Libertarians on Citizenship and Self-Defense: More with Dennis Prager

I am grateful to Dennis Prager for answering my last post on his views of gay marriage. 

On the religious front, I think that it is dangerous to draw much inference from the credo, “In God we trust.” It appears on American coinage and attracts much support from many people, but it runs this risk: There are many Americans who care much about what happens in this country who are not Theists, or even Deists. That choice should not be sufficient to silence their voices on matters of public debate or concern. The vision of a United States has to be inclusive and that can only happen if all citizens of the United States have equal rights under law—a proposition that both Prager and I endorse.

It is useful to remember the libertarian origins of that idea. The traditional law of persons was quite different and tolerated the emergence of a system of slavery. It also allowed for the inferior political and social status of women on issues from the vote (remember the suffragettes) to the ability of women to make contracts, own property, or testify in court without the approval of their husbands. That understanding was captured in the earlier, and now quaint phrase, “women’s libertarian,” which has been replaced by the more aggressive but less accurate term of “feminism,” which is just as easily read to defend legally mandated preferences for women as equal rights under law. There is no fatal libertarian weakness on this issue.

In his reply, Prager introduces yet another element of what he sees as libertarian thought; namely, the appeal to isolationism from the problems of the world. There is no doubt that some libertarians, of whom Senator Rand Paul may be the most conspicuous, take just this position. But it will be a sad day when Senator Paul is treated as the arbiter of libertarian thought. The proper libertarian principles dealing with assistance to other people in times of need is not easy to tease out.  But the reason is that the problem is a difficulty no matter what political theory is invoked.

To see how the issue evolves, start with this simple question in the law of self-defense. In accordance with good libertarian principles, each person may use force to defend himself against aggression by others. The exact contours of that right are hard to define, because of the constant risk that the use of excessive force against imaginary threats creates risks of its own.  Libertarianism is much better at defining rights than it is in seeing how these rights play out in an uncertain world. But that is a defect that it shares with all normative theories, so the objection just points out how hard legal theory is, not that it should be abandoned altogether.

The next variation on this theme is whether a person is allowed or required to come to the assistance of a third person. The former here is always permissible. It is for the individual to decide whether, and, if so, by how much to assist another person. We know that this often happens when persons are attacked by others. And we also know that the philosophical problem of the good Samaritan—those individuals who can effectuate an easy rescue but choose not to do so—is not a serious social problem.  People do rescue—often when they should not, so that more people are killed in foolish rescues than die for neglect.  But there are no external principles that indicate when rescue should be undertaken, and we leave it to the good moral sense of individuals when to try and when not.

Those principles should inform national behavior in world contexts. But here the problems are far more difficult. Nations can enter or stay out of a war only collectively. Their internal deliberative processes require that these decisions be made by majority vote, often under conditions of great uncertainty. But there is nothing about the normative framework of libertarian thought that requires an automatic ‘no’ vote just because the vital interests of the United States are not in issue.

In fact, I fall on the interventionist side of many of these debates and think that it is appalling that the United States should stand aside on all too many occasions when mass murder occurs on the ground, as happens in places like Rwanda and South Sudan. I am not one of those who think that the war to take down Saddam Hussein was a huge mistake.  It did accomplish much good, but it was badly mishandled when the military phase of the action was over. But that is just the point. 

The strongest argument for the isolationist view is the incompetence of the United States in effectuating its good intentions. But the cure for that weakness is the devotion of more resources to understanding on how to act when we intervene overseas, which can only happen if the nation backs off its endless non-necessary interventions. But don’t blame the conscientious libertarian, whose philosophical positions do not entail any form of political isolationism.

So my plea to Dennis Prager is this: Be sure you understand what a libertarian theory entails before denouncing it.

  1. Dennis Prager
    C

    Prof. Epstein responded to nothing I wrote about same-sex marriage. And his pro-military intervention stance represents virtually no strand within the Libertarian Party nor any prominent libertarian spokesman.

