Sometimes We Need Hobgoblins

My conservative friends must wonder why I am so kindly disposed toward libertarians, various breeds of whom advocate a number of social reforms — from open borders to re-legalizing recreational drugs to an all-volunteer tax code to the abolition of marriage as an institution recognized by the state to isolationism — which conservatives of various breeds regard as ranging from the Utopian to the diabolical.

The simple answer is, I used to be one. If you accept their axioms, their conclusions follow logically — and they abide by them. Consistently. I can think of few compliments as weighty to a philosophical mind.

They are, in effect, the logical end-result of the Protestant movement away from institutional loyalty and toward the individual conscience: Puritanism taken to a secular extreme.

Indeed, the most telling complaint against the libertarian mind is this consistency, an unwillingness to make an exception when an exception is due. The argument against them is that a foolish consistency is he hobgoblin of little minds. Of course, by its own logic, an argument against consistency cannot be applied to all situations: sometimes we need hobgoblins. Especially the hobgoblin called conscience.

It lends an air of intellectual unreality to their discussions, as when they might debate whether a private street owner has the right to forbid a private fire-fighting company from rushing to the aid of a burning church, if the street-owner is motivated by hatred for that church; or as when they debate whether to abolish intellectual property law; or repeal all laws against fraud, on the grounds that free market mechanisms rather than courts of law will operate more efficiently to discourage breech of contract.

But they are consistent during the times when it is more important to be consistent, as when an unpopular minority abuses an otherwise sacred right, such as freedom of speech and assembly.

Here, for example, is Steve Greenhut over at, in an essay about police pepper-spraying seating protesters.

I disagree with most of what the Occupy protesters are saying, quite obviously, but when I see lines of riot-gear-clad officials standing in front of these unbathed wretches, my heart goes out to the wretches. They need a lesson in economics and politics. The policies they advocate – to the degree that many of them have any well-defined grievances – range from the silly to the disastrous. They are inconsistent, foolish and hypocritical. Many of them are lazy freeloaders. Such is life. They do create filth and chaos in public parks, but if one cannot protest in a public park, there are not many places to have a protest. It’s in everyone’s best interest for the authorities to provide as much latitude as possible for protesters of any political persuasion. We still do pretend to live in a free society, right?

Without commenting on the case itself, let me mention that the police may use force in situations other than when they are physically threatened. Whether this situation was one where lawful force of this degree was authorized, I leave to those who know more than I to discuss.

But were I the lawyer involved, I would rather be arguing the ACLU case, which is clear and dramatic, rather than the Police case, which is problematical, and has a high threshold to clear.

No matter which side I am on, my heart goes out to the wretches.

They may be wrong in this case, and need a bath, but I have been wrong in similar cases, and also need a bath, let me be not hasty to condone the use of force b y Caesar, who is eager to be unleashed, with equally cavalier brutality, against anti-abortionists and tax-protesters and other causes I support, no more popular than these.

hat tip to Mark Shea.

Legal notice: Mark Shea is a member of the SHEA-WRIGHT MUTUAL ADMIRATION SOCIETY. Come to think of it, he is the only other member, aside from me. Every link and compliment issued to Shea is because we admire each other.