Libertarianism and u2018Sex, Drugs, & Rock 'n' Roll'

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Susan Lee, a member of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, has written an interesting essay entitled "Sex, Drugs and Rock’n’ Roll." Her aim is to distinguish libertarians from conservatives.

Were this a student essay handed in from a member of my class, I would award it a B—. It shows some familiarity with the concepts involved, but misses many important nuances, and mischaracterizes even some basic points. This is disappointing, in that we would expect better political reporting from such a source.

Let us begin with some of the good points. First and foremost, the choice of subject. For all too many political economic commentators, the only distinction worth making is that between liberals and conservatives, or Demopublicans and Republicanocrats. For a high profile periodical such as the Wall Street Journal to even have recognized libertarianism as a distinct philosophy is a great virtue.

Second, she starts out strongly: "Libertarianism is simplicity itself. It proceeds from a single, quite beautiful, concept of the primacy of individual liberty that, in turn, infuses notions of free markets, limited government and the importance of property rights." Well put. Indeed, it would be hard to improve upon this description.

But then, we run into problems.

In what is to follow, I offer my critical comments, interspersed with her text. That is, what appears below is her article, in regular print, with my comments in italics. In addition, my paragraphs are indented, hers are not.

Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll
Libertarians have more fun — and make more sense.

Sometime this month, Congress will vote on whether to ban cloning, human and therapeutic. Conservatives want a total ban, liberals only want to stop human cloning. What’s mostly missing from the debate, however, is the libertarian position. And that’s a shame. A little bit of libertarian thought would clear the political sinuses.

Libertarianism is simplicity itself. It proceeds from a single, quite beautiful, concept of the primacy of individual liberty that, in turn, infuses notions of free markets, limited government and the importance of property rights.

In terms of public policy, these notions translate into free trade, free immigration, voluntary military service and user fees instead of taxes. Sometimes these policies are argued in a totally unforgiving way so that it’s not easy to separate the lunatics from the libertarians. But it’s a snap to separate libertarians from conservatives.

"Free trade"? Yes, a thousand times yes. But "free immigration" is a highly contentious issue amongst libertarians. The prestigious Journal of Libertarian Studies devoted an entire issue to this subject, featuring entries from all sides of this debate. Perhaps the strongest case against open borders can be found in Hoppe, Hans-Hermann. 2001. Democracy, the God that Failed: The Economics and Politics of Monarchy, Democracy and Natural Order, New Brunswick, N.J. Transaction Publishers; Brimelow, Peter. Alien Nation: Common Sense about America’s Immigration Disaster). For the diametric opposite point of view see Block, Walter and Gene Callahan. Forthcoming. "Is There a Right to Immigration? A Libertarian Perspective," Human Rights Review).

While the voluntary military resonates far better with libertarians than a draft, here, too, there are complexities. Suppose that attracting soldiers through market wages, as opposed to drafting them, enables an imperialistic nation to wage war even more effectively. Then, it is hardly clear that the former is to be preferred. (See on this Block, Walter. 1969. "Against the Volunteer Military," The Libertarian Forum, August 15, p. 4.)

And what is the libertarian supposed to make of "and user fees instead of taxes"? Both emanate from a government that, presumably, is operating outside of its proper and very limited functions. Why should the overburdened citizenry be forced to pay user fees to government for such things as parks, roads, tunnels, bridges, libraries, museums, when these are improper roles for the state in the first place? Rather than paying user fees, these amenities should be privatized.

Nor can we overlook "Sometimes these policies are argued in a totally unforgiving way so that it’s not easy to separate the lunatics from the libertarians." Who is "unforgiving?" Who are the "lunatics?" One senses that these are libertarians with whom Lee disagrees, but this simply is not good enough. As I tell my students, if you want to criticize someone, fine, do it. Have the courtesy to cite them, and then give reasons against their stance. But this sort of thing is just name-calling; it does not by one iota promote intellectual dialogue.

Reading in between the lines, one discerns that her target is anarcho capitalists, or libertarian anarchists. These people believe (true confession time: I am one of them) that that government which governs best not only governs least, but governs not at all. That the "single, quite beautiful, concept of the primacy of individual liberty" leads logically, and inexorably, to no state at all. In these cases, even the limited tasks assigned by limited government libertarians, or libertarian minarchists, would be taken over by the market. This includes armies for defense against foreign aggressors, police to protect us from domestic malefactors, and courts to determine guilt or innocence.

For starters, although these two groups do clasp hands on the importance of free markets, not all their fingers touch. To conservatives, the free market takes its force only as an economic construct — and even then, this is often reduced to an automatic complaint against high taxes. To libertarians, on the other hand, the model of a free market functions as a template for all things. Not only does the market operate as a continuous process for sorting through competing ideas as well as goods, it also allows each individual to express himself or herself. The latter is simply a consequence of the market’s function in testing individual preferences. That some ideas triumph and others fail is necessary.