    My plea to Richard Epstein is this. Be sure you understand what libertarian reality entails before defending it.

  2. Spin

    Great, now I have three posts to follow.  I’d prefer it if you guys were on a Podcast together.  Hey Rob….

  3. Tommy De Seno
    C
    Dennis Prager: Prof. Epstein responded to nothing I wrote about same-sex marriage. And his pro-military intervention stance represents virtually no strand within the Libertarian Party nor any prominent libertarian spokesman.

    My plea to Richard Epstein is this. Be sure you understand what libertarian reality entails before defending it. · 57 minutes ago

    Edited 56 minutes ago

    Thanks for using the comments section Dennis.  Richard isn’t a fan of it, so while you may not get a response from that renowned constitutional scholar, I hope a mere trial lawyer who is  libertarian like myself will suffice.

    You make historical references to government involvement in marriage as if it were the norm, but that’s clearly incorrect.  Government involving itself in the FORMATION of the marriage is a modern device.  They have always involved themselves in the contract breach (as with all contracts).   So I object to your claims that we Libertarians are changing human culture.  You marriage statists did that in the mid 18th Century.

    I ask you then do defend more specifically your assertion that government involvement in marriage formation is a pillar of civilization.

  4. Herbert Woodbery

    Prof. Epstein responded to nothing I wrote about same-sex marriage.

    His first paragraph is a direct response.

  5. Majestyk
    Dennis Prager: Prof. Epstein responded to nothing I wrote about same-sex marriage. 

    I’ll take this on.  Long before the advent of “In God We Trust” on the currency, money once had on it “Mind Your Business.”

    Mr. Prager, I have infinite respect for your intellect and hugely enjoy your show, but I cannot in good conscience apply the same standard (Monotheism, or theism in general) upon everybody when it is so simple for individuals of other religions (say Regressive Islam, or kooky Fundamentalist Mormons for instance) to negate the claims of your religion (no matter how benign or beneficial) simply by claiming equivalent divine revelation.

  6. Tommy De Seno
    C
    Majestyk

    Dennis Prager: Prof. Epstein responded to nothing I wrote about same-sex marriage. 

    I’ll take this on.  Long before the advent of “In God We Trust” on the currency, money once had on it “Mind Your Business.”

    Mr. Prager, I have infinite respect for your intellect and hugely enjoy your show, but I cannot in good conscience apply the same standard (Monotheism, or theism in general) upon everybody when it is so simple for individuals of other religions (say Regressive Islam, or kooky Fundamentalist Mormons for instance) to negate the claims of your religion (no matter how benign or beneficial) simply by claiming equivalent divine revelation. · 4 minutes ago

    I was a little disappointed in Dennis’ “In God We Trust” argument.  It’s a motto, not a governing document of Constitutional weight.

  7. Joseph Stanko
    Tommy De Seno

    I was a little disappointed in Dennis’ “In God We Trust” argument.  It’s a motto, not a governing document of Constitutional weight. 

    It’s not an argument.  It’s a mnemonic device, a teaching tool.

    His thesis is that there are 3 pillars or principles that define us, and if you ever forget what they are, you can pull a coin out of your pocket and read them:

    • Liberty

    • In God We Trust
    • E Pluribus Unum

    I don’t believe the words “E Pluribus Unum” appear in the Constitution, either, but they are central to the American idea, too.  Or at least they were before the multiculturalists took over and mucked everything up…

  8. Rachel Lu

    I tend to stay away from religion when arguing about marriage. I don’t think one needs to appeal to specifically religious norms in order to justify traditional marriage, and doing so tends to confuse people into thinking that the conservative position is distinctively religious (which I don’t believe it is).

    I gather Dennis Prager would disagree with some of what I just said. But still,  I don’t see how, as Epstein suggests, legalizing same-sex marriage can be a “neutral” stance when the question everyone cares about is, “is getting married the sort of thing two members of the same sex can do?”

