The Cultural Contradictions of Statism

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It seems as though, for all that conservatives have ever said about libertarians, their main critiques now fall into two categories: That libertarianism, radically applied, would mean America’s death at the hand of foreign enemies; or, that libertarianism is amoral.

Now, it is quite interesting that some actually try to make both claims at once: If we followed libertarian morality too strictly, it would forbid us from slaughtering innocents abroad, and our ethics must be more situational than that — and yet, on the other hand, libertarianism is so permissive an ethical code that following it would mean the collapse of civilization under a wave of decadence and sin. (Apparently, people watching too much pornography is less tolerable a price for a free society than mass murder is a price for "national security.")

The last prominent attack on libertarianism mostly focuses on the philosophy’s supposed amorality, its license or even prescription for libertine, decivilizing behavior. In Opinion Journal, Kay S. Hymowitz writes about the supposed "cultural contradictions of libertarianism."

She mentions foreign policy briefly, and here she favors the "flexible thinking" of pro-war "libertarians." (Again, we need strict moral values, but prohibitions against killing the innocent are just inexpedient in our changing, modern world.) Hymowitz moves on to critique the supposed libertarian tendency and role in attacking the bourgeois family, tradition and biology.

Now, precisely speaking, libertarians are opposed to the use of aggression to keep families together, if that’s what she is referring to. And, actually, this is not so uncommon a view. There was a time, long ago, when the law was far more involved in maintaining patriarchy by force. Most people have a much more libertarian, if not libertine, attitude toward this than they once did. Most libertarians I’ve met, and I’ve met many, believe that strong and supportive families and communities should and would thrive without state subsidy. Does Hymowitz think it’s a bad thing to believe that families, churches, and all the institutions of civil life can be maintained and in fact would flourish brighter than ever without police and jails backing them up?

In contrast to this understanding of social authority arising voluntarily without big government, in any area where the statist seeks to correct a social ill, whether it be in weakened families or urban poverty, the only possible state remedy is violence directed against sinners as well as innocents caught up in the social engineering project. Is someone having drug problems? Stick him in a cage for a decade. Are divorce rates rising? We need more federal regulations and bureaucracy. Is a foreign nation disrespecting us? Bomb them.

The statist conception of libertarians as having a totally amoral ideology is flawed from the very beginning. In a classic example of such misunderstanding, Hymowitz says the libertarian idea that “u2018People ought to be free to do whatever the hell they want, mostly, as long as they aren’t hurting anyone else’. . . is not far removed from ‘if it feels good, do it,’ the cri de coeur of the Aquarians."

But it is indeed incredibly far removed, not the same thing at all. Saying someone has a right to engage in whatever peaceful behavior he chooses is not an endorsement of what he might choose. Just because we think it immoral and socially destructive to use violence against someone doing something peaceful doesn’t mean we have to approve what he does. Drinking three bottles of whiskey a day is legal now. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Is this really that hard to understand?

Yes, we oppose aggression — that is the baseline of civil conduct. This is the baseline of civil morality. And aggression is not a very good solution to social problems, however real. It is not that drug abuse, marital cheating and broken families are not real social problems. It is simply that threatening to lock people in cages or to steal more of their hard-earned money is even worse. We consider such immoral coercion against peaceful people, however misguided or short of divine they might be, to be out of the question. Virtue without free will is impossible — another truth that statist conservatives and leftists will obscure even at the cost of believing extreme contradictions.

What kind of contradictions? The belief that killing an innocent person is wrong but the state can kill a million in a war and at most be considered mistaken. The belief that stealing is wrong but taxation is not. The belief that it is more acceptable to lock a frail teenager in a cage where he might be raped and beaten, rather than let him learn, through experience and family guidance, the perils of drug abuse. The belief that the youth must be protected from the sin of drinking until they are 21, unless they are on a military base and working as a hired killer for the state. The belief that without a $3-trillion-dollar organization of pillaging, killing, prevarication and ubiquitous corruption, we would have no moral example to look up to.

But it should be no wonder that just as many social values have declined, the state has grown bigger than ever. Perhaps such a massively hypocritical, deceitful and belligerent institution as government isn’t much of a good example, after all. Indeed, as many libertarians have shown, big government only undermines bourgeois values with its assault on property rights, family, free association, community norms and basic ethics. Its lunatic spending and borrowing discourage saving and artificially lead people to be more present-oriented — a truly decivilizing tendency in the long run, for without investment, both cultural and economic, there is no civilization.

On a final note, yes, we have some funny people in our movement. Some are attracted by the idea of radical liberty and others for very narrow self-interested reasons. But look who is attracted to the party of power: Those who seek to control others, to justify torture, to reign death on their fellow man and run everyone’s economic and personal life. Perhaps there are some libertarians out there who approach the amoral, and I cannot endorse all their views. But even amorality would be a vast improvement over the vicious, calculated, gratuitous immorality that saturates the political world.

Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research analyst at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.

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