What I Really Think about Libertarianism

 

My libertarian friends may be surprised to hear this, but my respect for libertarianism has grown quite a lot since my introduction to Ricochet two years ago. Admittedly, my estimation at the time was pretty low. I had lots of libertarian undergraduates, and I also encountered a handful of professors and grad students with broadly libertarian views, so I was well familiar with that “I’m-conservative-but-not-a-moral-nag” snobbery. That bothered me only a little bit. My real reasons for dismissing libertarians were twofold.

First, libertarianism struck me as reactionary in broad sense. It presents itself as a universally applicable theory about the relationship between the individual to the state, but on that score, I found Ayn Rand far less insightful than Thomas Aquinas, Plato or Aristotle. Her influence, I saw, related to more idiosyncratic conditions of her time: the rise of the administrative state. That was, I supposed, a real problem in our time, but in historical terms it was still contingent; not every society has these same problems. As a political theory, then, it seemed to me that libertarianism drew unjustifiably broad principles on the basis of historically distinctive challenges.

Second, libertarianism seemed morally lazy to me. You can see this especially clearly when you watch undergraduates learning ethics. We spend a lot of time working through the ins and outs of an Aristotelian-type virtue ethics. That means we’re discussing lots of detailed questions about what the good life involves and what it takes for human beings to be excellent. Some of the students get into it. Others become irritated by all the nitty-gritty details and also by the general sense that a virtue-based ethics reaches into every nook and cranny of their lives. It has things to say about their dietary and sexual habits, what they read, what they watch on television, and what they do with their friends. Of course we’re only talking about ethics here and not politics; nobody’s suggesting that we hire virtue police to ensure that everyone behaves well. But even on that score, some people yearn to escape from all the complication, and to find some area of life where the only ethical mandate is, “do whatever you want just as long as you’re not bothering anybody.”

Then we get to modern moral philosophy, and you can watch the relief spreading over their faces. We knew it didn’t have to be that complicated! Being good can’t possibly require us to wrangle with all those messy details! This is the appeal of utilitarianism, for example. If you want to know what to do, just add up the relevant pleasures and pains associated with the various alternatives, and see what makes people happier. There’s no need for all this complicated stuff about virtues and human nature and detailed analyses of the common good. And on an individual level, the fact that an activity makes you happy is a good enough reason to do it, provided of course that it doesn’t make someone else sad.

Libertarianism is not explicitly an ethical theory, but for many it has a similar sort of appeal. It dispenses with troubling moral and political questions by pushing them all under the convenient heading of “not the state’s business.” Undergraduates love this. It gives them that air-clearing feeling that they’re craving after wandering through the intricacies of Aristotelian moral theory. It feels to them like that scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy and friends come out of the woods and look out over shining fields of poppies. Free at last!

Like the poppies, though, this shining simplicity is deceptive. One way to realize this is by reflecting on the complexity of the concept of “freedom”. From what do we need to be free? For what do we want to be free? When humans live together in society, one person’s exercise of freedom can obviously impinge on another’s in a wide variety of ways. My neighbor blasts his music at top volume, and I can’t sleep. Another family up the street starts feeding the squirrels and before I know it my porch pumpkins have fallen victim to the little monsters as well. Advertisers want to put up pornographic billboards, but then I’ll have to drive by them every time I grocery shop. My state legalizes pot, and now I don’t like going to the local park because I don’t want my kids running through clouds of sweet-smelling smoke.

Now, I said that my respect for libertarians has increased. That’s true. Some of them have arguments far more sophisticated I had encountered before, and some are extremely interested in promoting the good through private means. They persuaded me to take the problem of administrative bloat far more seriously. Their relentless focus on size-of-state questions has led them to some very astute insights on the nature of the technocratic state, and they make excellent watchdogs (or gadflies?) against the constant temptation to take advantage of administrative bloat. But in the end, I think my two original criticisms still stand. They’re enormously clever about suggesting ways for us to accomplish communal projects without the help of the state. That can be quite useful in its way. But they’re still elevating a theory of government beyond its contextual importance. And they still provide a large haven for the morally lazy at precisely the time when we need to be morally energetic.

