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

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: 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.

     I couldn’t put it better myself. The entire reason why the accumulation of thousands of years of wisdom works is because people have pushed against the accepted wisdom of the time. Cultural Wisdom does not spring ex-nihilo from nothingness. It is a process at which we arrive at the best possible forms for society. The experimentation and boundary pushing are every bit as important as those of us standing athwart it yelling “STOP!”

    It is the height of arrogance, and quite frankly a very Marxian way to view the world, when you assume that the path of civilization has an end point at which everything is perfect.

    • #31
  2. user_517406 Inactive
    user_517406
    @MerinaSmith

    Jamie, I didn’t say everything was perfect.  I defended one thing, the societal understanding that it is best for children to be born to their married mother and father, who then remain married and raise them.  Of course that won’t always happen, but as a society we should do all we can to see that it happens as often as possible.  We don’t need to experiment on that basic thing because it is true.  

    My point about libertarians is that they do advocate a position that affects everyone in profound ways.  Since we are social animals that’s what happens when we live in some kind of social union like a state or a country.  They think they are advocating a position that allows everyone to live as they please but they aren’t because the world they think they want affects us all and closes off other options.  That world they think they want is impossible, has never and will never exist.  It’s not the type of world humans can inhabit.  

    Midge–I agree–humans are morally obsessed creatures, but that is a different thing than virtue.

    • #32
  3. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Merina Smith:

    Midge–I agree–humans are morally obsessed creatures, but that is a different thing than virtue.

    But presumably virtue revolves around having the right kind of moral obsessions, functional moral obsessions.

    • #33
  4. user_331141 Inactive
    user_331141
    @JamieLockett

    Merina,

    I don’t think you’ll find any libertarian here on Ricochet that would contest you  on this one narrow issue. We do contest how specific policies will bring about the harms you say will be brought. I have no wish to sidetrack this thread into that discussion yet again, but I believe it is incumbent on SoCons to show how those horribles will be brought about by specific policies. At the same time I am extremely cautious about large scale societal change for changes sake and hold as cardinal rules that such changes must be 1) extremely gradual and 2) democratically implemented. This is the position of the majority of libertarians (the Randian Boogeymen inside many SoCons heads not withstanding) and the position of the vast majority of libertarians on Ricochet. .

    • #34
  5. user_517406 Inactive
    user_517406
    @MerinaSmith

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Merina Smith:

    Midge–I agree–humans are morally obsessed creatures, but that is a different thing than virtue.

    But presumably virtue revolves around having the right kind of moral obsessions, functional moral obsessions.

     You know, I have to think about that one.  The two are related, but I have to ponder how.  I sometimes think that virtue isn’t very complicated.  It’s the golden rule, so basically kindness and consideration, it’s loving our neighbor as ourselves, it’s protecting the weak and helpless, generally things people can agree upon.  Our moral obsessions tend to get tied up with our own self-interest in ways that are unrelated to virtue but that we convince ourselves are virtuous.  And we tend to bring in morally empty ideas to bolster our self-interest, notions of “equality” and “rights” for example.  So I’d say our moral obsessions ironically often tend to lead us away from virtue.  

    • #35
  6. Gödel's Ghost Inactive
    Gödel's Ghost
    @GreatGhostofGodel

    OK, I will probably regret this, but here goes. I am:

    1. A practicing Missouri Synod Lutheran.
    2. Pro-Life.
    3. Convinced that the traditional social structures (church/synagogue/mosque (yes, really)), voluntary charitable organizations, etc. are the best means of creating and sustaining society.
    4. Pick your other “social conservative” attribute; I probably meet it.

    I emphatically do not identify as a “social conservative.” I don’t identify as any kind of “conservative.” I am a registered big-L Libertarian, and have been for over two decades.

    I’m absolutely open to dialogue on these issues, but boy, stuff like “the libertarian argument will always come down to ‘because I *want* to'” makes me want to not bother engaging (and so, for the most part, I don’t). NB: I understand neither Rachel nor, e.g. Merina have made anything like such facile arguments.

    • #36
  7. user_517406 Inactive
    user_517406
    @MerinaSmith

    Jamie Lockett:

    Merina,

    I don’t think you’ll find any libertarian here on Ricochet that would contest you on this one narrow issue. We do contest how specific policies will bring about the harms you say will be brought. I have no wish to sidetrack this thread into that discussion yet again, but I believe it is incumbent on SoCons to show how those horribles will be brought about by specific policies. At the same time I am extremely cautious about large scale societal change for changes sake and hold as cardinal rules that such changes must be 1) extremely gradual and 2) democratically implemented. This is the position of the majority of libertarians (the Randian Boogeymen inside many SoCons heads not withstanding) and the position of the vast majority of libertarians on Ricochet. .

