Mark Shea is dead wrong about “libertarian brutalism”, whatever the hell that means

I honestly don’t know what has happened to Mark Shea lately. He used to be a happy-go-lucky spiritual warrior who was a tremendously effective Catholic apologist.

Now I’m afraid he is just a crank.

The latest example of Shea’s crankiness is his latest post, in which he shows a cartoon that he claims shows “everything wrong with Libertarian brutalism”.

He finishes the post with the following rant:

At the end of the day, what Libertarian brutalism means is a) my stuff matters more than your life, even when I don’t need it and b) my *feeling* of stooping down and being generous for putting five bucks in a GoFundMe (if the mood takes me) is more important than having five bucks taken from my paycheck by the state to ensure that your kid doesn’t die from leukemia.  For the libertarian face with human need, it is not the human being in need that matters, but me, me, ME!


What is this Libertarian brutalism of which he speaks so….brutally? (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.)

The phrase originated in a long, pretentious, and boring essay Jeffrey Tucker wrote in 2014 entitled “Against Libertarian Brutalism”. Tucker divided libertarians by those who cared about other people (“humanitarians”) and those who don’t (“brutalists”).

These two impulses are radically different. The first values the social peace that emerges from freedom, while the second values the freedom to reject cooperation in favor of gut-level prejudice. The first wants to reduce the role of power and privilege in the world, while the second wants the freedom to assert power and privilege within the strict confines of private property rights and the freedom to disassociate.

Tucker even pulled a guilt-by-association stunt by equating brutalists with, I-kid-you-not, butt-ugly buildings.

What is brutalism? The term is mostly associated with an architectural style of the 1950s through the 1970s, one that emphasized large concrete structures unrefined by concerns over style and grace. Inelegance is its main thrust and its primary source of pride. Brutalism heralded the lack of pretense and the raw practicality of the building’s use. The building was supposed to be strong not pretty, aggressive not fussy, imposing and not subtle.

Brutalism in architecture was an affectation, one that emerged from a theory robbed of context. It was a style adopted with conscious precision. It believed it was forcing us to look at unadorned realities, an apparatus barren of distractions, in order to make a didactic point. This point was not only aesthetic but also ethical: It rejected beauty on principle. To beautify is to compromise, distract, and ruin the purity of the cause. It follows that brutalism rejected the need for commercial appeal and discarded issues of presentation and marketing; these issues, in the brutalist framework, shield our eyes from the radical core.

I told you the essay was boring.

The problems with Tucker’s approach

There are two really big problems with Tucker’s classification of libertarians.

First, all the libertarian does is apply the Non-Aggression Principle when evaluating political action. The NAP says that people, including governments and their agents, must not initiate force to pursue a political goal. (One would think a Christian would appreciate that.) It ultimately doesn’t matter why a libertarian insists on the NAP. As the author of the Anarchist Notebook writes:

Libertarian anarchy is not a social revolution. It is a political philosophy that respects people’s rights and requires consent before one has authority over another. That is it.

I fail to see what crime a person commits when acting according to this philosophy.

Second, for a so-called libertarian to divide libertarians between goody two-shoe humantarians and demon-spawn brutalists is to make a grave category error: the presumption that one can to peer into the hearts of others to determine their intent.

In fact, the entire premise behind Austrian economics, which informs libertarianism, is that one cannot objectively understand what a person thinks, but one can observe how a person acts. Praxeology, as developed by Mises, is the intellectual framework with which one can observe and evaluate human action, including political action.* To evaluate why someone does what they do is a fool’s errand lacking in humility, and can only lead to unnecessary conflict.

Demonizing a different perspective

Beyond the two major problems with Tucker’s approach to categorizing libertarians, Shea’s criticism of libertarians is inaccurate, uncharitable, and, frankly, grotesque in two ways.

First, Shea’s lack of economic understanding is shocking when compared to the knowledge Catholic scholars developed during the Late Scholastic period of the 16th and 17th centuries. Theologians such as Luis de Molina (1535–1600), Domingo de Soto (1494–1570), Leonardo Lessio (1554–1623), and Juan de Mariana (1536–1624) applied their religious and philosophical talents to the practical problems that arose in the marketplace, and generally came up with free-market solutions. In fact, Joseph Schumpeter argued in his History of Economic Analysis that these scholar-priests are the ones “who come nearer than does any other group to having been the ‘founders’ of scientific economics.”

Second, Shea’s characterization of libertarians as selfish, insensitive brats who don’t care about the lives of others is insulting and disgusting. Shea’s ignorance of economics doesn’t detract from the grotesque manner in which he characterizes people, whose only crime is that they have another different political perspective than him.

A plea

If someone is going to criticize my political perspective, it would be helpful if that person actually understand it before doing so. It will lessen the likelihood of characterizing it in an uncharitable manner, which, unfortunately, Shea did in his latest post.

* It is true that the study of economics, or what Mises calls “catallactics”, is a far more developed branch of praxeology than the study of political action. However, underlying praxeological concepts such as the action axiom and the law of diminishing marginal utility can also be applied to political action.

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