Advances in science and technology have massively increased the state’s power to rule us in every minute detail of our lives. It’s also increased our ability to hector and impede one another. Advances in technology allow us to spy on one another every minute, to redistribute wealth on a massive scale without sending a tax collector door to door, and to manipulate life (plant, animal, human) on a very fundamental level. We’re wrestling now with new and sometimes terrifying questions about justice and obligation and what kind of society we want to build. Libertarianism seems like something of a haven in this storm, because its prescriptions seem so fundamental and principled, and because it doesn’t demand consensus on most of these challenging questions. It seems like a good out.

But ultimately, that’s just a dodge. Small-state principles can’t save us from working through these issues. Suppose we could achieve political victory on a “morality-free” limited-government platform, legalizing drugs and prostitution and abandoning any efforts to recognize traditional marriage or protect the unborn. None of that would deconstruct the technocratic state. Meanwhile, social breakdown would continue apace, and eventually (probably rather soon) people would cry out for government to step up its efforts to save them from themselves. We’d end up with more statism than ever. But actually, I’m not even very worried about that, because I don’t think such a platform has any chance of winning the country back in any case. If we want to win America back, we have to show real insight into the problems they’re actually facing right now. Americans think that the GOP has failed to understand or “care about” them, and to some extent they’re right. We haven’t given them any good answers to the deep social and spiritual problems that have arisen in our modernist, technocratic, democratic state.

We need to return to core principles, but not Ayn Rand’s. She doesn’t have the insights we need at this juncture. Plato and Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas all reflected on a much more sophisticated level on the relationship between humans and their neighbors and their communities and the state. That is the level of complex, careful analysis that we need to diagnose and respond to these intense challenges. And insofar as I’m hard on libertarians, it’s not because I think they have nothing useful to contribute to this effort. They do have things to contribute. But often I see conservatism’s relentless focus on small-state advocacy as something of an obstacle to the kind of conversations we really need to be having right now. That’s not because I doubt that we need to shrink the state. It’s because I don’t think we can do it without answering the bigger questions about human excellence and human community, family, life, and the complex relationship between political freedom and virtue. And regrettably, libertarians frequently use their small-state principles as a kind of excuse to avoid those conversations.

Mike H asked yesterday: what do social conservatives want? I would answer: human excellence, happiness, virtue and a thriving society. Those are my highest goals. And while I do have some interest in the thriving of the state, that’s only about the eighth or ninth question on my list of concerns. 

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  1. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu
    @RachelLu

    Byron Horatio:

    I think you demand of libertarianism what it is by nature incapable of producing. It does not speak to deep spiritual principles. 

    But it nevertheless offers advice concerning issues that in my view require understanding of deep spiritual principles. Perhaps that’s part of the problem.

    • #31
  2. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu
    @RachelLu

    Nathaniel Wright:

    I wonder though if you don’t allow that there could be modern libertarians – meaning those who love liberty – who are adherents to the philosophy of Augustine, Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle, and Cicero. One need not be a moral stoic like Cato the Younger when one can apply the more moderate and thoughtful philosophy you desire us to pursue. It seems to me that many Social Conservatives are so strict in their desire to advance virtue and mores that they believe that the State or coercion are the best ways to attain that virtue. Wouldn’t you agree that persuasion and philosophy are the best ways to attain virtue? 

    I think libertarians can sometimes be useful “watchdogs” when other conservatives become to complacent about their use of state power. Right now I think the reaction (largely to the Bush years) may be too intense, damming up fruitful discussion and preventing us from considering policy proposals that have a chance of being adopted.

    But it isn’t really natural to a virtue conservative’s perspective to call on the state to “enforce” his moral code. The size of the state just isn’t his primary concern, and that being the case, he can be susceptible to laxity; nevertheless, he is perfectly capable of recognizing freedom as an important good. But he differentiates between freedoms that really are supportive of virtue, and ones that contribute little or nothing to the virtuous person’s existence, while potentially derailing some from the path when they’ve hardly begun. Committed small-staters have a tendency to dismiss that danger out of hand.

