Responding to Richard Epstein

Before responding to Richard Epstein’s post from earlier today (written in response to my appearance on last week’s Ricochet podcast), I want to say I have been a decades-long admirer – indeed great admirer – of Professor Epstein. Not because he is brilliant – brilliance is not uncommon and it is often used poorly – but because he is an original and important thinker. I have learned much from him.

But he is wrong (and devoid of his trademark clarity) on this issue. And he is wrong precisely because he is a strict libertarian. The idea that the state should have no say in the definition of marriage is what happens when ideology – in this case, libertarianism – becomes an intellectual strait-jacket.

Let me explain my use of the term “soulless libertarian.”

I have had many of the great libertarian thinkers – such as Prof. Epstein and Cato Institute scholars – on my radio show because I so admire their critiques of big government. They render an invaluable service with those critiques.

But the Libertarian Party and libertarians such as Ron Paul do strike me as soulless in at least in one very important area: they have an amoral view of America’s role in the world. As far as libertarians are concerned, if people anywhere in the world are suffering mass slaughter and torture, or even genocide, too bad for them. For libertarians, America’s unique might is only to be used in defending America. The rest of the world can go to hell as far as official libertarianism is concerned. Indeed, I have found no moral difference between Rep. Paul and the far Left on almost any major foreign policy issue.

My read of Americanism – and that of the Founders — differs greatly from libertarians. America is based on Judeo-Christian values, not only on small government. Americanism consists of three core values – “Liberty,” In God We Trust,” and “E Pluribus Unum.” Unlike any of our Founders, libertarians apparently think we can do out without the second value.

And, among other things, the God America believes in demands that when possible – it is, of course, not always possible – the mighty come to the defense of the persecuted. I wonder how any libertarian would defend America’s involvement in the Korean War, when America rescued half the Korean people from the unspeakable horrors of North Korea’s concentration-camp-based Communist regime. Since no one thought Mao or Kim Il-Sung would invade America, what libertarian reason would there have been to sacrifice 37,000 Americans for people on the Korean peninsula? That is what I meant by soulless.

As regards same-sex marriage, if I read Professor Epstein correctly, the government – that is, society – should have no say in defining marriage. That is quite a position. It would be a first in human history. Presumably, Professor Epstein deems America as having been wrong in denying Utah statehood until it outlawed polygamy. And what about incest? Should brothers and sisters of majority age be allowed to marry? Should parents and children? An elderly father, for instance, might marry his middle-aged daughter to take advantage of tax and inheritance benefits for married people. And what about divorce, alimony, and child custody? Who should sort those things out? Who would enforce any ruling? Muslim, Jewish and Christian courts? And who would do so for secular Americans?

If no state definition of marriage is indeed the libertarian position, that, too, is soulless. Not to mention anarchic.

Libertarians are brilliant and needed critics of big government. But small government alone does not make civilization possible.

  1. Nick Stuart

    Colloquy between Dennis Prager and Richard Epstein.

    That’s why Ricochet is worth it.

  2. rosegarden sj dad

    Thank you Dennis for joining in and your thoughtful response. This is great reading. But I must ask one question of Dennis:

    It sounds like you like libertarians when they criticize Big Government stuff you don’t like, but don’t like them when they criticize Big Government stuff you do like.

    Please clarify and thanks!

  3. Herbert Woodbery

    It sounds like you like libertarians when they criticize Big Government stuff you don’t like, but don’t like them when they criticize Big Government stuff you do like.

    Yep using government power to impose ideals that I happen to agree with while claiming small government is good in all the other areas that I happen to disagree with. Lets have some intellectual consistency here.

  4. Valiuth

    Mr. Prager: I think you miss characterize libertarians, by saying that they don’t want to have “goverentment-that is society”  define marriage. While I would hesitate to call my self a libertarian I always understood libertarians to view Society as distinct from Government.  This is a point I think Mr. Epstine was trying to make.

