Notes On Libertarians and Responsibility

 

Not wanting to hijack genferei’s response to Rachel Lu’s article on libertarianism and private morality I thought I’d start a second thread.

First, I wholly agree with Rachel that 1) small government requires private morality among its citizens to work; 2) that bourgeois, Judeo-Christian principles have proven themselves to be an extraordinarily robust, well-tested, and effective means of ensuring that morality; and 3) that some flavors of libertarians don’t appreciate either of the former points.  As she puts it:

Small government will not succeed unless people have a strong ability to govern their own affairs. That requires a culture that provides people with clear norms and expectations, and replaces the hard and impersonal boundaries of law with the softer forces of social approval and sanction. What we need, in short, are traditional morals. These tried-and-true norms for good behavior were developed precisely for the purpose of ordering human life in the context of families and small communities…

That said, it’s a little difficult to respond to her accusations about “libertine libertarianism” prone to “nihilism” without the benefit of a single example. In my experience, these accusations rarely pan out as advertised. More often than not, they’re more a matter of serious and substantial disagreements over specific moral principles — or how best to encourage them — rather than a debate about whether such things exist in the first place. Outside of The Big Lebowski, nihilists are a rare thing.

Stipulating — as Rachel does — that many libertarians value and promote traditional values, there are more socially liberal forms of libertarianism that disagree without warranting the “libertine” label. That’s because libertarian morality tends to be condition-based while traditional morality tends to be category-based.  For instance, a SoCon is more likely to disapprove of heroin use out-of-hand, while a libertarian is more likely to ask what harm the heroin is causing under particular circumstances.

Both approaches have their problems if left to their own devices. Too much categoricalism leads to injustices that take no account of actual situations involving actual people and can ignore circumstances not foreseen by the rules. This sometimes leads social conservatives to present nuclear families not only as a well-adjusted, well-tested, and effective means of raising the next generation, but as the best and only way of doing so.

On the other hand, too much emphasis on the particular circumstances of every situation — a tendency that afflicts many libertarians — leads to absurdity and foolishness. Just because some parents can raise well-adjusted children despite attending drug-laced swingers’ parties once a month doesn’t mean drug use and swinging are utterly benign. Statistics may not be destiny, but those who claim “It can’t happen to me!” are taunting Fate.

Socially liberal libertarians and social conservatives are unlikely to agree with each other, and needn’t do so in order to work together. That said, libertarians should generally put greater emphasis on responsibility in their rhetoric, especially when it comes to distinguishing responsible risk from recklessness. SoCons, in the meantime, would benefit from adopting a greater tolerance for alternative lifestyles, so long as those choices can be shown to lead to good outcomes for all involved.

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  1. user_331141 Inactive
    user_331141
    @JamieLockett

    I think the real issue when Conservatives criticize Libertarians regarding morality is that for the most part Libertarians aren’t making a moral argument. Libertarians primarily focus on the role of government and believe that government is incapable of enforcing or nurturing enduring moral norms. When we argue that certain things, such as drug use, should not be the perview of government it is not because we have no moral qualms about it, or because we are libertine anarchists (Fred Cole aside), but rather because we believe society, culture or individuals will probably work out how best to handle drug use (or  same sex marriage, religious liberty etc) on their own. It is precisely because we value culture and morality that be believe leaving it in the hands of government to enforce is a fools errand. 

    I am reminded of a story my grandfather, a pharmacist, once told: Prior to the criminalization of drugs everyone in his town knew who the cocaine, heroin or opium addicts were. He was able to supply them with their fix and there was no crime and very little external effects. After criminalization everything went underground and crime and negative externalities exploded.

    • #1
  2. hawk@haakondahl.com Inactive
    hawk@haakondahl.com
    @BallDiamondBall

    Why bother?  The conservative argument will always come down to “because it’s *wrong*”, and the libertarian argument will always come down to “because I *want* to.”  Reconciling these two approaches is a fool’s errand.