    • #32
  3. user_1938 Inactive
    user_1938
    @AaronMiller

    How quickly philosophical debates morph into historical debates. Who argued what is less important than the arguments themselves. Many classic philosophical positions have been repeated throughout the centuries. Their original advocates never possessed them exclusively. Truth belongs to all.

    Good post, Rachel.

    I think the effects of historical experience, consequent knowledge, and inventions on the capabilities and inclinations of governments should not be underestimated. Inventions probably better account for many cultural and political movements that have been traditionally attributed to philosophical innovations during the “Enlightenment” period. 

    The greatest challenge to limited government is technology which undermines the very concept of locality. The greatest challenge to cultural honor is affluence. Perhaps failure in the latter will negate the former by destroying our technological infrastructure. Western civilization might take a few steps back before we continue forward.

    • #33
  4. Tuck Inactive
    Tuck
    @Tuck

    AIG: Anarcho-capitalism is not derived from classical liberalism. It’s derived from 19th century utopian ideas.

     Although Rand was not an anaarcho-capitalist, and despised them. :)  She restated a lot of pre-existing idea, and popularized them.  But I’m not aware of any innovations she produced.

    • #34
  5. Larry3435 Member
    Larry3435
    @Larry3435

    I want to give Rachel some credit here for reaching out a bit to libertarians.  After all, she has done a lot of libertarian-bashing in her day, so even a backhanded recognition that we may have something to contribute is a real sign of open-mindedness.

    In that spirit, I would suggest that SoCons not view libertarian philosophy in terms of complexity (i.e., value ethics is complex and nuanced, libertarian ethics are one-dimensional and convenient).  Rather, as a bit of a thought experiment, I would suggest contemplating the Arnold Kling argument that Conservatives view the world through the lens of civilization vs. barbarism; libertarians view the world through the lens of freedom vs. coercion; and, not to leave out our lefty friends, they view the world as a matter of oppressors vs. oppressed.  

    Now if there is truth to that analysis, and I think there is, then it behooves us libertarians to remember that civilization is the necessary precondition to freedom.  And it behooves SoCons to remember that coercion is the blunt instrument of barbarians.  In other words, we have much common ground to defend.

    • #35
  6. AIG Inactive
    AIG
    @AIG

    Aaron Miller: How quickly philosophical debates morph into historical debates.

     The “historical” part is important to understand whether there is an actual philosophical argument here

    It’s particularly important when moral/social, political and economic points are being confounded so as to make them indistinguishable. Also, when normative and positive arguments are treated the same.

    Rachels’ example of Friedman is indicative of this. Friedman’s arguments were almost always positive, where he conceded that the normative…the supposed “moral” foundation that Rachel is trying to describe…is a given. I.e., if we as a society agree that this is the moral and ethical outcome we want…the question becomes, how to get it

    That’s where the political or the economic ideologies come in. They are not…moral…arguments. They are not normative arguments. They are positive arguments. 

    Rachel says there is a lack of “deep spiritual principles”. Where did classical liberalism arise from? Seems to me to be an important “historical” point to keep in mind, before saying that some “ideology” lacks “deep spiritual principles”

    Now, as I said, if you want to argue against Ayn Rand and Rothbard, go for it. But you’re arguing with a strawman. 

    • #36
  7. Tuck Inactive
    Tuck
    @Tuck

    Rachel Lu: It’s interesting to me how much time libertarians spend raging about what libertarianism really is.

     Yeah, I just spent two hours reading about the breakup of the Orthodox and Catholic churches.  All over what Chrisitanity really is.  Or in another thread we were discussing how Mormons do or don’t like polygamy that’s been going on for how long?

    All these human activities are grey areas.  People are really annoying that way.  Welcome to planet Earth.