Our authoress is close here; an A- on this one paragraph. The conservatives’ adherence to free market principles is very superficial indeed. I was present at the annual convention of Young Americans for Freedom, held in St. Louis in 1969 (Rothbard, Murray N. 1969. “Listen, YAF.” The Libertarian Forum, Vol. 1 No. 10, August 15). This was the point at which massive numbers of libertarians split from this conservative youth group, and began setting up their own institutions. One highlight of this event was the burning of a draft card by libertarians, which set the young conservatives into a hissy fit. The other was the taunt of the latter against the former: "lazy fairies." For the non-initiated, this was a jibe at laissez faire capitalism.

But perhaps the single distinguishing feature between conservatives and libertarians is that libertarians are concerned with individual rights and responsibilities over government — or community — rights and responsibilities. Consider how conservatives and libertarians divide over cultural issues or social policy. Libertarians are not comfortable with normative questions. They admit to one moral principle from which all preferences follow; that principle is self-ownership — individuals have the right to control their own bodies, in action and speech, as long as they do not infringe on the same rights for others. The only role for government is to help people defend themselves from force or fraud. Libertarians do not concern themselves with questions of “best behavior” in social or cultural matters.

Close, here, but again no cigar. It is not that libertarians are "not comfortable" with normative questions, regarding the morality of certain actions. Rather, it is that they have no view whatsoever on these issues, since theirs is a philosophy which asks one but one type of question, and gives but one answer. The question? What is just law? Under what cases is it justified for the institutions of law and order to utilize force against a person? The answer: only when he has first initiated force against another person or his property.

Further, the government is by no means the same thing as the community (the advocates of Public Choice to the contrary notwithstanding), and the group, whatever it is, cannot have any rights or responsibilities. This applies solely to individuals.

Libertarians most certainly do concern themselves with questions of “best behavior” in social or cultural matters. But they do not do this, they cannot do this, qua libertarians. Rather, they, like all other human beings, do this in their role as citizens, individuals, whatever. Similarly, most doctors, chess players and athletes like ice cream. But they express this taste not as practitioners of these callings; rather, they do so as individuals.

By contrast, conservatives are comfortable with normative issues. Conservative thought works within a hierarchical structure for behavior that has, at its top, absolute and enduring values. These values are not the result of the agnostic process of the free market; they are ontologically inherent. Because conservatives assume that there is a recognizable standard of excellence, they deal easily with notions of virtue and moral behavior. For example, they argue that the state of marriage between a man and a woman possesses great virtue. And they can go on to distinguish lesser states of virtue in other types of relationships. This process of distinguishing isn’t an entirely epistemological argument, however; it is based, in part, on tradition and, in part, on sociology taken from assumptions about “best behavior.”

It is not exactly true that "conservatives are comfortable with normative issues," and libertarians are not. Surely, the question of just law is a normative one. Rather, at least insofar as modern conservatism is concerned, their perspective is defined in terms of certain positions on what is virtue and moral behavior. Someone who favors homosexual marriage is to that extent not a conservative.

Libertarians believe that marriage between a man and a woman is just one among other equally permissible relationships; they eschew the question of whether there is inherent virtue in each possible state. The only virtue to be inferred is a grand one — that those involved are freely consenting and thus expressing individual preferences in a free market competition among these states. It is no wonder, then, that the cultural debate between conservatives and libertarians takes place over a great divide. Unlike debates over economic policies, there are no liminal issues. Indeed, there cannot be any because the strictness of the divide is a consequence of opposing matrices. Conservative thought proceeds from absolutes, hierarchies and exclusivity. Libertarian thought promotes relativism and inclusiveness — although, admittedly, this tolerance comes from indifference to moral questions, not from a greater inborn talent to live and let live. Conservatives favor tradition and communitarian solutions, and resort to central authority when it serves their purpose. Libertarians value individual creativity and are invariably against central authority.

It is a mistake to believe that "Conservative thought proceeds from absolutes, hierarchies and exclusivity. Libertarian thought promotes relativism and inclusiveness…" If anything, almost the very opposite is the case. Both are absolute in the sense of having principles, although a sharp distinction must be made between the principles of the two. For the libertarian, as we have seen, it is the sanctity of private property rights and the non-aggression axiom. For the conservatives, matters are a bit more complex. There are differences between the old right of classical liberalism, and the Buckley and neo-conservative right. For example, the former was anti war (isolationists adopting a defensive non-imperialistic posture in international relations) and the latter two favored U.S. interventionism into the affairs of other countries.

Nor does libertarian thought promote relativism and inclusiveness. I can’t begin to imagine from what source Lee got the former contention; libertarians are absolute on private property and non-aggression. As to the latter, libertarians certainly would not prohibit by law private owners from excluding from their homes, and, yes, businesses too, any group of people they wish. That is, discriminating on the basis of age, gender, ethnicity, race, sexual preference, would all be legal. Would it be moral? That is a question entirely outside of the realm of this political philosophy.

