June 2012

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Some Libertarians

Are Economic Libertines

by Carmine Gorga

Words have consequences because they influence our actions. A powerful word that today is paralyzing our public discourse is libertarianism. To free the discourse and eventually our political actions, I will attempt to make a distinction between libertarianism and libertinism.

If this distinction is accepted, we will be ready to peer into the performance of capitalism and realize that economic libertines, by reserving all freedoms to themselves, and especially by separating rights from responsibilities, pursue not pure, moral, and ideal capitalism, but a whole set of variegated forms of exploitative capitalism.

Once the public discourse is opened up, a floodgate of ideas will ensue to remedy the current crisis in economics and politics.

Some Libertarians Are Economic Libertines

With his contribution to the Guardian of 19 December 2011, George Monbiot has started a discussion that goes to the very core of our political discourse. It associates the libertarian position with the 1% megalo-plutocratic attempt to control everything. It is a very important discussion.

Its long title is worth repeating: “This bastardised libertarianism makes 'freedom' an instrument of oppression. It's the disguise used by those who wish to exploit without restraint, denying the need for the state to protect the 99%”.

The title says it all. It is clear, cogent, erudite, enlightening, and energizing. It is a joy to read.

So propelled, I would like to add a couple of points.

Originally, there was a clear distinction between liberalism and libertinism. The corruption of our current political discourse is evidenced by the obliteration of the word libertinism. Somehow, the word libertine offends our sense of tolerance and our superficial moral sensibilities. Resistance to this word is likely to come from those who relate the word to moral libertinism, and hence restrict it to private morality.

To reintroduce the word in our vocabulary, I would like to apply it to economic affairs. And then I would like to specify that there is no such thing as private morality: True morality is always a public affair. It always involves at least two people.

The freedom of using the word libertine, it seems to me, can be regained only if we realize how we have allowed it to slip from our hands.

How Did We Lose the Word Libertine

We must first realize that we all would love to be libertines. Life would be so much easier! (This is a wrong assumption, but that is another discussion altogether). Who loves restraints?

It takes great wisdom to realize the reality and the usefulness of restraint. My father used to say “Remember that the grass named ‘I want’ does not exist even in the garden of the King”.

The slippery slope that led to the abandonment of the word “libertine” started very early. The Enlightenment was supposed to espouse tolerance. Indeed, it openly did, and that is why it gained so much favor: People were tired of intolerance, particularly religious intolerance.

But the Enlightenment was in a hurry. It hoped to accomplish its aims in a few days, rather than—if the effort was worthy at all—hundreds of years.

The case of the martyrs of Compiègne is symptomatic. The nuns were brought under the guillotine because they did not want to accept the freedom that the Revolution was offering them, the freedom to be out of the convent.

It is almost funny, if it had not been tragic for the nuns. And if it were not ingrained into the presumption of the Enlightenment: a sense of superiority that makes the Enlightened One tolerant of the unsuspected weaknesses in one’s own opinions, yet intolerant of weaknesses in other peoples’ opinions. It is this sense of superficial superiority that supports economic libertinism.

Libertinism is unrestrained liberty.

A few words will not suffice to settle the case. The discussion has to be brought on to another level. During the last forty years, the economic liberal has been transformed into a libertarian; and now some libertarians, for various reasons, threaten to become economic libertines.

Implicitly, the libertarian is given permission to become an economic libertine, because s/he talks of liberty in the abstract—but not as an abstract idea; rather, liberty as restricted to my liberty rather than being extended to liberty for all.

I am not creating an arbitrary interpretation; it is the original interpretation of liberty.

The Original Interpretation of Liberty

Libertinism neglects the other half of J. S. Mill definition of liberty: “The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.”

The true libertarian, faithful to the glorious tradition of extending the range of liberty to all, in every aspect of life, will never fall into the abyss of libertinism: the abyss of capturing all economic liberty for oneself and—automatically—denying economic liberty to the multitudes. The true libertarian will battle to the death for the liberty of all.

The true libertarian will do that much not because s/he is an “idealist” ready to go on quixotic quests at any hint of movement in the air. The true libertarian will fight for the liberty of all in full recognition of self-preservation, a thing that used to be called enlightened self-interest. The true libertarian will struggle for the liberty of all because freedom is a seamless web: Liberty for all is liberty for one, and vice versa.

The untoward libertarian, instead, the libertarian of the Me Generation—the libertine—could not care less about the extrinsic reality of freedom. In fact, all of his/her actions are aimed at the decoupling of freedom from morality. The final action is the decoupling of rights from responsibilities. There you have it, freedom to the utmost for me—“libertinism". And no responsibility whatsoever.

Ultimately, this conception of freedom becomes ugly and hurtful because it lives in a vacuum. Freedom is supposed to be the freedom of the individual person—individualism, as we assume it to be. And it is rarely realized that the “individual person” is such an abstraction conception that in the end it does not exist in real life.

If you were born of a mother, or even of a beaker manipulated by men and women in a lab coat, you were not born alone. You were born of The Other, from The Other. You are bonded with The Other; you are bound up with society. You are stuck with responsibilities.

The person in the social context is the total reality.

Both the Individual alone and Society alone are abstractions that lead to wrong ends.

If we want to free ourselves of the clutches of libertinism, we have to let the narcissistic self unfold—à la Professor Unger—into a mature person that fits into the needs and hopes and aspirations of the community: the community of family, the community of friends, the community of coworkers, the community of citizens—civilized citizens.

Mr. Gorga would like to acknowledge the invaluable editorial assistance received from Peter J. Bearse and David S. Wise.

Carmine Gorga, a former Fulbright Scholar, is president of The Somist Institute, a research organization in Gloucester, Mass. Through The Economic Process, To My Polis, and numerous other publications in economic theory and policy, he has transformed economics from a linear to a relational discipline. Dr. Gorga blogs at www.a-new-economic-atlas.com and www.modern-moral-meditations.blogspot.com.