    “…can lull them into shirking more direct moral reasoning that needs to be done.”

    Which translates into “we need to tell people how to live, because I don’t like the way they do live!”  Again.

    The point of liberal organization and markets is that bad ideas fail, and disappear.  That’s it, that’s the only advantage.  If you think there’s a “market failure”, it simply means that your expectations are out of sync with reality, not that the market has failed.  You expect one thing: life has produced something else.  When you engrave bad ideas into law, they can persist for generations, if not centuries. 

    Back to that other thread.  Amusing to see someone today defending the prejudices of a Roman Emperor as if it was the only way to organize society.  You’d think the edicts of Roman Emperors wouldn’t hold much sway today…

    • #37
  8. Tuck Inactive
    Tuck
    @Tuck

    Larry3435: Conservatives view the world through the lens of civilization vs. barbarism; libertarians view the world through the lens of freedom vs. coercion; and, not to leave out our lefty friends, they view the world as a matter of oppressors vs. oppressed.

     Nice post.

    You can compress that down to one line: Barbarians coerce and oppress, liberal civilizations free from oppression.

    • #38
  9. AIG Inactive
    AIG
    @AIG

    Rachel Lu: Mike H asked yesterday: what do social conservatives want? I would answer: human excellence, happiness, virtue and a thriving society.

     Question: how do these points differ from what 90% of other ideologies also want? 

    I can swear I’ve seen these exact same words in some Marxist-Leninist banner in Old Country circa 1989

    These are not “answers” to the question of what a political, social or whatever type of ideology wants.

    And they are not, because they are meaningless terms. You say, it’s interesting how “libertarians” argue about the meaning of the term. Well, meanings matter. What is the meaning of “human excellence”? What is the meaning of “virtue”? What is the meaning of “thriving society”?

    Was Nazi Germany not pursuing “human excellence, virtue, happiness and a thriving society” as well? Did those words have a different meaning to them, than to you, or to me? 

    This is why words matter. And why you can’t use “platitudes” to describe political ideologies, such as “conservative”, “libertarian”, “christian”, etc…without contextualizing them

    Otherwise, there’s no debate to be had, because no one is against “excellence, happiness, virtue and thriving”.

    • #39
  10. Tuck Inactive
    Tuck
    @Tuck

    anonymous: which of the following of Ayn Rand’s works have you actually read

     LOL.  God, what a depressing thought to do so!

    One of my best friends in college was an Objectivist.  He still is, and just as gung-ho.  He thoroughly inoculated me against that particular bug.

    • #40
  11. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu
    @RachelLu

    Tuck:

    Rachel Lu: It’s interesting to me how much time libertarians spend raging about what libertarianism really is.

    The point of liberal organization and markets is that bad ideas fail, and disappear. That’s it, that’s the only advantage. If you think there’s a “market failure”, it simply means that your expectations are out of sync with reality, not that the market has failed. You expect one thing: life has produced something else. 

    So, markets make right? No. Don’t believe that.

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

    AIG:

    Aaron Miller

    The “historical” part is important to understand whether there is an actual philosophical argument here

    It’s particularly important when moral/social, political and economic points are being confounded so as to make them indistinguishable. Also, when normative and positive arguments are treated the same.

    Rachels’ example of Friedman is indicative of this. Friedman’s arguments were almost always positive, where he conceded that the normative…the supposed “moral” foundation that Rachel is trying to describe…is a given. I.e., if we as a society agree that this is the moral and ethical outcome we want…the question becomes, how to get it

    But the positive arguments end up supporting normative arguments that self-identified libertarians very much want to believe for other reasons. Sometimes those reasons include fear and moral cowardice. We see how daunting moral issues are and use Friedman-esque fancy argument about the power of markets as an excuse not to get into it.

    I don’t know whether Friedman himself was like that. Not well enough versed in his work. But it’s a phenomenon.

