I recently spent a long weekend in Seattle talking about Milton (the poet, not the economist) with friends and colleagues. (This is how I have fun. Don’t judge me.) The discussion reminded me, yet again, of what a brilliant poet Milton was–and what an impossible codger. My friend John Alvis has described Milton’s political and theological path this way (and in the 17th century, there was as yet no such thing as a separation between church and state. The political was the theological, and vice versa.):
The young man destined, as he thought, for the clergy, first made common cause with Anglicans against papist oppression. “Church-outed” by his refusal to subscribe to oaths of conformity, Milton subsequently joined the Presbyterians in their repudiation of the episcopal form of Protestantism, only to break with John Knox’s sect when it became clear that the Presbyterians meant to establish another national church. During the Civil War, Milton initially found his party with the Independents, but eventually he ceased to hold communion with any sect and ended by constituting himself a church of one…
But the precise details of Milton’s politics and theology–while fascinating, and really really important, and we can all have a drink sometime and discuss whether he’s an Arian or an Arminian or some sort of hybrid–are not what I want to talk about.
What I want to talk about is what happens when you draw a circle around yourself and the people who believe what you do, and then slowly start to make the circle smaller and smaller, pull the circumference in tighter. Pretty soon your small community has become a church of one, built on an ever-shrinking piece of ground.
It’s pretty lonely.
It’s also pretty stupid. Look, there are things about which I am hard-line. You can (and people do) use libertarian sounding arguments to justify all kinds of abrogations of individual liberty. I’m happy to say that libertarianism, for me, means that you have the right to believe all kinds of nonsense about (for example) people of other races, genders, and dispositions. It also means I have the right to think you are a jerk for doing so. I have the right not to have dinner with you, or speak at your events, or allow other people to assume that because you’re a jerk, I must be too. And I’m going to be inclined to say that you don’t belong in my circle if you try to force your brand of nonsense on society at large. And I’ll do that because I think it is a core principle of individual liberty that you can’t infringe upon other people’s liberty in order to ensure your own. (And no, it’s not an infringement of your liberty if I decline your suggestion that we voluntarily associate. It’s just a “no thanks.”)
I take, in other words, a hard line against jerks.
And I guess you can be hardline about everything if you want. You can do the Milton thing and move from group to group as the essential corruption and impurity of each of them becomes clear to you. Or you can realize that deciding to accept the pleasures and benefits of our propensity to truck, barter, and exchange–deciding to be in a community with other human beings, even a voluntary and chosen community–means that you are giving up the chance to be pure.
And that can be a hard thing to give up. We all love the vision of ourselves as the last free human, standing athwart asshattery, yelling stop. But if your drive for purity pushes all your compatriots away, and makes enemies out of allies, and means you can never have a peaceful cocktail or conversation with anyone, I’m not sure what the point is of wanting purity. We want liberty so we can engage in anything that’s peaceful. It’s pretty hard to do that if you won’t let anyone inside your elaborate network of fences.
I guess I just want the people in the liberty movement–in whatever form you think it exists–to do all we can to avoid becoming a version of Terry Pratchett’s “tetchy god” Nuggan.
‘This is a holy book with an appendix?’
‘In a ring binder?’
‘Quite so, sir. People put blank pages in and the Abominations . . . turn up.’
‘You mean magically?’
‘I suppose I mean religiously, sir.’
Vimes opened a page at random. ‘Chocolate?’ he said. ‘He doesn’t like chocolate?’
‘Yes, sir. That’s an Abomination.’
‘Garlic? Well, I don’t much like that, so fair enough . . . cats?’
‘Oh, yes. He really doesn’t like cats, sir.’
…He leafed through the pages, and stopped. ‘The colour blue?’
‘What’s abominable about the colour blue? It’s just a colour! The sky is blue!’
‘Yes, sir. Devout Nugganites try not to look at it these days. Um . . .’ Chinny had been trained as a diplomat. Some things he didn’t like to say directly. ‘Nuggan, sir . . . um . . . is rather . . . tetchy,’ he managed.
‘Tetchy?’ said Vimes. ‘A tetchy god? What, he complains about the noise their kids make? Objects to loud music after nine p.m.?’
…‘What do the priests do about this?’
‘Not a lot, sir. I think they quietly ignore some of the more, er, extreme Abominations.’
‘You mean Nuggan objects to dwarfs, cats and the colour blue and there’re more insane commandments?’
…‘Oysters, sir. He doesn’t like them. But that’s not a problem because no one here has ever seen an oyster. Oh, and babies. He Abominated them, too.’
‘I take it people still make them here?’
‘Oh, yes, your gr— I’m sorry. Yes, sir. But they feel guilty about it. Barking dogs, that was another one. Shirts with six buttons, too. And cheese. Er . . . people just sort of, er, avoid the trickier ones. Even the priests seem to have given up trying to explain them.’
‘Yes, I think I can see why. So what we have here is a country that tries to run itself on the commandments of a god who, the people feel, may be wearing his underpants on his head. Has he Abominated underpants?’
‘No, sir,’ Chinny sighed. ‘But it’s probably only a matter of time.’