Against Ron Swanson-ism
Does "happiness" mean eating garbage, ballooning up to six-hundred pounds, and dying of a heart attack at forty-three?
“The whole point of this country is if you want to eat garbage, balloon up to six-hundred pounds, and die of a heart attack at forty-three, you can; you are free to do so. To me, that’s beautiful,” said none other than the deadpan libertarian Ron Swanson in the sitcom Parks and Recreation.
While Swanson’s character – and ideology – is subject to comedic effect in the show, you might be surprised by how many libertarians in our own political order would agree with the character’s beliefs on privatizing most aspects of government while nullifying the majority of laws, all in the name of securing “freedom” and “individual liberty.” For example, the prevailing opinion of libertarians is that all drugs should be legalized, borders between countries should not exist, prostitution should be decriminalized, and in some circles, there is a belief that parents do not have a legal obligation to feed, clothe, or educate their children.
If this is what freedom means, what does it mean to exist in society?
Libertarianism ties itself to the American Revolution. It harkens back to the “Spirit of 1776,” bringing to mind great orators such as Patrick Henry and his famous “give me liberty or give me death” speech. This, combined with the influence of Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke, libertarians argue that the American founding was firmly rooted in liberalism, with “individual liberty” at its core. The Declaration of Independence, a product of the Enlightenment conception of rights, makes clear the position that government is contractual and merely exists to preserve our life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness – even if that “happiness” means “eating garbage, ballooning up to six-hundred pounds, and dying of a heart attack at forty-three.”
However, something occurs during the journey towards this "utopia.” The perception of America being “free” is tainted by the reality that it is increasingly filled with isolated consumers always in search of their next product high. Over the past two decades, the percentage of Americans who value patriotism, religion, having children, and community involvement has fallen dramatically, with only the “value” of money increasing over that same period. This is libertarianism at its core: a focus on the self and production of value to the exclusion of what truly matters.
Libertarianism has left us isolated, tired, and increasingly resentful. No amount of cheap material goods will change that. It is time we focus on what truly matters: faith, nation, family, morality, and tradition. As these traditional cultural values weaken, every individual desire becomes a new “human right;” therefore, the need for government grows in order to protect each newfound “right.” Ironically, this only grows the scope and power of the state, something to the ire of the libertarian.
This is why the libertarian insistence on “individualism” will never lead to “limited government.” At the end of the day, it is not a battle between “small government” and “big government” but a question of whether we provide the social structures that allow man to flourish, or leave him and his family by the wayside under the guise of “freedom” and “pulling one up by their bootstraps.”
Individualism has ushered in a cult-like social disorder so dangerous that many believe we should have the “freedom” to choose our own biology. Rather than man being made in the image of God and conforming to His will, man is increasingly playing God by believing in the supremacy of his own will. More people worship the value of “freedom” over doing what is right.
This is especially evident in the political economy, where religious adherence to the unlimited “free market” has created a dangerously growing rift between the few and the many, leading to a breakdown of the family structure and the preeminence of the individual. Unrestricted markets have resulted in the offshoring of American jobs – decimating entire regions, hollowing out communities, and leading to a feeling of hopelessness that has fueled an opioid epidemic.
And what is the libertarian answer to this sad state of affairs? Doubling down on the features of liberalism that got us here. Is this really freedom? To the libertarian, “freedom” is the absence of constraint on the will. According to Catholic teaching, however, being truly free does not mean having the ability to do whatever one pleases. Instead, it means having the ability to make choices that are good and morally right. In other words, choosing what we ought to do and finding freedom from sin and death in the virtue and redemption of Christ.
With this freedom in mind, there is another founding document that we can look to for guidance, one that does not share the revolutionary ideals of the Enlightenment. When written, the Constitution was a conservative counter-document to the Enlightenment ideals found in the Declaration of Independence. Unsurprisingly, many libertarians view the constitutional convention of 1787 as a coup that undermined the American Revolution. Thankfully, they have a point. Unlike the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution’s preamble references forming a more perfect union, justice, peace, the common defense, and, most importantly, the common good. By securing “the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,” the Constitution makes clear that liberty is not the final end of government, but rather a means to these other ends.
This fundamentally rejects the libertarian model of government. We are not individuals, but rather inherent members of the political community. Politics is not the sum of choice and freedom of will, but instead using one’s freedom to choose what is good for one’s family, community, and nation. Not all associations are “chosen,” our country included, and many of the essential foundations of culture are inherited. Libertarianism fails because it does not have a belief in posterity but instead orients society through the individual, to the dismay of the common good.
In his Reflections, Edmund Burke wrote that “Society is indeed a contract. It is a partnership. Not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” G.K. Chesterton furthered this sentiment by constructing his concept of “democracy of the dead.” Chesterton believed that tradition and the wisdom of past generations should shape society. He argued that ideas, customs, and institutions inherited from our ancestors have inherent value and viewed historical continuity as essential for preserving the cultural and moral fabric of a community. This is far different from the contractual nature of libertarianism. For the libertarian, all obligations and traditions must be chosen. A postliberal America will require a new commitment to the multigenerational promise of good government and the common good by focusing on faith, family, and freedom (rightly understood.)
The shift of Christianity to the private sphere has created a void that has been filled by a new religion, “individualism,” which demands absolute allegiance and has pervaded all areas of American life. We have arrived at this moment of moral decline because libertarianism has been masquerading as conservatism for far too long. It is crucial for conservatives to abandon the libertarian hostility towards governance and prioritize the order of the soul in the common good.
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