October 10, 2010


October 10, 2010

What Libertarians Misunderstand

Recently in a piece about the dangers inherent in libertarianism,  I pointed out that libertarians, by applying their live-and-let-live philosophy to the moral sphere as well as the governmental, do nothing to maintain the societal moral framework that enables people to govern themselves from within and that ensures Big Brother won't have to do so from without (I recommend you read the piece).  Not surprisingly, this provoked some angry responses and fallacious counter-arguments.  This article is my response to them.

I will start with the one thing that characterizes libertarians as much as anything else: a misunderstanding about the nature of law.  To illustrate the point, consider the commentary of "End the Fed," a "devout libertarian" who posted under my first piece.  He wrote:

I don't spend a lot of time dwelling on whether people should smoke crack or have abortions. My choice is drug free. My choice is not to have abortions. And if you want to do those things, I won't criticize or judge you.

I simply accept the fact that those things exist whether I want them to or not.

OK, now what if I said:

I don't spend a lot of time dwelling on whether people should commit murder or rape.  My choice is to respect life.  My choice is not to commit rape.  And if you want to do those things, I won't criticize or judge you.  I simply accept the fact that those things exist whether I want them to or not.  I'm a good Libertarian.

Understand that all I did was take End the Fed's reasoning to its logical conclusion.  After all, what do murder, rape and abortion have in common?  They are all moral matters - as is the stuff of all legitimate laws.  As I explained here:

A law is by definition the imposition of a value (and a valid law is the imposition of a moral principle). This is because a law states that there is something you must or must not do, ostensibly because the action is a moral imperative, is morally wrong, or is a corollary thereof. If this is not the case, with what credibility do you legislate in the given area? After all, why prohibit something if it doesn't prevent some wrong? Why force citizens to do something if it doesn't effect some good? You'll never see a powerful movement lobbying to criminalize chocolate ice cream or broccoli.

To provide a concrete example, what is the possible justification for speed laws? It isn't simply "me no like speedy." Rather, there is the idea that it is wrong to endanger others or yourself, and, in the latter case, it could be based on the idea that it's wrong to engage in reckless actions that could cause you to become a burden on society. Of course, some or all of these arguments may be valid or not, but the point is this: If a law is not underpinned by a valid moral principle, it is not a just law. Without morality, laws can be based on nothing but air.

So here is how you fall into the philosophical trap that has ensnared virtually all libertarians (and many others):

Step 1 - Believe in a mythical separation of morality and state.

Step 2 - Accept the laws you agree with and believe necessary, not realizing they're an imposition of morality.

Step 3 - Turn around and oppose laws you disagree with, not on the basis that the values they reflect are wrong or are not the government's domain, but simply because they're an "imposition of morality."

In truth, something doesn't have to be proclaimed by a thunderous voice from the heavens, a bishop or Charlton Heston in a Cecil B. DeMille film to be christened "morality," nor does something cease being so (or at least a conception thereof) because it has become the stuff of academia or wins a popular vote.  A moral does not cease to be a moral because it becomes a meme.

This is precisely, however, why we reflexively accept the impositions of morality known as laws against murder, rape and theft: These moral principles are seamlessly woven into civilization.  But this wasn't always the case.  At one time, pillaging other peoples, à la the Vikings, was status quo, and the murder, rape and theft involved therein were simply part of doing business.  I mean, sure, perhaps you didn't thus abuse a fellow tribesman, but foreigners were fair game. 

The lesson here is that most of the morality we take for granted is part of the Judeo-Christian ethic and for most of history would have been received like an injunction against masturbation is today.  Yet this fact eludes most because man's default is to be a child of his age.  In fact, were today's average good libertarian raised in a cultural milieu in which abortion was outlawed and universally equated with murder, he'd no doubt accept its criminalization as he accepts the illegality of murdering those occupying a place safer than the womb.  And were he living in ancient Rome, he might very well say, "I don't spend a lot of time dwelling on whether people should have men fight to the death in the arena.  My choice is not to attend the games.  And if you want to, I won't criticize or judge you."  And when the Christians tried to end the games - which they were ultimately successful in doing - who knows, he might complain about how they were imposing their values on others.

Now, another argument I occasionally hear is, "Laws are not based on morality!  They're based on property rights.  You mustn't kill or steal from me because I own myself and my belongings."  OK, but what if I said I didn't think it wrong to not respect your property rights?  I'm sure you'd passionately retort, and if you were philosophically sound you might even mention Truth, or Natural Law.  Really, though, I don't care what your arguments would be, only that you'd reflexively tried to prove a certain thing: that such a trespass is wrong.  Without a second thought, you would put forth a moral argument for laws prohibiting violation of property rights.

You see, the property-rights argument is, like so many other things, a dodge we use to avoid frank discussion about the real issue: What is good?  G. K. Chesterton addressed this in his 1905 book Heretics, writing, "Every one of the popular modern phrases and ideals is a dodge in order to shirk the problem of what is good."  He then offers as examples the buzzwords "progress," "education" and also, well, read it in his own words:

We are fond of talking about "liberty"; that, as we talk of it, is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good . . . .  The modern man says, "Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty." This is, logically rendered, "Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it.

I might add that the property-rights argument can be summed up as: Let us not decide what is good, but, please, whatever you do, don't touch my goods!

The point is that libertarians tend to live in an unreal world, one without the understanding that political battles are merely the front lines in a values death match that, ultimately, has definite winners and losers; it's a world in which there is a disconnect between religious belief and morality and morality and law.  As an example, End the Fed also wrote:

Articles like yours continue the 'insane idea' that at some point the two warring factions, the left or the right, will somehow- someday impose their will and cause the other side to capitulate. That has not and will not ever be the case. So go on ahead and believe what you want to believe- I'm ok with that. After all, I am a Libertarian.

Actually, as the communists proved in 1917, the Nazis proved in 1933, Europeans prove with hate-speech laws and Islamists prove the world over - and as history has consistently taught - ideological conquest is, has been and always will be the case.  The story of man is one of spiritual, cultural, political and physical warfare, and each chapter has victory and vanquishment.  Zoroastrianism was extinguished by Islam, the Ainus have largely been subsumed by the Japanese, and the Maldives' native Giraavaru culture is now only a memory.  Just like animals, countless languages, cultures, beliefs and peoples have become extinct, often the victims of invasive entities that, through superior morality or might, won that inevitable battle. 

And that is the battle for civilization.  It may sound very noble to say, ". . . believe what you want to believe - I'm ok with that.  After all, I am a Libertarian," but when enough people believe the wrong things, you will not be OK with it.  You will be living under a regime that enshrines those things in law - you'll be living in tyranny. 

Like it or not, imposing values is what arranging civilization is all about.  And like it or not, you're part of this process.  The only difference among any of us is in what and how much we impose - and in that some of us actually understand this is precisely what we're doing.

So we can avoid talk about morality if we want, but it will do nothing to ensure that morality won't be imposed on us.  It only guarantees a descent into error that, ultimately, ensures that immorality will be.