    • #42
  13. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    Mike H: And finally, it’s not “do whatever you want just as long as you’re not bothering anybody,” it’s closer to “as long as you’re not bothering anybody, it is likely impermissible for me to forcibly stop you.” There is no inherent approval of any action.

     Very, very well said.

    • #43
  14. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    I want to second others in thanking Rachel for this post, especially for the gracious spirit that inspired it.

    But also second others’ frustration with her focus on Rand to the exclusion of other libertarian writers.  This isn’t a perfect analogy, but citing her this way is like claiming one is familiar with conservatism because one has read Witness.  Both works are important to their respective movements, especially as introductions to outsiders, but they’re also highly idiosyncratic, very much of their times, and hardly suffice as overviews of the movement.

    I mentioned this last week, but I beg you to try Hayek if you haven’t, especially The Fatal Conceit.  Hayek isn’t perfect and isn’t libertarian gospel either, but I think SoCons would find him a much better and more welcoming introduction to libertarianism than they’ll ever find in Rand.

    Also, no one looks good compared to Plato and Aristotle.  For all their limitations and failings — and they had many — those two were unparalleled geniuses.

    • #44
  15. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu
    @RachelLu

    AIG:

    Rachel Lu: Mike H asked yesterday: what do social conservatives want? I would answer: human excellence, happiness, virtue and a thriving society.

    This is why words matter. And why you can’t use “platitudes” to describe political ideologies, such as “conservative”, “libertarian”, “christian”, etc…without contextualizing them.

    Otherwise, there’s no debate to be had, because no one is against “excellence, happiness, virtue and thriving”.

    They’re very meaningful terms to me. And I would ask: does anyone openly declare himself anti-freedom? Anti-progress? And yet, it still means something when specific groups or schools of thought identify these as their highest and most defining goal. 

    As I’ve said on other threads, I’m happy to talk all day about the nature of virtue and human excellence. These definitely aren’t vacuous concepts in my book; I can’t help it that other people have lost their grip on concepts that were once extremely central to all discussions of human good. At the same time I have to note that whenever I advocate for virtue or goodness, even if I explain to at least some extent (as space allows) what I mean, the reaction I tend to get is:

    — You’re snooty.
    — Quit lecturing us.
    — Why do you feel entitled to criminalize everything you personally don’t like? (even if I said nothing about criminalizing anything.)
    — What makes you think you understand goodness better than anyone else?
    — And so forth.

    In other words, my experience suggests that our society has a really hard time talking about excellence and virtue. So no, I don’t think I’m just joining the herd in standing up for them. They’re real terms with substantive meanings, and I find that people nowadays are positively squeamish about standing up for them.

    If we can’t even handle *talking about* being good, it’s going to be very hard to build a culture that reinforces virtue and goodness. I’m sticking to my guns here: my position is not vacuous.

    • #45
  16. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu
    @RachelLu

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    Also, no one looks good compared to Plato and Aristotle. For all their limitations and failings — and they had many — those two were unparalleled geniuses.

    I appreciate that admission, but then, why aren’t people more eager to learn from them?

    • #46
  17. Nathaniel Wright Member
    Nathaniel Wright
    @NathanielWright

    Rachel,

    One might argue that the “virtue conservative” – a term I don’t like at all as I see nothing conservative about pursuing virtue and find that very pursuit to be radical in the best way – ought to be more concerned with “the size of the State.” I also find it hard to believe that Social Conservatives – broadly speaking – don’t want to use the coercive force of the state to enact their goals in Stoic fashion. I’ve too often seem StoicCons fall in line with radical leftists on issues like free speech, role playing games, comic books, video games, and pornography.

    As Cicero points out the Stoic too pursues virtue, but at the expense of moderation and true philosophy.

    To return to the size of the State though, Cicero was too concerned with finding the “right” people to return Rome to a more virtuous state and too little concerned with being that right person and using his persuasive tools on the public.

    Persuade people to the ills of vicious behavior. It is often hard, but one cannot be coerced or forced into virtue. One must come to it through right reason.

