The Relativist Roots of Libertarianism

May 06, 2008

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Conservatism is sometimes criticized as unprincipled, relativistic, or contradictory.  This criticism stems from the very nature of conservatism; it is a philosophy rooted primarily in attitudes about change, so its starting point is always a given society, as it is found in all of its contradictions.  Conservatism recognizes how the various goals of civilized, social life are often at odds with one another. These include: good government, liberty, order, safety, national security, prosperity, culture, and a virtuous and educated people.

Libertarians purport to be more principled and consistent defenders of natural rights. They are undoubtedly consistent. As demonstrated in the earlier thread on the drug war, many libertarians view conservative concerns for order and virtue as unprincipled enchroachments on the absolute primacy of liberty. Far from being relativists, libertarians imagine themselves to be the most principled voices in political life.  Regardless of its “consistency,” popular libertarianism today is unmoored from the classical tradition of political philosophy, and often stands on a relativist epistemology to justify its various formulae. This relativism makes the libertarian philosophy both unstable and also unpersuasive to people of a conservative bent.

Relativism is not necessarily the same thing as nihilism. One can be a relativist and have certain beliefs one lives by and wishes others would live by too. Many libertarians from K-Street to Coeur d’Alene live moderate, decent lives.  A libertarian’s relativism stems rather from the view that we cannot and should not “impose moral behavior” on individuals.  The foundation of this view is often a belief that there is no certain moral knowledge about how to live one’s life that is true across time, place, and individuals. Thus, a relativist might agree that polygamy is wrong in our culture (or at least for himself), but he wouldn’t feel confident saying it’s wrong for a tribe of savages (or rural Mormons).

Many libertarian philosophies are founded on a kind of limited relativism. That is, while these libertarians say there are universal and certain principles of natural rights that we can discern from the nature of man and government, we cannot obtain certain moral knowledge in other areas of human life, particularly in regard to behaviors without direct effects on others. Thus, while we can know with certainty it’s wrong to rob and murder and rape (and tax and conscript in a national emergency etc., etc.), we cannot know with any certainty that it’s wrong to engage in polygamy, drunkenness, drug addiction, or usury. And, moreover, even if there were some knowledge in any of these areas, this viewpoint says that it would be wrong to give government power over those areas, because a moral principle of autonomy would be offended, which gives each of us the right to do things that are bad for us and choose our own path, so long as we don’t (directly) harm anyone else.

As commenter McBrown said in the earlier discussion, “That’s exactly the point. Who decides what’s “salutary”? If you take your comment to its next step, alcohol and cigarettes should be illegal.” I think there is a major theoretical problem with this view, even assuming McBrown has ever had the pleasures of smoking and drinking. For starters the answer to the rhetorical question “Who decides?” is the people, seeking answers in good faith through their elected representatives. If small government liberalism represents one important leg of the stool on which the historical American republic rested, “classical republicanism” is the other.  The Founders sought liberty on the national and international level so that localities could self govern, creating communities with laws that aimed to make men more virtuous through such various prohibitions as blue laws, laws against sodomy, laws regulating markets, and even laws requiring firearm ownership as a means of maintaining “a well regulated militia.”  The motto was not “taxation is theft” but, rather, that among a free people there should be “no taxation without representation.” The model of freedom was a corporate one: a free people had a right to govern itself.

Much libertarianism expresses a lack of confidence that a republican government can set up a legal regime to stop citizens from engaging in immoral and self-destructive behavior without devolving into an oppressive and meddlesome tyranny. Historically, the American balance on this score was sound. Usury, sodomy, most gambling, and various drugs were outlawed or regulated over the course of the Nineteenth Century, while freely negotiated wages, firearms, religious matters, and education were largely left up to the choices of individuals and families. The premise behind historical “morals legislation” is that we can have reasonably certain moral knowledge on a wide range of matters where laws are long established and effective at tamping down the worst human excesses.  Such legislation, while it deprives individuals of pure freedom of action, does not do them harm because the conduct in question is objectively harmful.  Defenders of the historical Anglo-American liberties often repeated the formula—from John Locke himself—that “liberty is not license.” 

Now the whole basis of such a “natural law” view is that we have a nature, the essentials of which can be understood (and have long been understood), that nature implies right and wrong uses of human capacities, and that we can know with some confidence what is harmful to individuals, even when their impulsive free will might compel them to harm themselves.  In other words, some behaviors are so obviously self-destructive and socially useless that there is no reason not to make them unlawful, or, as is more often the case, keep them from being lawful.  This includes everything from suicide and polygamy to beastiality and gay “marriage.”  The same understanding of nature which allows us to understand that these things are wrong also allows us to understand something like natural rights. Both insights are founded on a classical view that political philosophy (and the limits of state action) must derive from an understanding of the inherent purposes of human life.