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  3. user_331141 Inactive
    user_331141
    @JamieLockett

    Ball Diamond Ball: Why bother?  The conservative argument will always come down to “because it’s *wrong*”, and the libertarian argument will always come down to “because I *want* to.”  Reconciling these two approaches is a fool’s errand.

     That is not what the libertarian argument comes down to at all.

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  4. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    Ball Diamond Ball: [L]ibertarian argument will always come down to “because I *want* to.”

    What are you basing this on?

    • #4
  5. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Is there any room in the virtuous column for partially virtuous people?

    • #5
  6. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu
    @RachelLu

    Thanks, Tom. Good thoughts. You know, in an earlier draft, I actually had a paragraph on nihilism and how the dearth of self-described nihilists is unrepresentative of the philosophy’s real influence… but it was kind of an interruption of the argument so I cut it. 

    Anyway, I often think that libertarians, though not formally opposed to virtue, are very insufficiently interested in it, or insufficiently thoughtful about what it requires to instill it in the general population. Are there really a lot of lifestyles that have been shown to work on a large scale (not just in a few cherry-picked instances) that social conservatives oppose? Or do libertarians just rely rather heavily on thought experiments to pooh-pooh social conservative concerns? There’s always such a temptation to claim the “coolness” cred of joining in the sneering at traditional morality. Libertarians know that temptation well. 

    Mainly I just find that the majority of self identified libertarians (clearly there are quite a few exceptions) don’t themselves trouble to draw the distinctions very carefully. Rebutting state intrusion is so overwhelmingly their concern that it’s hard to think of much else. I have multiple messages in my inbox and twitter feed, responding to my column by complaining about the “criminalization” of whatever I don’t agree with (except I didn’t call for that), and if I point out that that wasn’t my suggestion, the response tends to be “I guess that’s all right as long as the state isn’t doing it.”

    Building a functional culture needs needs to be a lot more than “all right” if we want small government. I don’t need permission to work on this; I need help, and eager acknowledgement that *this is a critical part of the conservative vision*.

    • #6
  7. user_331141 Inactive
    user_331141
    @JamieLockett

    Rachel,

    It is actually rather simple, the vast majority of Libertarians believe that government is a terrible method for instilling virtue. Family, churches and social groups are far more capable of propagating moral norms. If we restrict government form interfering with the vast majority of things then morality will tend to work itself out. A great example of this (and I say this as an Atheist), is the Mormon Church. It never fails to astonish me how great that one organization is as instilling virtue and a cultural way of life in its followers. All without any government interference. 

    The way I, and many libertarians, view things is that Social (Virtue?) Conservatives simply want to use the power of government to instill moral and social norms that they agree with. While I privately agree with those morals, I think using government to propagate them is a serious error in judgement. 

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  8. user_331141 Inactive
    user_331141
    @JamieLockett

    Rachel Lu: Mainly I just find that the majority of self identified libertarians (clearly there are quite a few exceptions) don’t themselves trouble to draw the distinctions very carefully. Rebutting state intrusion is so overwhelmingly their concern that it’s hard to think of much else.

     Here is your error: Most Libertarians don’t trouble to draw those distinctions in politics. Privately they do. Why? The realm of politics is wholly unsuited to dealing with these issues. What you see as not caring is actually dealing with these issues where they ought to be dealt with.

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  9. user_653084 Inactive
    user_653084
    @SalvatorePadula

    Rachel- I’m much more sympathetic to your call to virtue than I am generally to your point of view, but I fear that’s because you’ve not really fleshed out what you’re after in terms of concrete policy. Are proposals forthcoming?

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  10. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    Rachel Lu: Are there really a lot of lifestyles that have been shown to work on a large scale (not just in a few cherry-picked instances) that social conservatives oppose?

    To answer your question, I think functioning societies have been built that tolerate laxer views of sexual morality (France), drug use (the Netherlands), and prostitution (Germany).  These, obviously, come with costs and I’m not necessarily saying we should emulate them.

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  11. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    However, I think the exceptions are important. On marijuana, for instance, we’re talking about tens of millions of people who use it responsibly on a regular basis: they hold down jobs, they raise families, and participate in their communities. That tens of millions of others use it irresponsibly only makes the case for responsible behavior.