    • #47
  18. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu
    @RachelLu

    I’ve read Road To Serfdom. Hayek is interesting. I said, “Oh, he sounds like my economist friends!”

    And again, I have truly benefitted from discussions with people like you, Tom, and Midge and Frank and other libertarians. It’s healthy to think about how much we can benefit from the natural flexibility of markets, and how much trouble we can get into when we insist on using our ever-expanding abilities to prop up things that don’t work. Libertarians are good at that. And even though I love Aristotle, understanding markets wasn’t his strong suit.

    But I still think that, without the connection to a substantive notion of human good, you’re vulnerable to all kinds of serious ethical errors.

    • #48
  19. Nathaniel Wright Member
    Nathaniel Wright
    @NathanielWright

    Rachel Lu: But I still think that, without the connection to a substantive notion of human good, you’re vulnerable to all kinds of serious ethical errors.

     This is the place where you and I are 100% in agreement. 

    Where I – and I am no libertarian – differ from many SoCons is in my resistance to the use of coercive force to manipulate people into right behavior. I believe if we had more people advocating the philosophy of the Nicomachean Ethics and fewer spouting Adorno and Gramsci, we would be much better off as a  society. 

    • #49
  20. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    Also, no one looks good compared to Plato and Aristotle. For all their limitations and failings — and they had many — those two were unparalleled geniuses.

    They were geniuses. But why does that make them moral authorities? Seriously.

    What training in virtue do we get out of Plato and Aristotle that we don’t get out of other thinkers? Specifically  – and this question is directed at Rachel, who is, after all, a Christian what moral training do Christians get out of Plato and Aristotle that they can’t get out of later theologians and Christian philosophers? Or even just a thoughtful Bible study?

    Having gotten some schooling, though not much, in the classics, I vaguely remember Plato as some kind of moral monster. (Perhaps it was Plato’s description of his Just State that gave me this impression.) Aristotle wasn’t as bad. The stoics were even better – though still, in retrospect, messed up about some things.

    Anyhow, none of these philosophers lived lives transfigured by Christ. What morality could they offer that wasn’t transmuted into even better morality by the theologians and saints that came afterward?

    Why shouldn’t the pagan philosophers be a lower priority?

    • #50
  21. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Rachel Lu:

    But I still think that, without the connection to a substantive notion of human good, you’re vulnerable to all kinds of serious ethical errors.

    You keep on talking about this substantive notion of human good. But what is it, exactly?

    I don’t ask because I believe I have no notion of it – I believe I have got some notion –  but because I want to know what you  think  the rest of us are missing.

    (Also, comment 53.)

    • #51
  22. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu
    @RachelLu

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    Also, no one looks good compared to Plato and Aristotle. For all their limitations and failings — and they had many — those two were unparalleled geniuses.

    They were geniuses. But why does that make them moral authorities? Seriously.

    Why shouldn’t the pagan philosophers be a lower priority?

    But of course, Christian philosophy is suffused with Plato and Aristotle, all through. The Doctors didn’t think they were moral monsters.

    Human good involves living a life of activity of the soul in accord with reason, habituating oneself in the virtues. Or, knowing and serving God. I think they amount to the same thing in the end, but obviously there’s a long conversation to be had here. I’d write more but I have to go tend to a cranky baby, maybe later…

    • #52
  23. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Rachel Lu:

    so I was well familiar with that “I’m-conservative-but-not-a-moral-nag” snobbery.

    It’s not necessarily snobbery. It’s sometimes a useful attitude for getting people to listen to your arguments (including moral arguments, actually).

    Their relentless focus on size-of-state questions has led them to some very astute insights on the nature of the technocratic state, and they make excellent watchdogs

    Suppose we could achieve political victory on a “morality-free” limited-government platform, legalizing drugs and prostitution and abandoning any efforts to recognize traditional marriage or protect the unborn. None of that would deconstruct the technocratic state.

    You realize that libertarians also want to deconstruct the technocratic state? Of course you must, you said it earlier.