All this falls to the bottom line in obvious ways. Conservatives are against gay marriage, they are often ambivalent toward immigrants, and patronizing toward women; they view popular culture as mostly decadent and want to censor music, movies, video games and the Internet. They crusade against medical marijuana. For their part, libertarians argue for legalizing drugs; they are in favor of abortion and against the government prohibition of sex practices among consenting adults. They abhor censorship. In the conservative caricature, libertarians believe in sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll — but it is not far from the truth. Unfortunately, these debates are often animated by the fact that conservatives see libertarianism only as the face of what it defends: transgendered persons adopting children, video games of violent sadism and, yes, cloning. Simply put, the shocking and repellent decline of civilization. But for libertarians, these are merely some of the many aspects of a civilization that is advancing through vast and minute experiments. The exercise of freedom trumps the discomforts of novelty.

Libertarians do not favor abortion (pro choice). Nor are they opposed to it either (pro life). Rather, and I concede there is some debate on this issue within libertarian circles, they offer a third option, evictionism. Very briefly, the mother is the owner of her body. The unwanted fetus is a trespasser. What obligations does the owner have, when faced with someone sitting in on one’s property? To remove him, but in the gentlest manner possible. One hundred years ago, with technology of that era, the only way to remove a fetus was to kill it. So, the libertarian position implies pro choice then. One hundred years from now, if technology marches on, it will be possible to evict the fetus from the womb without harming it in the least. Then, the libertarian will be a staunch pro lifer. Right now, matters are more complicated. But the rule is, roughly, if a fetus can live outside the womb, the mother may not kill it. If libertarianism were installed tomorrow, there would be no more partial birth abortions, nor any late in the last trimester. As technology improves, we would move earlier and earlier into the second trimester with this ruling. For an elaboration on this see Block, Walter and Roy Whitehead. Forthcoming. "Compromising the Uncompromisable: A Private Property Rights Approach to Resolving the Abortion Controversy," Thomas M. Cooley Law Review and Block, Walter. 1978. "Abortion, Woman and Fetus: Rights in Conflict?" Reason, April, pp. 18—25.

It is very far from the truth to say that libertarians believe in sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Rather, we believe that these things should be legal, a very different matter. And, if there is any one who is patronizing toward women, it is not conservatives, it is, instead, left liberals. For they are the ones who espouse "feminism," the basis of which is the premise that women are helpless and exploited. Nothing could be further from the truth. See on this Levin, Michael, Feminism and Freedom, New York: Transaction Books, 1987.

To push my argument further, libertarian thought, with its fluid cultural matrix, offers a better response to some of the knottiest problems of society. It is, especially when contrasted with the conservative cultural matrix, a postmodern attitude. In fact, it is precisely this postmodernism that enrages conservatives who are uncomfortable with a radical acceptance that, in turn, promotes change and unfamiliarity. Yet no matter how scary (or irritating), libertarian tolerance provides a more efficient mechanism in dealing with those places where economics, politics and culture clash so intimately.

While I of course appreciate this business of "better response to some of the knottiest problems of society," calling libertarian thought, a "fluid cultural matrix" is not so much objectionable, as it is meaningless. Further, Lee must just about be the first person who has ever characterized libertarianism as "postmodern."

Although libertarians tend toward an annoying optimism, no reasonable observer would venture a prediction on the winner of the conservative-libertarian debate. The outcome depends crucially on where societies ultimately fix the locus of coercion between liberty and authority for politics, and between tolerance and conformity for culture. One can imagine, though, how discouraged F.A. Hayek must have felt in 1944 when he sat down to write The Road to Serfdom. Now, few doubt that Hayek has won and that the economic argument has been settled in favor of free markets. What remains is the battle over politics and culture. One down, two to go.

Why are we libertarians "annoyingly optimistic?" This is sophomoric; any student of mine who wrote such bilge would feel my editorial wrath. Dear Miss Lee: If you are going to criticize a political philosophy, any of them, try to be specific.

She is also very much mistaken about Hayek’s book. This is hardly the bastion of free markets it is widely thought to be. Rather, it "leaks" all over the place, making compromise after compromise with the socialism of its day (See on this Block, Walter. 1996. “Hayek’s Road to Serfdom,” Journal of Libertarian Studies: An Interdisciplinary Review, Vol. 12, No. 2, Fall, pp. 327—350.

Were this written by a student of mine, I would have emphasized the positive more than I have done so here. But this is an adult journalist, from whom we readers have a right to expect more, and better. Nevertheless, she did do a reasonably good job, despite all these errors. After all, the usual mainstream journalistic description of libertarianism is to dismiss it as a variant of Nazism. At least this authoress did not sink to that level. I stand by my B- evaluation.

Dr. Block [send him mail] is a professor of economics at Loyola University New Orleans.

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