You know you love someone when you want for them what they want for themselves.
The three little words that really convey this sentiment are not, “I love you “, which can mean all kinds of things to all kinds of people; rather they are, “As you wish”.
Love is kind, expansive, proactive, and fundamentally non-constraining. And although some of us may disagree on a positive definition of love, we can surely all agree about what it is not: restricting, compelling, imposing, or violating the right of another to pursue his own happiness and self-actualization. Those characteristics attach to something altogether incompatible with love – and that is Fear.
And it is evident that fear has also been the driver of our nation’s politics for many years.
In a divided nation, as partisans work to use the political system and the institutions of power to impose their worldview on those who disagree with them, could we develop a politics not of Fear or imposition, but of Love? What would it look like? What system or philosophy could possibly be Love, politicized?
The answer is the politics of Liberty. Liberty, like Love, says to its recipients, “As You Wish” or “I want for you what you want for yourself”. Liberty seeks to build a society in which people can express themselves most fully because they can express themselves most freely.
While this identity between Liberty and Love is for me the best argument for the former as a political philosophy, it poses serious challenges to those of us who are fighting for it.
As I discussed with the wonderful Jeffrey Tucker on two episodes of my Blue Republican Radio show, liberty that is not Loving is not true liberty. Even libertarianism, like all political philosophies, can become a dogma, purporting a principled basis but in practice chiefly concerned with proving its own rightness and imposing itself on unwilling recipients. Even libertarianism can be imposed without consent – but only if it is not loving, and fails to put people first.
Tucker calls the latter tendency “Brutalism”, after the architectural school that was associated with the Soviet ideology and era – for, like brutalist architecture, brutalist libertarianism refuses to make any concessions to the culture, history or aesthetics of the people who are supposed to benefit from it – a refusal it justifies by its own supposed functional rightness and an appeal to a neat system of ideas.
If true Liberty (“as you wish”) is the politics of Love (“as you wish”), then what does that tell those of us who seek to bring more of the former to our national politics? The power of this question follows from the fact that most human beings have a very deep and clear experiential understanding of Love.
Some of the specific qualities of love are so obviously those of Liberty that there is little that needs to be said about them. For example, both refuse to aggress against another. Neither seeks to constrain another, except in emergency situations, perhaps, when someone’s life is in immediate danger, unperceived by the endangered party.
But Love is more multi-faceted than that and, therefore, so is Liberty.
First of all, Love is inherently humble. If you love someone, then you want to know what makes them happy, so Love shuts up for long enough to hear. Love listens. It listens to the beloved and acts on what it hears. Love acknowledges that different people experience and express Love in different ways. Even when it hears from the beloved something that seems misguided, wrong or even unloving, it doesn’t assume its own superiority, acting in a way that rejects what it heard as valueless. That variation in experience and expression of Love among people is in no way inconsistent with Love as a universal – and perhaps the fundamental – human value.
Similarly, the politics of Liberty must understand that Liberty, itself – like Love – may mean different things to different people. And similarly, also, that variation in experience and expression of Liberty is in no way inconsistent with Liberty’s being a universal – and perhaps the fundamental – political value.
Love is concerned with consequences, seeking to improve itself and adjust when the actions of the Lover are received badly by the Beloved. In other words, it is concerned and it is responsive. That makes it empirical. There is not, and there cannot be a dogma or orthodoxy of Love. No formula. It remains rooted in the human experience. And so Love is not measured theoretically by some abstract or impersonal metric: rather, it is measured in large part by the experience of those at whom the Love is directed. Like Love, Liberty should never forget that its primary purpose and measure is the happiness of people – and the facilitation of our own and others’ self-realization.
Further, Love recognizes that it has various manifestations, flavors and expressions. It even allows that sometimes, in the hands of imperfect people, it can produce completely opposite results.
In our life, we may love different people differently, and we may love the same people differently as they change, or as we do. The lesson for those who pursue political liberty is the need for sensitivity to context: an appreciation that different societies, cultures and historical traditions may use liberty to build different institutions, emphasize different principles, evolve in one way or another. Libertarians benefit their cause by respecting what a culture has already built with it. Just at “Love” that is maintained against the will of the Beloved, and denies what the Beloved values, is not Love, so a form of “Liberty” that is rejected by the people for whom it is promoted, is not Liberty.