     But Jamie, to quote Midge, humans are morally obsessed creatures.  Once they are morally convinced of something like genderless marriage, they won’t stand for gradual implementation or democracy.  That should be perfectly obvious by now.  

    • #37
  8. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu
    @RachelLu

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    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?

    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.

     I’d really need to dig into the details here and ask: what kind of tinkering, and why are we doing it? In the case of marriage, I think you (and many conservatives who are comfortable with adjustments to marriage) are insufficiently concerned about changes in attitude and comportment. The conjugal view of marriage is not merely a sociological tried-and-true method (though it is that); it’s also philosophically coherent, and that’s partly (I think) why it works. You can assert as a hypothetical that maybe we can get rid of it, “tinker around the edges”, and still come up with something reasonably functional. But in order to do that you have to jettison the central philosophical rationale, and that makes it quite hard to cement the model in circumstances where sticking with the program is difficult. It seems to me that our attempts to “tinker at the edges” have created massive misery and dysfunction, and while the causal relationships are admittedly complicated, and thus difficult to draw with precision, it does seem rather irresponsible to me to write that off as… what? Acceptable costs of the experimental process? Why did we need to run this experiment, again?

    In some other areas of life (gender roles, for example, or courtship rituals) I agree that tinkering is sometimes necessary. Gender roles need to be moderately (though not infinitely) fluid, and because the specifics of what needs to get done, how onerous various jobs turn out to be etc etc fluctuate over time. So yes, there are some examples of customs and mores that require “tinkering” but I think libertarians are sometimes unrealistic and, yes, irresponsible in their evaluation of the costs and benefits of the experimental approach. 

    • #38
  9. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu
    @RachelLu

    Drug use is a case in which I think libertarians have some good points, but are basically whistling past the graveyard in terms of how damaging the “experiment” is likely to be. Yes, some drugs are in principle less damaging than, say, alcohol, and of course alcohol does ruin a fair number of lives even today. But insofar as it is presently regulated by culture and custom (which I think it is to an admirable extent), it took a long time to develop those customs, and the human cost in the interim was enormous. Enormous numbers of families destroyed, babies born with fetal alcohol syndrome, people killed in accidents or through alcohol-related crimes etc etc. 

    Looking at our culture, I ask myself: how well equipped do we seem to be at present to create and inculcate new reasonable-use norms for drugs among the most vulnerable? My assessment on that point is pretty negative, and of course once a market is legal, that opens all new avenues for targeting the most likely customers in more attractive and convenient ways than were possible heretofore. So my prediction is that, if we continue down the legalization path, millions of young lives are going to be permanently blighted through drug use, that previously might have been productive. There will also of course be benefits, given the cost and ramifications of anti-drug enforcement measures. Given a choice, I would take the enforcement costs over the costs of experimentation. But on a level of principle (at least as concerns drugs), my main message to libertarians is actually pretty harmonious with yours: be up-front about the real costs and benefits instead of assuming that more autonomy and “experimentation” always works out better. I think often they are pretty unrealistic on that score.

    • #39
  10. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    Rachel Lu: I’d really need to dig into the details here and ask: what kind of tinkering, and why are we doing it? In the case of marriage, I think you (and many conservatives who are comfortable with adjustments to marriage) are insufficiently concerned about changes in attitude and comportment…

    I think libertarians are sometimes unrealistic and, yes, irresponsible in their evaluation of the costs and benefits of the experimental approach.

    Possibly, though I of course disagree. I’m glad we can agree that we’re taking the same issues into account, though weighing them differently and — therefore — coming to different conclusions.

    Rachel Lu: In some other areas of life (gender roles, for example, or courtship rituals) I agree that tinkering is sometimes necessary.

    I knew you were a hedonistic, me-firsting, tradition-hater! ;)

    • #40
  11. user_517406 Inactive
    user_517406
    @MerinaSmith


    Rachel Lu: In some other areas of life (gender roles, for example, or courtship rituals) I agree that tinkering is sometimes necessary.

    I knew you were a hedonistic, me-firsting, tradition-hater! ;)

     Tom, thanks for the laugh.

    I do wonder if your attitudes towards experimentation will change once you are a parent.  

    • #41
  12. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu
    @RachelLu

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    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.)

    Scrupulosity can be a problem for many people, though I wouldn’t call it “excessive concern with virtue”, virtue being in my mind human excellence properly understood. But I’m afraid I don’t quite see how that constitutes a response to my point about libertarians. Are you suggesting that libertarianism is an expression of epistemic modesty about the good?

    I could accept that there are people for whom that’s true, but as a group I don’t think libertarians are known for their modesty; quite the contrary, they seem to feel that they have the correct and true understanding of (at least) what good government should be, and perhaps of the human condition more broadly.