    My church may not have to agree with the official government stance on this question, but if same-sex marriage is legalized, I will be living in a civil society that has answered the question in the affirmative. The change isn’t neutral; it involves taking a substantive position, and one I don’t support. Whether or not one approves of the substantive position Dennis Prager offers, it is neither more nor less neutral than Richard Epstein’s.

  9. Majestyk
    Joseph Stanko

    It’s not an argument.  It’s a mnemonic device, a teaching tool.

    His thesis is that there are 3 pillars or principles that define us, and if you ever forget what they are, you can pull a coin out of your pocket and read them:

    • Liberty

    • In God We Trust
    • E Pluribus Unum

    I don’t believe the words “E Pluribus Unum” appear in the Constitution, either, but they are central to the American idea, too.  Or at least they were before the multiculturalists took over and mucked everything up… · 0 minutes ago

    I’m on board with Liberty and E Pluribus Unum, but I can’t say that I’m convinced by “In God We Trust;”  It implies that if I don’t respect a celestial dictatorship that somehow my American-ness is incomplete.

  10. John Walker

    Aside from the weighty issues being debated here, has there ever been, or is there now any other forum in which the general public can see (and participate in) an intellectual debate between partisans of such stature?

  11. Joseph Stanko
    Majestyk

    Mr. Prager, I have infinite respect for your intellect and hugely enjoy your show, but I cannot in good conscience apply the same standard (Monotheism, or theism in general) upon everybody when it is so simple for individuals of other religions (say Regressive Islam, or kooky Fundamentalist Mormons for instance) to negate the claims of your religion (no matter how benign or beneficial) simply by claiming equivalent divine revelation. 

    Who said anything about divine revelation?

    The Declaration, our founding document, lays out the case in terms of natural law: we are created equal and endowed by our Creator (i.e. God) with certain inalienable rights.  We can discover these rights using our reason, indeed the Founders claimed they were “self evident.”

    In other words, the case does not rest on a specific tradition of divine revelation, but it does rest on a foundation of theism/deism and natural law.

  12. FloppyDisk90

    I suspect this question had been addressed elsewhere in the voluminous postings on this subject so just point me in the right direction:

    Why can’t those opposed to SSM simply say, “We don’t cotton to that in our church.” and leave the state to define marriage however it wants to?  I can certainly understand the position of “Because first the state, then private churches.” but that’s not the argument I hear opponents making.  Is that actually the root of the opposition?

  13. Astonishing
    Tommy De Seno . . .

    You make historical references to government involvement in marriage as if it were the norm, but that’s clearly incorrect.  Government involving itself in the FORMATION of the marriage is a modern device.  . . .

    Whether or not government involvement in marriage initiation is a modern innovation, governments everywhere and always have invovled themselves in judging which putative marriages are recognized and enforced and which are not.

    Government recognition and enforcement of SSM is most certainly a modern Western innovation, heretofore unknown anywhere anytime.

    It is sophistry, and not very good sophistry at that, to argue that government recognition and enforcement of SSM is merely a return to business as usual, merely a return “the norm,” either for governments or for societies.

    The important issue is not formal technicality of how marriage is initiated: substantively it hardly matters whether marriage is initiated by filing papers with the county or by jumping sideways three times in unison in the town square. What matters is which putative marriages are actually enforced and recognized. For example, one might succeed in filing papers to marry one’s sister (or dog), but governments generally decline to recognize or to enforce incestuous or bestial unions.

  14. FloppyDisk90

    Astonishing:

    I give precious little weight to historic precedence.  It wasn’t until recently that women had legal status.  Doesn’t mean history was right.

  15. Majestyk
    Joseph Stanko

    Who said anything about divine revelation?

    The Declaration, our founding document, lays out the case in terms of natural law: we are created equal and endowed by our Creator (i.e. God) with certain inalienable rights.  We can discover these rights using ourreason, indeed the Founders claimed they were “self evident.”

