without its tradeoffs. Perhaps the wheels of Progress will turn a little slower. Perhaps consumer goods will cost a little more. But I submit that these are tradeoffs well worth making. Any economy worth fighting for must allow its citizens to seek and enjoy the real goods—and, of course, the ultimate Good—that are proper to human beings bearing their Creator’s image.


John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds an M.A.R. from the Institute of Lutheran Theology and a J.D. from Yale Law School.

Previous post

Can I Get a Hero?

Next post

Of Gnosis and Seagulls