    It’s true that our categories are starting to break down somewhat. I may have more to say on that presently. But I think some of our Rico-libertarians are pretty unrepresentative of the larger group, at least if (as I’ve mentioned) I can draw anything from the large number of people who have messaged me or written irate blog posts about how wrong I am to want to “criminalize” everything I don’t agree with.

    I think the real question of our time is not “do you want to be free?” but rather “for what do you want to be free?” In that sense, it may simply be unhelpful to classify as a coherent group people who claim “freedom” as their highest goal.

    • #42
  13. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Merina Smith:

    But Jamie, to quote Midge, humans are morally obsessed creatures. Once they are morally convinced of something like genderless marriage, they won’t stand for gradual implementation or democracy. That should be perfectly obvious by now.

    I think, though, Merina, you have a wrong idea about what the characteristic moral obsessions of libertarianism are. People call themselves libertarians for many reasons, including using the word “libertarian” as a polite way of signaling their support for some specific crusade (such as drug legalization or gay marriage) without understanding anything else about libertarianism.

    But feeling a certain way about gay marriages or drug use isn’t essential to being a libertarian. Rather, essential to libertarianism is some moral obsession with acknowledging the limits of centralized decision making. Libertarianism really is more morally obsessed than average with the question “Who decides?”

    In the moral sphere, libertarians may be obsessed with acknowledging the limits of moral obsession – with advocating that even moral obsession reaches a point of diminishing returns.

    A moral obsession with the potential benefits of less moral obsession is admittedly weird, but then humans are weird creatures, capable of a lot of weird cognition, some of which is even useful.

    • #43
  14. user_517406 Inactive
    user_517406
    @MerinaSmith

    No, I know that issue is not per se exactly a libertarian one and that libertarians’ moral obsession is freedom (from the state) or liberty or whatever you want to call it.  I like that way of putting it–a moral obsession with the benefits of less moral obsession.  I just think that that moral obsession often leads libertarians to think they are the pure–they have no moral obsessions.  It is good that you know that you do.  And that it has profound consequences

    • #44
  15. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Merina Smith:

    I like that way of putting it–a moral obsession with the benefits of less moral obsession. I just think that that moral obsession often leads libertarians to think they are the pure–they have no moral obsessions. It is good that you know that you do. And that it has profound consequences.

    Ah, agreement!

    • #45
  16. Gödel's Ghost Inactive
    Gödel's Ghost
    @GreatGhostofGodel

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    A moral obsession with the potential benefits of less moral obsession is admittedly weird, but then humans are weird creatures, capable of a lot of weird cognition, some of which is even useful.

    I would call libertarianism precisely the least fixpoint of political philosophy.

    • #46
  17. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Rachel Lu:Are you suggesting that libertarianism is an expression of epistemic modesty about the good?

    That sounds about as good a description as any I could come up with.

    I could accept that there are people for whom that’s true, but as a group I don’t think libertarians are known for their modesty; quite the contrary…

    Perhaps striving for outstanding modesty in any area is a hard thing to be humble about ;-)

    More prosaically, I’m not kidding when I say libertarian beliefs may be adaptive for a certain segment of the population – that some people adopt a libertarian philosophy in order to compensate for insufferable innate traits like scrupulosity and perfectionism. Such people may truly benefit from cultivating a “chill out, whatever’s people’s bag” attitude – especially toward other people. Better to channel perfectionism into quibbling over abstract political systems than to take it out on your fellow man in everyday life. 

    I see competition between SoCons and libertarians within the conservative movement the same way I see economic competition: rivalrous as it may feel in the heat of the moment, it’s ultimately cooperative, even when no one deliberately intends it to be so.

    • #47
  18. Gödel's Ghost Inactive
    Gödel's Ghost
    @GreatGhostofGodel

    Rachel Lu:

    I think the real question of our time is not “do you want to be free?” but rather “for what do you want to be free?” In that sense, it may simply be unhelpful to classify as a coherent group people who claim “freedom” as their highest goal.

     Wholeheartedly agreed. There certainly is the libertine libertarian wing. Then there are those of us who see government’s role as actively inimical to moral society. We end up making common cause with the libertine wing, but for very different reasons—and once we’re done smashing the State together, we’ll invite them to the church potluck.

    • #48
  19. user_331141 Inactive
    user_331141
    @JamieLockett

    Rachel,

    I think the reason the categories are breaking down is due to two reasons:

    1) Libertarianism as a philosophy is entirely about the nature of the state and its relationship to the individual and society. Hence all this talk about morals is, for many libertarians, not really part of a political discussion. Once removed from the realm of politics many libertarians become something else: Social Conservatives, liberals, hedonists what ever. 