    To take another example, I really don’t care if people want to go swinging, so long as they can handle the sexual, emotional, and moral turmoil it potentially causes and are willing and capable of assuming the risks if they discover they can’t. That said, I think libertarians need to be more realistic about what most people can handle and be judgier about those who take foolhardy risks, especially if they involves third parties such as kids. If you’ve got kids, that should absolutely factor into the your risk-analysis.

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  12. user_517406 Inactive
    user_517406
    @MerinaSmith

    There are multiple problems, libertarians.  First of all, I am so very tired of hearing that we want government to enforce morality.  We expect morality to come from family, church and the like, but we DO NOT expect government to get in the way of our conscience and religious freedom.  It is nothing short of shocking that unelected Obamacare bureaucrats can set up rules that come close to bringing down religious freedom and freedom of conscience.  The very fact that the case was brought shows that we are losing the battle.  One justice dies, and it is lost.  Similarly with marriage.  The founders recognized marriage as the foundational institution of society because that’s how citizens are born.  And yet you libertarians support massive and undemocratic changes to it because you think it leads to more freedom.  Does that look to you like what has happened and is happening?  

    In fact, Socons are very tolerant of people and allow them to make choices, but legalization of every vice under the sun only leads to government intrusion, regulation and a whole lot of bad stuff.  There are more nuanced ways to deal with these issues that still allow choice.

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  13. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    Merina Smith: nd yet you libertarians support massive and undemocratic changes to it because you think it leads to more freedom.

    I don’t want to get into SSM too much on this, but I don’t support undemocratic changes to marriage and I’m hardly alone on this.  Prop 8 should be the law of the land in California.

    Merina Smith: In fact, Socons are very tolerant of people and allow them to make choices, but legalization of every vice under the sun only leads to government intrusion, regulation and a whole lot of bad stuff.  There are more nuanced ways to deal with these issues that still allow choice.

    Merina, I don’t follow this.  At all.  What does it mean to “tolerate” something — e.g., marijuana — you think should remain illegal?

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  14. user_517406 Inactive
    user_517406
    @MerinaSmith

    There are different levels of punishment for what is illegal, Tom. There are also things that are not exactly either legal or illegal.  Go read my post from the other day called To legalize or not to legalize, that is the question.  I talked about all this stuff there.

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  15. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu
    @RachelLu

    Salvatore Padula:

    Rachel- I’m much more sympathetic to your call to virtue than I am generally to your point of view, but I fear that’s because you’ve not really fleshed out what you’re after in terms of concrete policy. Are proposals forthcoming?

     This is a very strange sort of request given that the entire argument focuses on the need for non-governmental, cultural efforts to bolster traditional morals. Why are you, a libertarian, asking for policies? 

    If part of our refrain is that we want government to do less things, it seems to me that we need people to see that conservatism as a whole is about far more than governmental action. We need people to see conservatives promoting a harmonious blend of governmental and non-governmental solutions and ideas, all of which are understood to be part of “conservatism” in a broader sense. Only then will they see us as more than narrow-minded plutocrats.

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  16. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu
    @RachelLu

    The libertines strike back! I think this is a pretty amusing rebuttal, given that the main premise is “our culture is totally healthy and fine”.

    http://reason.com/blog/2014/08/21/the-virtues-of-libertines

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  17. hawk@haakondahl.com Inactive
    hawk@haakondahl.com
    @BallDiamondBall

    SoCons, in the meantime, would benefit from adopting a greater tolerance for alternative lifestyles, so long as those choices can be shown to lead to good outcomes for all involved

    At which point we would cease to be SoCons.  Conservatism is not mere stodginess.  There’s actually been a lot of thought, and thousands of years of experimentation to determine which choices can be shown to lead to good outcomes.  The fact that I have to explain this to libertarians is why I feel that you;re either mistaken or lying about what you want.  You are certainly not conservative if you cannot get down with the the morally normative society.
    What deeper argument than “because I want to” does this alternative lifestyling depend upon?  I reject the unproven, unsupported “born that way” theory.

