Introduction to Robin Koerner’s “If You Can Keep It” by Jeffrey Tucker
In modern times, the case for human liberty in its classical form has been radically, horribly, destructively misrepresented and hence misunderstood. It is not a plan for the socio-political order, imposed by intellectuals with an ideology. It is not an ethic of individualism that insists that dogs should eat dogs. It is not a partisan plot to skew the affairs of government for capital and against labor, or for any one group against any other group. It is not a slogan for a would-be junta weilding perfect knowledge of the way all things should work.
The case for liberty is for a social process that is free to discover the best social institutions to enliven and realize human dignity through choice and with love. In order for that to happen, we need what might be called, in the tradition of C.S. Lewis, mere liberty: the freedom to own, act, speak, think, and innovate. The exercises of such rights is incompatible with government management of the economy and the social order.
It seems rather simple, right? I think so. But brilliant ideas come in simple and effervescent packages. This is a good description of Robin Koerner’s provocative and revisionist work, which I am humbled to introduce. It is a work of stunning erudition and sincerity. I also happen to agree with it. I’ve been struggling toward a similar thesis for a good part of my writing career, though I’m certain Robin has gone beyond even my most mature thought.
We need this book now. Too much is at stake for the cause of liberty to fail to expand its circle of friends. I’ve personally never met anyone who is against their own liberty. No one seeks to be a slave. No one wants all choice taken away, property stolen, and our bodies chained to a prescribed regime. To possess volition is part of what it means to be a living human being.
Our minds have to function. and what we think needs to be realizable. We seek to coordinate our choices with others in a way that benefits ourselves. We learn in the course of our lives that our own good is not incompatible with the good others. A sign of a mature person and a developed society is that there is no separation between the good of one and the good of many.
If all this is true, how did it come to be that we are ruled by regimes that negate all the above? The modern state knows no limits to its power. There is no aspect of life into which it does not intrude. How has that affected us as individuals, as communities? It has taken away our liberty and hence part of our humanity. This is why the cause of liberty must be clear on what it opposes. We seek to end government as we know it. But that is not the whole of what we seek. We also favor something beautiful. Explaining what this looks like and the rhetorical apparatus that necessarily accompanies this is the greatest value of Koerner’s book.
Three sections of this book gripped me especially. I’m intrigued at Koerner’s deep analysis of prevailing political biases and how they reflect personal life conditions in an intractable way. This is a result of an intrusive state apparatus that everyone is seeking to control in their own interest. In absence of such an apparatus, political biases would still exist though their exercise would take different and socially constructive forms. The implication here is that it is absolutely necessary for the whole of society to be somehow converted to a libertarian vision in order that liberty is sustained. What we need is a minimum set of rules that reflect commonly held moral standards such as the golden rule. Again, liberty does not seek to displace cultural or religious heterogeneity but rather give it a new and productive life as a source of unity rather than division.
I also appreciate Koerner’s extended explanation of money and its meaning in society. This is a major complaint against the free economy, that somehow it permits money to taint morality and beautiful aesthetics. He explains that money really is an organic outgrowth of human exchange, an essential institution that makes it easier to serve each other in a peaceful and rational way. People tend to think of money as crude and gritty and materialistic. In Koerner’s rendering, money as an institution is a proxy for the realization of human aspirations.
The third aspect of the book that truly sweeps me away with its insight and depth is his section on liberty as a realization of a civilization of love. I know that time is short and that people don’t read as carefully as they should. But this section deserves close study by every advocate of liberty. It will change the way you think and speak about the topic.
I have my own personal reasons for celebrating the appearance of this work. More than two years ago, writing my daily column, it occurred to me that libertarians might have picked up some bad habits in the course of their politicking. They might have a tendency toward a kind of reductionism, thinning out the core ideas to a single principle and applying it in ways that are contrary to the liberal spirit. I broke down camps within libertarianism into two archetypes: brutalist (named after the architectural school of thought) and humanitarianism. The essay was since translated into a dozen languages and prompted the greatest controversy of any of my mature writings. What I never had time to do was spell out what this humanitarian vision of liberty looks like in its fullest presentation. This is what Koerner’s book has done: completed something that I only discerned in its barest outlines.
The cause of human liberty does not need another didactic treatise that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that vast majority of humanity is living a lie and roiling in fallacious attachment to evil. What we need is a compelling case for why liberty can serve everyone right where we are today, regardless of life station, cultural preferences, language, or religion. We need writings that humanize what we favor. We need to understand that libertarianism is, at its root, liberal in spirit, inseparable from the historical forces that unleashed the most wonderful flowering of human dignity in the whole of human experience. This is what Koerner has done, and I absolutely celebrate the intellectual passion that led to this book’s creation.
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