The Confused Morals of Left-Libertarians
by Steven Greenhut
by Steven Greenhut
Earlier this month, I gave a few words at a church-related charity banquet. It was one of those events filled with non-political people who are pretty well informed but not up on the terminology that we take for granted. So when I was asked about my political beliefs, it was hard to know what to say. Calling one's self a paleo-libertarian only brings raised eyebrows and raises more questions than it answers.
One thing for sure. I did not instantly use the word libertarian to describe myself, even though I write libertarian editorials for an editorial page known for its libertarianism. I realized how much I run from that label, even though I embrace what are generally termed libertarian principles.
These days, the left-libertarians who have the loudest voice in our political movement can't seem to make a simple distinction: just because a behavior should be legal doesn't mean it's good. While I would never use the government to promote morality or crack down on vice, as many conservatives would do, I have no interest in erasing the line between uplifting, civilization-building behavior and depravity.
Yet so many libertarians act as if every expression of human freedom, no matter how stupid or perverted, is worth celebrating. This is infantile. I recall former Reason magazine editor Virginia Postrel's book, The Future and Its Enemies, in which she broke down political debates between those people who are "dynamists" and those who are "stasists." Dynamists believe in dynamic change. Stasists try to use government to preserve the status quo. It wasn't a bad read, and I even praised it in a review, but it was clear that Postrel succinctly captured the left-libertarian credo: Tradition is bad, change is good. All change is good, for that matter. The past is always repressive, the present is OK and the future will set us free.
Silly me, I must be a stasist. I can't forget about the Scripture-based painting I saw in Pella, Iowa, in one of this highly religious Dutch town's historic buildings. There was a broad boulevard filled with happy dancing people ... headed straight to damnation. Nearby on a narrow, vine-covered path was the road to salvation.
One needn't be a Christian even to understand the point: Bad choices can be fun, but can lead to nasty consequences. The narrow road might be challenging, but it also leads to a rewarding place. Yet so many of today's libertarians are having too much fun on the wide road, acting like 19-year-olds who just got their freedom from Mom and Dad but lack the wisdom to choose the right things with their new freedoms.
Dynamism is necessary in a free market, but not every change is for the good. Government shouldn't try to stop change, but free people in a free society need to use non-governmental pressures to uphold valuable beliefs and traditions.
When I lived in Iowa, I was stifled by the societal pressures placed on people. You will do the right thing or pay a social price. I thought the parameters were too narrow for my taste, but in my experience Iowans certainly knew how to use social means to encourage people to behave in a community-minded manner.
That's the way it should be.
Here in Southern California — a much nicer place to live, for many reasons — virtually anything goes. That's OK, but one needn't live here to know about the well-known excesses. As an adult I can handle the choices. But almost all my kids' friends in Iowa (and when I lived in Ohio) came from intact families. When I asked my oldest daughter recently if any of her friends come from a traditional family (Mom and Dad with their own kids), she thought of a couple but it took quite a while.
It would be evil to use government to try to fix this situation, but as libertarians there's no reason we have to celebrate the "dynamism" involved in emerging families. Oh, isn't it great that Sally gets to spend three days a week with her dad, his girlfriend and the girlfriend's offspring, and the other four days with Mom, her new husband, his daughter from a first marriage and son from the third marriage!
Bill and Bob can get married for all I care. They can even marry their cats and Golden Retrievers if they choose, but I will not celebrate these decisions as legitimate choices. If the state declared my marriage null and void, I would still be married because my wife and I are not dependent on the state to recognize our vows. Likewise, if the state of Massachusetts declares gay marriage a right, it's still not a real marriage in my eyes, no matter how many left-libertarians celebrate that decision.
I made this point in a column last year: "The more people misbehave and are incapable of taking care of themselves and their families, the more government has a pretext to enter every part of the individual's life."
After it ran (in the Orange County Register and on LewRockwell), I was inundated by emails from left-libertarians insisting that I couldn't possibly be a libertarian in arguing against libertine behavior. Really? I guess libertarians are free to do anything they want as long as that anything doesn't include trying to live up to traditional morals.
Note the word trying. Just because individuals fail to live up to moral codes doesn't mean the codes don't matter. A colleague of mine the other day sung the praises of hypocrisy. At least hypocrites acknowledge they are violating certain rules and norms, whereas modern left-libertarian thinkers claim there are no such rules.
The reason for this rant?
Well, how about the Reason? I don't mean to pick on one magazine, but its December issue with the cover story, "35 Heroes of Freedom" epitomizes my complaint. There are great choices in the list thrown in with abominable ones. No distinctions are made. Just because some Puritans are hostile to porn or gambling or popular music means libertarians must embrace these things without reservation.
The list includes serious choices such as Milton Friedman, Jane Jacobs, Robert Heinlein, F.A. Hayek, Rose Wilder Lane, Ron Paul, and Thomas Szasz, and some halfway serious choices such as Clarence Thomas and Margaret Thatcher.
But it also includes the communist Nelson Mandela, the cross-dressing basketball star Dennis Rodman, Madonna, Willie Nelson, and Larry Flynt.
Here's what it says about Flynt: "Where Hugh Hefner mainstreamed bohemian sexual mores, hard-core porn merchant Flynt brought tastelessness to new depths, inspiring an unthinkable but revealing coalition between social conservatives and puritanical feminists — and helping to strengthen First Amendment protections for free expression along the way."
See what I'm talking about?
As others have noted on the LRC blog, the sins of omission (Murray Rothbard, Ludwig von Mises, etc.) are hard to fathom. But, let's be real, Reason's goal isn't to promote true heroes of freedoms. It is to be "cutting edge," "hip," "edgy," and "smart." It isn't just the 35 Heroes article, but the unintelligible article recently by a cross-gendered person, and other libertine fare. Some left-libertarians, including one Reason editor, argue that America needs to have an aggressive foreign policy to protect all these newfangled liberties the left-libertarians celebrate.
Of course, Reason doesn't pretend that its list is all-inclusive, but it does make its values clear: The list shows "the many ways in which the world has only gotten groovier and groovier during the last 35 years." I dunno, but groovy isn't my main goal. And I wonder, as other paleos have pointed out, why the left-libertarians can't see how much bigger and more aggressive the government has gotten in those years.
Basically, left-libertarians are hostile to traditional values and traditional religious perspectives. So they are as confused as members of the religious right. Religious conservatives think that because something is bad it ought to be illegal. Left-libertarians think that if something ought to be legal, then it is necessarily good.
No wonder I'm not always eager to label myself a libertarian.
November 22, 2003
Steven Greenhut (send him mail) is a senior editorial writer and columnist for the Orange County Register.
Copyright © 2003 LewRockwell.com