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  18. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    Rachel Lu: I think this is a pretty amusing rebuttal…
    http://reason.com/blog/2014/08/21/the-virtues-of-libertines

    The contrasts between different types of ‘morality’ are pretty interesting.

    Sure, we may now be a nation of cohabiting, contraception-using, homosexuality-supporting, pot smokers, but we’ve also become a nation that’s infinitely less bigoted and misogynist. …

    “Norms against drunk driving, smoking, racism, and sexism are stronger than ever, and those are certainly better than the norm that permits you to disown your son if you find him having gay sex.” [quoting Jason Kuznicki

    It certainly looks like these libertine libertarians are happy with things because it is their suffocatingly smug sense of morality that is in the driving seat. 

    there’s a whole host of ways in which libertarian libertines are making the world a much more safe, just, tolerant, moral, and free place.

    Unless you want to smoke, or express traditional views, of course.

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  19. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    Ball Diamond Ball: There’s actually been a lot of thought, and thousands of years of experimentation to determine which choices can be shown to lead to good outcomes.

    Agreed.  And, for the record, that’s textbook Hayek.

    The only point I’d demur on is that the process of experimentation and learning is over.  We’ve learned a tremendous amount from previous generations — far more than any subsequent generation can learn — but that doesn’t mean there aren’t new variations on the existing themes to be found.  As Mike H. might say, 300 years ago anybody making the case for constitutional republicism would have been laughed out of the room.

    Ball Diamond Ball: The fact that I have to explain this to libertarians is why I feel that you;re either mistaken or lying about what you want.

    I don’t think you’ve exhausted all the possibilities.

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  20. user_517406 Inactive
    user_517406
    @MerinaSmith

    Gen, that is exactly right.  Libertarians are advocating a kind of “moral” world, but they just don’t see it.  Their blindness and intolerance would be funny if it weren’t so sad and destructive.  But I actually think conservatives are pretty tolerant in that we understand that humans are fallen creatures who won’t live up to our ideals.  We make mistakes along with everyone else.  I’ve said this often, but the truth is that it is only a sense of sin and repentance that allows people to be tolerant at all.   Why is the left so intolerant?  Because they are so certain they are right about everything.  They do all they can to not allow choice and to shame those they disagree with, who they regard as evil.  Conservatives on the other had understand that people do not live up to their ideals, but also greatly value choice.  We just want to have strong families and institutions and legal structures that help people avoid the worst pitfalls of life while still allowing people to make their own choices.  Then when they fall we do all we can to bring them back to the fold.

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  21. user_517406 Inactive
    user_517406
    @MerinaSmith

    This may sound patronizing too, but the truth is that Rachel is right that thousands of years of trial and error have taught us something about what works and doesn’t, especially in the all-important task of raising children.  No society can survive unless this has a high priority.  People who have no sense of right and wrong don’t fare well in life.  We can’t all reinvent the wheel.  We learn how to live from the culture we are raised in.  Government and law have to walk a fine line it is true, but maybe they should take a page from the medical profession and strive to first do no harm.  

    It really amuses me that libertarians go on and on about how judgmental socons are when progressives are out there ordering the nation around like the petty tyrants they are!

    • #21
  22. user_517406 Inactive
    user_517406
    @MerinaSmith

    Tom, it depends on what aspect of life you’re talking about.  After literally thousands of years of bringing children into the world, are we going to come up with a better institution for raising children than the family?  Nature itself decrees that a family is a Mom and Dad and the children born to them.  Now of course, sometimes parents die or can’t care for children for various reasons, but that is a bad thing.  To “experiment” with this is unconscionable because it is the lives of people who don’t get to choose their circumstances we are talking about, the most vulnerable and weak among us, children.  Yes.  It is about the children.  

    I work with teenagers at church.  A number of them have been abandoned by fathers or both parents and are being raised by single Moms or Grandparents.  I can’t begin to tell you how difficult and painful this is for them, and how much they long to be raised by their own Mom and Dad.

