What do history's most notorious despots have in common with many of the flag-waving, patriotic politicians of our day? Both groups rise to power through the exploitation of fear, which has become a societal plague. There have been widespread casualties. We need an antidote. Feardom offers its readers a much-needed immunization.
I’ve been called many names and associated with many labels during my political advocacy and activism. One must develop thick skin in this business, of course. And most of the time, I let it slide and carry on. Recently being called “very confused and overzealous” by Paul Mero of the Sutherland Institute, however, merits a response.
First, some context. Two weeks ago, I wrote a post for Libertas Institute discussing our view on individual liberty. It was a response to a question from a visitor to our website, who used a couple quotes to determine what “flavor” of liberty we’re advocating for.
One of the quotes was from Lord Acton, and is very often used by Paul to bash libertarianism. On numerous occasions Paul has channeled Lord Acton to argue that liberty is “the right to do what you ought to do”—thus providing justification for the conservative desire to compel morality and responsibility when people allegedly aren’t doing what they “ought”.
As I looked for the quote’s source, I soon realized that its missing context worked against Paul’s use of the quote, and not in favor of it. So, I included that in my article to show how that specific statement by Lord Acton was a very libertarian one. Of course, I was not also arguing that everything else Lord Acton wrote or believed in was libertarian.
But Paul apparently believes that that is in fact what I was claiming. In his response to my article, Paul sought to correct my “ignorance” by producing one quote after another by and about Lord Acton to show that in fact, he was a conservative (by Paul’s standards) and not a libertarian. For example, he wrote:
And Acton has many quotes that can be singled out in championing personal liberty, for, once again, Acton was a Roman Catholic living in a very oppressive Protestant England. But it would be a massive misjudgment to accuse Acton of libertarianism for his defense of minority rights and “independence” in behalf of his religious liberty.
Most individuals who read my article will understand and agree that I was not “accusing Acton of libertarianism,” but rather pointing out that a quote so often abused in his name in fact supports a libertarian view. A single quote. Not everything he said. This is especially interesting since in an earlier, stinging paragraph Paul claimed that I was seeing what I wanted to see, while it was actually him seeing in my article something entirely different. Paul said:
Ideology, especially combined with youthful hubris, is a powerful narcotic. It makes people see only what they want to see. It makes facts out of fantasy. And it turns otherwise intelligent adults into juveniles.
I hesitate to place too much emphasis on Paul here, for his political opinions are hardly unique to him or to the organization over which he presides. Indeed, many conservatives do not understand libertarianism, and when they attempt dialogue with a libertarian they respond to something that the other individual does not in fact believe and is not arguing.
And that’s what Paul’s article ended up being—a very large straw man he built up to then torch with flames. Nowhere in his reply is there a response to the points of my article, namely: the state is an enemy to liberty; individual rights must take precedence over societal demands or interests; and a social or religious standard of morality should not and cannot be compelled through the state. Instead, we are treated with a variety of quotes showing that Acton was more conservative than libertarian—something I don’t disagree with, and which has nothing to do with my use of his (contextually accurate) quote.
As I noted in my FreedomFest debate with Paul, his definition of liberty is a comprehensive one which is more religious in nature. And I agree with him. As I stated during the debate (30:30 into the audio):
When Paul talks about liberty, I find that we perhaps have different definitions. Paul’s is an overarching, comprehensive, moral liberty. It encompasses social liberty, religious liberty, political liberty, and in many of those other factors, I agree! We cannot be free if we are in spiritual bondage, or financial bondage.
In its truest meaning, liberty comes as a result of righteousness—or to quote Acton, by doing what we “ought”. What Paul fails to acknowledge is that this is a personal, voluntary, moral “ought” which cannot be compelled; men enjoy their liberty only as they themselves become personally responsible.
Though we have many disagreements, I respect Paul. I enjoy productive dialogue and look forward to more of it in the future months and years. But as the late Stephen R. Covey said, we should seek first to understand before being understood. In my exchanges with Paul, I believe that he does not understand what I and other Latter-day Saint libertarians believe and advocate. His unwillingness to engage in debate at Freedomfest (instead using his rebuttal time to read prepared remarks) and his construction of a straw man in his recent article demonstrate that there is work yet to be done; we must seek greater understanding.
And that’s as much (if not more so) on myself than it is on Paul, or on those of us in the liberty movement than those in the conservative camp. Hubert Humphrey once said that “Freedom is hammered out on the anvil of discussion, dissent, and debate.” It is in civil conversation where competing ideas can be accurately contrasted, and informed conclusions made. But logical fallacies abound, and are destructive to our common goal to create a moral society. Straw men may make people feel better about their positions, but they ultimately do nothing to promote understanding, let alone a freer society. Let’s recognize and reject them, and move forward to (through persuasion!) persuade people to do what they “ought”.