Love is unifying. Just as Lovers do not divide against each other because their Love brings them to opposing conclusions in a few areas of their lives, so libertarians should take care not to divide among themselves because various of their number experience Liberty in ways that lead them to opposite positions in certain specifics. If they do so, they lose the opportunity to build what otherwise they may have been able to build together.
Love is respectful. It allows people to follow their own path, even when the one who Loves can see the pain that the Beloved is about to choose. By definition, letting people follow their path is the essence of Liberty, too. Sometimes, sadly for the one who Loves, the Beloved is not ready to receive the Love that is offered to them. At such times, the person who Loves may have to wait patiently and calmly, remaining open to the Beloved but standing far enough back not to impose. Parents, for example, when they look at their children, have a particularly deep sense that the point of the human experience is the journey – not the finding of a “right destination” and sitting there. And when they see their kids follow a path that will result in pain or difficulty, they don’t put down their children for their idiocy or lack of moral rectitude, but allow them to make their mistakes, as they did, being ready to support them when the request comes.
Said John Ruskin in 1870,
One evening when I was yet in my nurse’s arm I wanted to touch the tea urn, which was boiling merrily. My nurse would have taken me away from the urn, but my mother said let him touch it. So I touched it. And that was my first lesson in liberty.
And it was entirely consistent with his mother’s love.
Love lets people follow their own path that not only for this metaphysical reason that life is a journey, but also for the practical reason that judging someone for a mistake that they cannot perceive and insisting that they comply with your judgment always backfires. It breeds resentment and alienation.
The lesson for libertarians? Part of loving liberty, and part of loving people – and those two things are the same thing – is to be respectful in the face of people’s mistakes and ill-informed opinions. In particular, recognize that part of being human is at times not to behave consistently with one’s values, or the facts on the ground. Treat the mistaken with respect because only then will they be open to you and your ideas when they are ready to hear them. Libertarians are imperfect and have plenty to learn too.
For most people, politics is the society-wide application of morality. These are the same people that when they love their children, or their husbands or their wives, don’t just express that love in allowing them their freedom and doing them no harm. Rather, they actively care. Ultimately, Love cares. People who love make compromises. They go out of their way to ensure that their interactions with their beloved are fair, not just in their own sense of fairness, but in a way that is judged as fair by their Beloved.
Similarly, those of us who seek to reclaim our political liberties might appreciate that some of our ideas, if implemented without consideration of the thoroughly illiberal circumstances of many of our countrymen whom they’d effect, could do immediate harm – not because the ideas are wrong, but because we would be disrupting an equilibrium, transitioning from one state of affairs to another, in a way that some people who did not chose the change with us, are not ready for. Many of those are people who have been disempowered by their dependence on the state. Think of the young adult who’s been brought up in a house where he’s never seen a parent work, but watched his one parent cash the welfare check to survive week after week. And others have been made promises by the state which – although they perhaps should not have been made – should not be broken without extremely good cause. Think of the old state worker who’s paid his payroll tax for a lifetime and has expected for a lifetime the huge pension he is contracted to receive from his nearly bankrupt state.
If Liberty is the politics of Love, then caring for such people during a transition to what is Good and free is as much a duty of the libertarian as the transition itself. It is the very society that we seek to change that, after all, put many of them in the positions they are in.
I am convinced that such a humble, respectful, empirical and actively caring posture of Love is the best way making the case for true individual liberty sufficiently congruent and compelling that it will change our nation. The Love = Liberty equation reminds us that to speak of Liberty is not to speak about a political system, but to speak about the state of the spirit, or the soul, or simply humanity, itself.
Love is not indifferent. Libertarians may be entirely right that civil society should take care of most of what the state does today. But if the rest of the country cannot see the movement care – cannot see that it is concerned to offer those civil solutions and alternatives inasmuch detail as it points out the faults of what we have – they will rightly believe that we’re more concerned with our philosophy than with people.
More concerned, in other words, with Liberty than Love.
And that would be a contradiction in terms.