    But then I notice you include only the parts of the limited-government platform you disagree with, not the vast swaths of the limited-government platform (like less welfare, fewer barriers to employment, more religious freedom, etc) where libertarians and SoCons already agree.

    By ignoring the majority of the ways libertarians intend to dismantle the technocratic state, of course you can conclude that libertarians won’t dismantle the technocratic state. But not honestly.

    • #53
  24. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu
    @RachelLu

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Rachel Lu:

    But I still think that, without the connection to a substantive notion of human good, you’re vulnerable to all kinds of serious ethical errors.

    You keep on talking about this substantive notion of human good. But what is it, exactly?

    I don’t ask because I believe I have no notion of it – I believe I have got some notion – but because I want to know what you think the rest of us are missing.

    (Also, comment 53.)

     OK, so here are some examples of the kind of thing that concerns me. 

    I think the deliberate, serious self-impairment of human rationality (as an end, not an unintended consequence) is wrong. So, I think drunkenness is a vice, and some hard drugs probably cannot be used ethically. Many libertarians are more of the opinion that the ethics of it just really depend on whether you can implement your usage into a basically-functional life.

    Similarly for various modifications of traditional conjugal understanding of marriage. I just think most of these adaptations are inimical to the natural, organic relationship that is marriage. I think the sociology bears this out, but of course, the sociology is secondary for me to a direct investigation of what marriage is, and its appropriate role in human life.

    You may recall the debate we once had on surrogacy. To me, if you understand the nature of maternity, the moral significance of pregnancy and birth and the maternal/infant bond, you’ll see it as a tragedy when a baby is ripped away from his mother at birth. Occasionally a necessary tragedy. But many libertarians want to sanction surrogacy as just a healthy working of markets, immediately casting their minds to various benefits (dis-incentivizing abortion, increasing birth rates, etc.). Sanctioning a practice wherein babies are commissioned and birthed “under contract”, and then handed over to their purchasers, is to me, evidence that one is missing important and fundamental moral realities about human life. The practice is intrinsically debased and dehumanizing to both mother and child; it doesn’t matter who is pleased by it or what other human needs are extraneously met.

    These seem to me like cases in which the intoxicating allure of markets has drawn attention away from foundational facts about human dignity and human good. And I think libertarian-type thinking is susceptible to those sorts of blind spots, which is regrettable at a time when particularly frightening moral challenges are looming over our heads.

    • #54
  25. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu
    @RachelLu

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Rachel Lu:

    so I was well familiar with that “I’m-conservative-but-not-a-moral-nag” snobbery.

    It’s not necessarily snobbery. It’s sometimes a useful attitude for getting people to listen to your arguments (including moral arguments, actually).

    Not necessarily. But sometimes it is. 

    Quoting: “Their relentless focus on size-of-state questions has led them to some very astute insights on the nature of the technocratic state, and they make excellent watchdogs…

    Suppose we could achieve political victory on a “morality-free” limited-government platform, legalizing drugs and prostitution and abandoning any efforts to recognize traditional marriage or protect the unborn. None of that would deconstruct the technocratic state.

    You realize that libertarians also want to deconstruct the technocratic state? Of course you must, you said it earlier.

    But then I notice you include only the parts of the limited-government platform you disagree with, not the vast swaths of the limited-government platform (like less welfare, fewer barriers to employment, more religious freedom, etc) where libertarians and SoCons already agree.

    By ignoring the majority of the ways libertarians intend to dismantle the technocratic state, of course you can conclude that libertarians won’t dismantle the technocratic state. But not honestly.”

    Of course I concede that they want to. And I’m happy to work together to pursue common goals. By all means! But we can’t get far without electoral success and also a fair amount of cultural reconstruction. For that we need a substantive message grounded in real responses to the moral challenges of our time.

    Many libertarians (the sort who start snarling whenever I say “virtue”) are actively impeding this process. The better ones are helping in various ways, but I still think they tend to be lacking certain components that will be needed to offer a complete and satisfactory vision to the American public.