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  23. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    Merina Smith: [T]housands of years of trial and error have taught us something about what works and doesn’t, especially in the all-important task of raising children…

    After literally thousands of years of bringing children into the world, are we going to come up with a better institution for raising children than the family?

    I doubt a better institution might be found, but I’m not adverse to seeking to improve the already existing one, provided one accounts for the past knowledge.

    Look, I’m married to one woman to whom, among other things, I’ve pledged life-long sexual fidelity and with whom I plan to raise a family.  To the existent my reason’s in command here — always a dubious assumption — I’m following this bourgeois model because it’s proven itself to work very well over a long period of time and for a great many people.  It’s good because it works.

    But that’s different than saying it’s as good as it can be or that some responsible tinkering around the edges is foolhardy.  I think we know a lot about family and social institutions, but I don’t think we’ve learned everything and the only way you can learn new things is through exploring and experimentation.

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  24. user_517406 Inactive
    user_517406
    @MerinaSmith

    Exploring and experimentation happens on children in this case Tom.  I don’t call that responsible.

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  25. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    Merina Smith:

    Exploring and experimentation happens on children in this case Tom. I don’t call that responsible.

    So any variation on time-accumulated wisdom in child-rearing and family formation is irresponsible?  Good to know.

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  26. user_517406 Inactive
    user_517406
    @MerinaSmith

    Tom, that’s a big topic with lots of aspects to it, but variation on the understanding that it is best for children to be born to their own married Mom and Dad and raised by them we don’t need.  We can see perfectly well the destruction that weakening that understanding has brought in the lives of  untold numbers of children.  Some things are actually true in the old-fashioned sense.  That’s one of them.

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  27. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Rachel Lu:

    Anyway, I often think that libertarians, though not formally opposed to virtue, are very insufficiently interested in it, or insufficiently thoughtful…

    I am considerably less sure of this than you.

    People can be attracted to the same thing for different reasons. For more people than you suspect, Rachel, libertarianism is an adaptive response to a scrupulous conscience. (I mean scrupulosity in the widest moral sense, obviously, irrespective of whether one is Catholic.)

    While it’s undoubtedly true that some people ought to become more interested in virtue if they are to lead virtuous lives, it’s also true that others would actually have an easier time living a virtuous life if they thought  less  about virtue. Excessive worries about virtue can actually inhibit virtuous action.

    When I consider the obstacles micromanaging one’s own virtue can pose to actually living a virtuous life, I can’t help but think that, bad as it is to do this to yourself, it’s even worse to do it to other people.

    As Sowell put it, even virtue can reach the point of diminishing returns. I figure someone’s got to be the Cassandra who reminds people of this.

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  28. user_517406 Inactive
    user_517406
    @MerinaSmith

    Midge–I think it would be pretty nice if our worries in this country were about excessive concern for virtue.

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  29. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Merina Smith:

    Midge–I think it would be pretty nice if our worries in this country were about excessive concern for virtue.

    Some people’s are. And I would think that as a Christian who knows other Christians, you’d be familiar with at least some people whose problem is excessive fretting over virtue.

    Human beings, as far as I can make out, are naturally morally obsessed creatures. Some are more morally obsessive than others, of course. And some moral obsessions make more sense than others – if people didn’t believe that some moral obsessions make more sense than others, conservatives wouldn’t have such a good time mocking liberal moral obsessions, and liberals wouldn’t have such a good time mocking conservative moral obsessions.

    To say that the Americans alive today are as a category morally wanting says nothing about the variation within that category, which is substantial. Some people fail morally because they are too judgmental, others, because they’re not judgmental enough. And so on. There are perhaps more forms of moral derangement than there are physical diseases. People develop functional moral obsessions by fixing the moral derangements they actually have, not by fixing the average derangement.

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  30. user_331141 Inactive
    user_331141
    @JamieLockett

    Merina Smith: Their blindness and intolerance would be funny if it weren’t so sad and destructive.

     Excuse me? How are we intolerant exactly? Because we don’t advocate for state power to push specific moral agendas?

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