    2) What I have yet to see from a Social Conservative here is the connection between their moral beliefs, politics and their desire for a smaller government. If social conservaitves believe the political solution to increasing virtue is to get government out of pushing social values as much as possible and let robust social institutions protect and enforce them then there is very little light between us. If Social Conservatives instead believe in utilizing the power of the state to push for Social Values then I don’t understand how that works with a stated limited government philosophy. 

    Its one thing to discuss virtue and morality (which you are quite effective at), its another thing to connect it to politics. 

    • #49
  20. user_517406 Inactive
    user_517406
    @MerinaSmith

    Jamie, I think you’re looking for a clean line that is unrealistic.  Law and government are very complex things even if the state is small.  Think of the complex arguments our founders had over these issues and then add to that 200+ years of complexity.  You seek for a kind of view from nowhere politically that would have zero moral consequences or opinions.  That view does not exist.  Even the tiniest state would have a view from somewhere and moral consequences.  You cannot completely separate the two.  Socons are simply saying that the state needs to uphold certain basic things, like religious freedom and marriage, because these lead to the kind of society that instills virtues that allow people to govern themselves and government to be small.  I don’t think upholding these things can be called big government.  Now, as for legalizing various things like drugs and prostitution, well, when you legalize things you bring on big government in the form of regulation and it is a kind of stamp of approval from government.  There are various ways to allow choice without full-on legalization.  We need to explore the nuance of the law in these areas.

    • #50
  21. user_331141 Inactive
    user_331141
    @JamieLockett

    Merina Smith: Socons are simply saying that the state needs to uphold certain basic things, like religious freedom and marriage,

     What if my religious freedom doesn’t comport with your definition of marriage?

    • #51
  22. user_517406 Inactive
    user_517406
    @MerinaSmith

    That’s when you need to fall back on tradition, Jamie.

    • #52
  23. user_331141 Inactive
    user_331141
    @JamieLockett

    Merina Smith: That’s when you need to fall back on tradition, Jamie.

     There we agree. However, gradually, over time, traditions change. 

    • #53
  24. Gödel's Ghost Inactive
    Gödel's Ghost
    @GreatGhostofGodel

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Rachel Lu:Are you suggesting that libertarianism is an expression of epistemic modesty about the good?

    That sounds about as good a description as any I could come up with.

    In particular, it’s explicitly true for Hayekian libertarians, among which I count myself.

    • #54
  25. user_517406 Inactive
    user_517406
    @MerinaSmith

    Jamie Lockett:

    Merina Smith: That’s when you need to fall back on tradition, Jamie.

    There we agree. However, gradually, over time, traditions change.

     Not marriage.  That’s the oldest, most stable tradition in the world.  Things like age at marriage change, or the number of women to men can vary by culture, but the sexual make-up–tradition is on my side on that one.  Except when overbearing lefties force their version of “morality” on people in the course of a nanosecond.  

    • #55
  26. hawk@haakondahl.com Inactive
    hawk@haakondahl.com
    @BallDiamondBall

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    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. 

    And so that social experimentation is called A) conservative or B) progressive?

    • #56
  27. hawk@haakondahl.com Inactive
    hawk@haakondahl.com
    @BallDiamondBall

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    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.

     Yes, Tom, that’s exactly right.  One man, one woman, get married, stay married and live happily ever after.  You have your goals; we have ours.

    • #57
  28. hawk@haakondahl.com Inactive
    hawk@haakondahl.com
    @BallDiamondBall

    Jamie Lockett:

     

    I couldn’t put it better myself. The entire reason why the accumulation of thousands of years of wisdom works is because people have pushed against the accepted wisdom of the time. Cultural Wisdom does not spring ex-nihilo from nothingness. It is a process at which we arrive at the best possible forms for society. The experimentation and boundary pushing are every bit as important as those of us standing athwart it yelling “STOP!”

    It is the height of arrogance, and quite frankly a very Marxian way to view the world, when you assume that the path of civilization has an end point at which everything is perfect.

     You do me a disservice implying a teleological perspective, and you disparage the cause of conservatism by misrepresenting it as an assumption of present perfection.  I didn’t say that society was perfect.  I say that social experimentation more often than not produces adverse results.  Libertarianism is a suppression of market forces such as disgust and rejection that produce a society from a collection of individuals.

    And if you feel that the experimentation is just as important as stopping the experiment, why would you identify yourself as stopping it?

    • #58
  29. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    Ball Diamond Ball:  Yes, Tom, that’s exactly right.  One man, one woman, get married, stay married and live happily ever after.  You have your goals; we have ours.

    I’m really curious to know what you think my goals are in this.

    • #59
  30. Gödel's Ghost Inactive
    Gödel's Ghost
    @GreatGhostofGodel

    I personally find it funny to see terms like “teleological” and “progressive” used almost as cursing, including via guilt-by-association with Marx. Thanks for the trenchant reminder why I cannot identify as “conservative” and why the Republicans are “the party of stupid.”

    • #60
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