    If Government is Society then the laws must shape all our morality, and whoever controls the government controls the moral fabric of our Nation. By making Government smaller and narrower it insulates the moral fabric of society from the whims of a few elite. In this vision of Government as Society the only way to preserve the moral fabric of society as you deem it should be is by maintaining control of government indefinitely  How does one expect that to happen in a Free Republic? Only a tyrant can expect to forever hold the reigns of power. 

    One last point, on SSM. The reason SSM is gaining steam in the government is because it is gaining acceptance by the Society at large. This is driving Government policy. Mr. Epstine’s soulless libertarianism may be your only refuge in the end.  

  5. Tommy De Seno
    C

    Using what Ron Paul thinks to define Libertarianism is the equivalent of using what David Duke thinks to define conservatism.

    Richard and Dennis are talking past one another and I’m not just referring to their use of posts to reply to each other instead of the comment sections (yeah, it bothers me – there’s no superset of Ricochet contributors who are exempt from tending the garden of their comment sections.  Otherwise it reads like opposing letters to the editor and I can get that anywhere).

    They talk past one another because they use the same labels but in their minds the labels stand for different things. 

    If I said picture a bear on a hill and Richard pictured a grizzly bear and Dennis pictured a panda cub, they would differ on the prudence of going up the hill because there is a “bear” up there.

    You boys need to get together and define your terms ”conservative” and “libertarian” -  preferably in a comment section together so we can all be involved.

  6. Spin

    It’s on like Donkey Kong!

    Nick Stuart: Colloquy between Dennis Prager and Richard Epstein.

    That’s why Ricochet is worth it. · 20 minutes ago

  7. Lavaux

    Opening marriage to same-sex couples is a symptom of the family’s demise in our society, our culture being the true cause. The best reason to oppose same-sex marriage is that once it’s instituted it can never be dissolved regardless of the consequences to society or other individual liberties (expect ugly clashes with religious and economic liberty).

    Even so, fixing the family requires fixing the culture, and I don’t see any way to do that barring another Great Depression worse than the last presided over by an insolvent federal government unable to print money without risking hyper-inflation. After all, the Sodom lifestyle is expensive; Lot’s family certainly couldn’t afford it until they moved into the city. (Imagine the Neanderthal version of Sex and the City: No city, just caves, and the sex clubs would really knock you out.)

    Seriously, living vile is expensive whereas virtuous living conduces to prosperity and perhaps even happiness. Libertarians are soulless because they reject the establishment of virtue and vice by convention, but more importantly, because they seem to embrace materialism, which holds that prosperity is happiness. Not so but if it were, no better reason for virtue.

  8. Fricosis Guy

    Yes and yes.

    Tommy De Seno: Richard and Dennis are talking past one another and I’m not just referring to their use of posts to reply to one each other instead of the comment sections (yeah, it bothers me – there’s no superset of Ricochet contributors who are exempt from tending the garden of their comment sections.  Otherwise it reads like opposing letters to the editor and I can get that anywhere).

    They talk past one another because they use the same labels but in their minds the labels stand for different things. 

  9. Tommy De Seno
    C
    Lavaux:  Seriously, living vile is expensive whereas virtuous living conduces to prosperity and perhaps even happiness.

    Depends on where you meet her.

  10. Mollie Hemingway

    It is undoubtedly true — as their writings make clear — that the Founding Fathers believed our Republic would only work if we were a virtuous and religious society.

    But what does that have to do with whether the federal government should spend American lives and resources on taking care of every global problem?

    There are myriad ways to help the poor and suffering throughout the individuals beyond federal American intervention or warfare, no? I feel like a step was missed in this argument.

  11. Tommy De Seno
    C

    I wonder how Dennis would square his view with the Monroe Doctrine.

  12. Spin

    You are right on here, Tommy.  

    Tommy De Seno: Using what Ron Paul thinks to define Libertarianism is the equivalent of using what David Duke thinks to define conservatism.