    In other words, the case does notrest on a specific tradition of divine revelation, but it doesrest on a foundation of theism/deism and natural law. · 9 minutes ago

    I think Dennis is quite specific about the nature of the deistic faith from what I’ve heard on his show; that tradition is the Judeo/Christian ethic.

    While I am willing to concede that the American Experiment wouldn’t have been possible if Thomas Jefferson had been a Wahabi, that doesn’t grant carte blanche to religious people to claim sole authorship of the nation or exclusive moral high-ground when defining cultural institutions.

    Religions are process characteristics of our society, not authors of it as they would have us believe.

  16. Ben Lang
    Majestyk

    Joseph Stanko

    It’s not an argument.  It’s a mnemonic device, a teaching tool.

    His thesis is that there are 3 pillars or principles that define us, and if you ever forget what they are, you can pull a coin out of your pocket and read them:

    • Liberty

    • In God We Trust
    • E Pluribus Unum

    I don’t believe the words “E Pluribus Unum” appear in the Constitution, either, but they are central to the American idea, too.  Or at least they were before the multiculturalists took over and mucked everything up… · 0 minutes ago

    I’m on board with Liberty and E Pluribus Unum, but I can’t say that I’m convinced by “In God We Trust;”  It implies that if I don’t respect a celestial dictatorship that somehow my American-ness is incomplete. · 15 minutes ago

    The only implicit thing you need to respect is that “In God we Trust” has historically informed the ethos of what it means to hold an American identity, and this traditionally has (and still should) help inform a sense of national moral imperative.

    Also…please don’t be glib; “celestial dictatorship” c’mon now

  17. Ben Lang

    To clarify, by “national moral imperative” I mean only that we as Americans display a general civic morality in the sense that is it ‘American’ to help those in need or to band together as a community in a time of trouble.

  18. Majestyk
    Ben Lang

    The only implicit thing you need to respect is that “In God we Trust” has historically informed the ethos of what it means to hold an American identity, and this traditionally has (and still should) help inform a sense of national moral imperative.

    Also…please don’t be glib; “celestial dictatorship” c’mon now · 0 minutes ago

    Why?  Should I respect L. Ron Hubbard’s ethic?  Or perhaps that of Joseph Smith?  Why not the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania?  Which one of these competing claimants of “truth” with their differing visions of the will of God ought I to respect?

    I am more than willing to concede the historicity of the religious nature of the people of this nation; however, the First Amendment guarantees me the right to NOT participate in their practices and that there shall be no religious test.

    For my part, I’d rather “Mind Your Business” be back on the money.  All of this do-gooderism from the left derives from their misbegotten religious sentiments – and when it’s an issue of competing religions rather than competing facts there can be no victory.

  19. Fricosis Guy

    Count me as not as impressed by big parts of Prager’s argument. While Epstein doesn’t address all objections to homosexual marriage — e.g., complementarity — his rationale is consistent.

    In fact, Prager’s willingness to wave away the divorce liberty plays into Epstein’s hands. His argument takes advantage of Christian ignorance of Jewish marriage law to make it seem like it is about dissolving bad marriages.

    OK. But who has the right to initiate a divorce? Do husbands and wives have equal rights? Can one party disappear so that a divorce can’t be granted? No matter how you slice it, no fault divorce transformed the institution of marriage from a Jewish perspective as well.

  20. Majestyk
    Ben Lang: To clarify, by “national moral imperative” I mean only that we as Americans display a general civic morality in the sense that is it ‘American’ to help those in need or to band together as a community in a time of trouble. · 5 minutes ago

    Edited 4 minutes ago

    Certainly there is a difference between “general civic morality” and the specific admonitions of particular religions.  Everybody can agree that murder, theft, rape and arson are bad and we institute governments in order to curb those base human instincts.

    The issue of SSM is the sort of thing that is so widely open to interpretation that I’m well inclined at this point to want the government well out of the business of codifying relationships.

    If the government is so feckless as to be unable to prevent travesties like the situation in Colorado City, AZ, how do you think they’re going to do at preventing people from engaging in more innocuous behavior?