The nature of human action and moral responsibility has long been known through introspection and observation, as well as the accumulated wisdom of Christendom. The fundaemntals of this understanding won’t be changing any time soon.  There are simply certain areas of long-established laws where the only justificatoin for change would be an unflagging concern for consistency.  Libertarianism does not allow any deviation from an unpersuasive claim that the vast majority of historical laws, even laws that we associate with the most happy moments of American history, are indistinguishable from the pervasive invasions of property rights, free speech, and free association that characterize the modern state. 

To libertarians skeptical of laws based on a concrete conceptions of virtuous human behavior, I would ask the following: if we cannot achieve any certain moral knowledge in the areas of traditional morals legislation, on what basis can we obtain any certain knowledge in the other areas of libertarian concern, namely the traditional protection of life, liberty, and property and the restriction of government from any interference in these areas, broadly understood? And if we can achieve certainty in the case of the latter, why not the former?  This question should be considered separate from whether or not we choose to enact and enforce a particular piece of legislation as a prudential matter .

Like all Americans, I think a great deal of paternalistic legislation is ill-advised, tendentious, or useless as a matter of policy. But I don’t believe subjects of traditional morals legislation (and laws against hard drugs) for a fairly simple reason:  those behaviors are wrong, self-destructive, denying of human reason and serve no function beyond mere hedonism.  More important, by rendering citizens unhealthy addicts, such behaviors (and the purveryors of the same) are induldging in the very behavior states exist to control: the pursuit individual good in a way that harms the common welfare of the society.

This historical appraisal of the matter underlies the practical “libertarianism” that many small government conservatives embrace.  This view—the ideas of Reagan and Goldwater—is that it’s better to establish a strong consensus against ambitious, do-gooder legislation, in spite of the certainty of our moral knowledge, because we would not want to establish a precedent whereby my neighbor, with whom I may someday disagree, could then constrain me in the manner he sees fit on the basis of his subjectively certain, but defective, reasoning.  In a society with moral dissensus, this consensus around the limits of state action is doubly important. And, as an Irish Catholic, the best historical example that I can think of where this went wrong is Prohibition. But Americans found their way out of that desert, just as they turned from the evil of slavery.  This pragmatic commitment to limited government is a much narrower view than the deontological pronouncements of a doctrinaire libertarian, schooled on simple formula cribbed from John Stuart Mill and Reason magazine, that unwisely compares necessary taxation to theft and criminal punishments to assault and kidnapping.

Liberty is not the only goal of good government. As Burke said regarding that great, failed experiment in tragically consistent governance in France:

I should, therefore, suspend my congratulations on the new liberty of France until I was informed how it had been combined with government, with public force, with the discipline and obedience of armies, with the collection of an effective and well-distributed revenue, with morality and religion, with the solidity of property, with peace and order, with civil and social manners. All these (in their way) are good things, too, and without them liberty is not a benefit whilst it lasts, and is not likely to continue long. The effect of liberty to individuals is that they may do what they please; we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations which may be soon turned into complaints

Libertarians up in arms against the drug war purport not to care too much about how people exercise their freedom. This stands in sharp contrast to the old view that a free government required a robust civil society.  Classical liberals from Sir Henry Maine to James Fitzjames Stephens understood that social opprobrium must take up the slack created by laws that afford ample freedom.  The new view, by contrast, appears to be as much against private discrimination as legal restraint amounting in the end to a merely adolescent and thoroughly ordinary celebration of hedonism.  

The so-called “cosmotarians” superadded concerns for equality—leading to their breaking ranks with Ron Paul—show that they are substantially confused on the level of principle—confused about the actual and natural tensions of liberty and equality, as well as the proper role of opinion in regulating social life.  It is noteworthy that the most liberal societies in history—18th and 19th Century America and England—were replete with inequality and characterized by austere, religious cultures.  By contrast, anti-clerical “liberals” on the Continent were concerned as much with equality as liberty, and their various revolutions predictably did not fare quite as well, often devolving in blood-baths, whether in France, Germany, Mexico, or anywhere else where philospher-kings tried to marry the antithetical principles of liberty and equality. 

Since the tone of our age is one where concern for equality is lauded, while the virtues associated with liberty—individuality, merit, ambition, self reliance—are frequently condemned, it’s noteworthy that the new generation of K-Street libertarians can’t even bring themselves to defend free speech when that speech is politically incorrect and may offend some preferred minority group.   The end result is a mockery of good sense and good government:  strident demands for the government not to police morality are coupled with increasing indifference among self-styled libertarians to the state’s interference in private institutions, businesses, and clubs because of the au courtant moral principle of equality. Yet most people in the past, as now, supported limited government for “bread and butter” reasons, including the right to make a living, worship God, and raise a family in peace.  A politically effective movement of these productive people will always have to emphasize the necessity of liberty and limited government to accomplish these things, rather than any abstract appeal where the dominant images of “liberty’s triumph” are pot-smoking hippies, blinged-out drug dealers, and other anti-social trash.

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