    Richard and Dennis are talking past one another and I’m not just referring to their use of posts to reply to each other instead of the comment sections (yeah, it bothers me – there’s no superset of Ricochet contributors who are exempt from tending the garden of their comment sections.  Otherwise it reads like opposing letters to the editor and I can get that anywhere).

    They talk past one another because they use the same labels but in their minds the labels stand for different things. 

    If I said picture a bear on a hill and Richard pictured a grizzly bear and Dennis pictured a panda cub, they would differ on the prudence of going up the hill because there is a “bear” up there.

    You boys need to get together and define your terms ”conservative” and “libertarian” -  preferably in a comment section together so we can all be involved. · 15 minutes ago

    Edited 11 minutes ago

  13. Joe
    Dennis Prager:

    As far as libertarians are concerned, if people anywhere in the world are suffering mass slaughter and torture, or even genocide, too bad for them.

    What if the mass slaughter comes from famine? Are foreign policy hawks who lay siege to a populace using isolationist economic sanctions “soulless”? That we libertarians prefer means that involve more liberty and not less doesn’t mean we lack morals.

    Also, let’s play the HuffPo Comment Conversion game:

    “As far as [conservatives] are concerned, if people anywhere in the [country] are suffering [from disease and don't have health insurance], too bad for them.”

  14. BrentB67

    There is a big difference between being a shining example of what freedom loving people can accomplish and risking blood and treasure to try to make other people’s freedom come true.

    I don’t know the exact number of U.S. casualties in the Korean war, but recall it was more than 50,000. That is a lot of great Americans dead for a strip of land that we have had to occupy to secure for 60 years on the other side of the world with no end in sight.

    I wonder how many people that advocate the U.S. as the world’s police department recommend their children and grandchildren seek a career in the armed forces.

  15. Fricosis Guy

    Note that Mollie is now fighting a two-front war.

  16. Douglas
    Tommy De Seno: Using what Ron Paul thinks to define Libertarianism is the equivalent of using what David Duke thinks to define conservatism.

    Yeah, using a guy who was the Libertarian Party candidate for President at one time as an exemplar of Libertarian thought is just soooo unfair.

  17. Instugator
    Douglas

    Tommy De Seno: Using what Ron Paul thinks to define Libertarianism is the equivalent of using what David Duke thinks to define conservatism.

    Yeah, using a guy who was the Libertarian Party candidate for President at one time as an exemplar of Libertarian thought is just soooounfair. · 1 minute ago

    Ouch, that had to sting.

  18. Blue State Curmudgeon

    Our involvement in wars should be for one reason and one reason only; the  interests and security of the US and our allies.  I would argue that’s why we went into Korea and Viet Nam; not for the humanitarian purposes that Mr. Prager discusses.  If humanitarianism is in our national interest per se, then why didn’t we intervene in Rwanda and other ethnic nightmares around the globe ?

  19. BrentB67
    Tommy De Seno: Using what Ron Paul thinks to define Libertarianism is the equivalent of using what David Duke thinks to define conservatism.

    No kidding.

    Put 4 conservatives around a table and ask them to define what conservative means and they will open with a prayer, then spend the next several hours arguing over social, fiscal, foreign intervention, and what the heck any of it has to do with the republican party.

    Put 4 libertarians around a table and they will probably get high and might not make much sense, but the magic utopia of individual liberty and socialized consequences will sound very seductive. Bottom line, nobody has clarity or owns the terms.
  20. Luozi
    Tommy De Seno: Using what Ron Paul thinks to define Libertarianism is the equivalent of using what David Duke thinks to define conservatism.

    I can’t agree.  From what I understand, Ron Paul supports every major libertarian position on both domestic and foreign policy.  Furthermore, David Duke, for all his small-mindedness and anti-Semitism, is far more conservative than the average self-proclaimed conservative out there.  I’m not defending their positions, but these two men seem more principled than most of their co-ideologists.  That being said, I absolutely agree that for serious, in-depth discussions, we should be working with mutually agreed upon and consistently-used definitions.