    • #55
  26. user_86050 Inactive
    user_86050
    @KCMulville

    If you read Hayek, you find (what amounts to) an analysis of group decision making. Hayek was brilliant in arguing that if you try to dictate how people should decide (central planning), you inevitably thwart what people want, because the planners cannot possibly know what the group wants (or the individuals within). A market system, however, doesn’t prejudge what people should want, and instead lets the process play out. Instead of meddling in the process to determine what the outcome should be, a market system eliminates the meddling, and lets the outcome occur naturally. The outcome is inevitably what the people want, because, that’s what they chose.

    But …

    The criticism is that while it’s true that a pure market system (if that ever becomes possible) will result in what people want, that doesn’t also make [what they want] to be moral. 

    So, two different questions:

    • From a strictly political POV, does a market system maximize democracy? Yes. 
    • From a strictly moral POV, does democracy maximize morality? No.

    Which leads to two further questions: is society (not just government, but society as a whole) intended to maximize democracy, or morality? Or, how could we maximize both?

    • #56
  27. user_18586 Thatcher
    user_18586
    @DanHanson

    Byron Horatio:

    I think you demand of libertarianism what it is by nature incapable of producing. It does not speak to deep spiritual principles. 

    It certainly does.  It speaks to the deepest spiritual principle of all:  You alone are morally responsible for the actions you take.    

    The libertarians I know are extremely moral people.  They don’t download movies off of bittorrent.  They don’t steal pens at work,  or yell at sales clerks.  They tend to have a deep respect for fairness, for the value of reputation, and tend to be polite to their fellow citizens.   I see the same tendency in Tea Party Republicans, which is why they leave protest sites cleaner than when they got there.

    Statists want to replace ethical responsibility with rules.  When you are forbidden under threat of punishment from engaging in an activity, you are robbed of your own ethical choice and responsibility.    And for many, when the state permits something, it also eliminates the responsibility for that the ethical choice.    

    Libertarianism is a personally demanding philosophy in practice.  It’s not a get out of responsibility free card.

    • #57
  28. user_18586 Thatcher
    user_18586
    @DanHanson

    KC Mulville:


    The criticism is that while it’s true that a pure market system (if that ever becomes possible) will result in what people want, that doesn’t also make [what they want] to be moral.

     

     The market is not and should not be a moral system.  That’s not what it’s for.  The market is the way we organize our economic lives to maximize our productive efficiency and maximize our economic choices.  It will be exactly as moral as the morality of the people engaging in those transactions.   Changing those morals are what churches and colleges and public debates are for.

    An ethical system is an emergent social construct, like language.   Our ethical system is a complex structure of rules that have evolved and survived by maintaining a stable society.  It isn’t something you ‘manage’ or ‘maximize’.    

    If you want to change it,  you need to start a movement, not a regulatory agency.

    • #58
  29. user_18586 Thatcher
    user_18586
    @DanHanson

    “I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do.”

       – Robert Heinlein,  noted libertarian.

    • #59
  30. Larry3435 Member
    Larry3435
    @Larry3435

    KC Mulville:

    So, two different questions:

    • From a strictly political POV, does a market system maximize democracy? Yes.
    • From a strictly moral POV, does democracy maximize morality? No.

     KC, I think the answer to your second question is more complicated than a simple “No.”  Does democracy maximize morality, compared to what?  Compared to a moral Utopia?  Compared to some other political system?  The Churchill quote comes to mind:  Democracy is the worst possible system, except for all the others.

    More than anything else, true democracy is a mechanism for change.  It is an alternative to martial revolution.  The hallmark of a true democracy is not whether it has voted a government into power, but whether it has voted a government out of power.  It is not a coincidence that politicians often run on a platform of “Change.”

    Change can be uncomfortable to those who believe that they have a grasp of eternal moral truths that goes beyond the ken of the unwashed and uneducated masses.  How can those peons, unversed in Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas, be trusted with the power to change rules that society has relied on for decades or centuries?  (Cont’d)

    • #60
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