February 12, 2003

IT'S SURE FUN IF YOU GET TO BE A MASSA':

Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll: Libertarians have more fun--and make more sense. (SUSAN LEE, February 12, 2003, Wall Street Journal)
[P]erhaps 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.

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."

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.

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.


There are any number of entirely likable and perfectly charming libertarians around--mainly wealthy young white men, especially technocrats--but whenever they open their mouths complete nonsense like this tends to come spewing out. We've previously discussed libertarianism rather fully with one of its most gracious adherents, Perry de Havilland, and amply demonstrated the incoherence of libertarian support for bio-engineering. For the purposes of Ms Lee's essay, perhaps one point will suffice: in order to arrive at the position that abortion and cloning and the like are permissible, libertarians have to make exactly the kind of normative judgment that she claims is anathema.

The judgment is rather simple and absolute, though unlike most such is quite new: that fetuses aren't individuals. Obviously if they were individuals then they would be entitled to the entire panoply of freedoms that libertarians claim for themselves--which would put a crimp in all that free sex stuff and, unless they believe in freedom so blindly that they think new borns should fend for themselves, might impose responsibilities (horrors!) on parents. Therefore, it is necessary to strip the fetus of the recognition and protection that it once enjoyed.

Many people, even non-libertarians, believe this is appropriate, however few are willing to follow the logic to its end. Having granted themselves the power to determine who's an entitled human being, an individual with rights, there's no reason to limit themselves to just writing off the fetus. It's a short step to dismissing the terminally ill or the profoundly handicapped or severely retarded, etc.. And, retrospectively, it's easy to see how the same thinking made it possible to marginalize blacks and endorse slavery. In fact, though libertarians were loud in their denunciations of Trent Lott, it is a bizarre and ugly truth that there's a strong and vocal libertarian critique of Abraham Lincoln for fighting Secession and freeing the slaves, who were mere property at the time. Lew Rockwell even has an entire King Lincoln Archive dedicated to the cause of redeeming the South and vilifying Lincoln--they blame the war not on slavery but on the South's opposition to tariffs. Get it? By being for Free Trade the Southerners become the side fighting for liberty. The archive even opens with a letter from one of the godfathers of libertarianism, Lord Acton, because, as they say: "The great classical liberal was, of course, pro-Confederacy."

The crowning achievement of these libertarians is Thomas DiLorenzo's recent book The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War--the author has numerous pieces in the aforementioned archive--which has won plaudits from all the usual suspects: Joseph R. Stromberg, The Ludwig von Mises Institute, WorldNetDaily, Laissez Faire Books, Future of Freedom Foundation, etc., etc., etc... If you want a disturbing education about libertarianism just put "dilorenzo" and "lincoln" in your Google search box and brace yourself.

Now, there are plenty of other libertarians--David Boaz & Virginia Postrel come to mind--who would, to their credit, distance themselves from these views. However, they can't distance themselves from the reality that their political views lend themselves to such thinking. So long as you base your politics on an absolute individualism and reserve the right to define who qualifies as an individual, you must bear some responsibility for the treatment of the non-individuals. And though you may be comfortable with who you've defined out of humanity today, you ought to be conscious of who your fellow believers defined out of humanity yesterday.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 12, 2003 2:49 PM
Comments

I'm not sure if the Lew Rockwell crowd's representative of libertarians any more than Pat Buchanan's representative of conservatives. However, seeing that Confederate nostalga coming from that direction's not pretty.



If you'd like to see me take apart DiLorenzo on Lincoln, follow the homepage link to a piece I did a year ago.

Posted by: Mark Byron at February 12, 2003 3:37 PM

Nice work, Mr Byron.

Posted by: M Ali Choudhury at February 12, 2003 3:51 PM

"And though you may be comfortable with who you've defined out of humanity today, you ought to be conscious of who your fellow believers defined out of humanity yesterday. "





And who they may define out of humanity tomorrow - i.e. you or me in our dotage. In a related idea, I have noticed a distinct inability for people and politicians to look-ahead more than one ply (half-move - if I may sneak in some computer chess terms here). They simply fail to account that a radical idea may be used by their opponents in ways they detest. Thus when Paul Begala crowed "Stroke of the pen, law of the land - kinda cool" when Clinton signed some executive order or another, I simply cringed, knowing that the same people would squeal when a Republican got his
mitts on the pen. National security legislation may look acceptable under GW Bush, but how about the same legislation under Hillary Clinton?





The parallels with defining humanity are obvious enough.

Posted by: Bruce Cleaver at February 12, 2003 4:14 PM

Here's a statement which is likely going to make Orrin very happy considering some of the cross email bantering we've occasionally engaged in, but I've been slowly moving away from libertarian elements for some
of the reasons he discussed in his piece.



I think the biggest reason for my personal rift, however, is the inane "American empire" garbage coming out of many libertarians over the possible war against Iraq. I respect people who are opposed to such a war, people like W. James Antle III (a conservative though, not a lib.) when they make rational arguments but to hear a libertarian talk like Pat Buchanan kills me.



Sigh, in ten years I'll probably be quoting Russell Kirke in my essays...

Posted by: Steven Martinovich at February 12, 2003 4:35 PM

Steven:



Come to the Dark Side....

Posted by: oj at February 12, 2003 4:51 PM

I've been seeing the anti-Lincoln stuff around lately and it is indeed disturbing; it makes me think of the way the left went after Thomas Jefferson in the 90's. Revisionism doesn't have to be a bad thing - but these folks are just irresponsible.

Posted by: Ann Northcutt Gray at February 12, 2003 5:16 PM

This is very interesting, but for some reason, libertarians often seem to be slightly mis-represented. A lot of people call themselves "libertarian", but supporters of Pat Buchanan, who demonstrate with Marxists are really something other than libertarian, and this may be the reason for the mis-representation. Libertarians are not so much pro-abortion, for example, as much as deciding that it is not an issue for the "nanny state" to impose on individuals.



Abe Lincoln (Happy Birthday, wherever you are!), was not opposed to slavery. He made money enforcing the fugitive slave act.



It is a real shame how the left smeared Thomas Jefferson; he made such a contribution to all of civilization, really.



But before the war between the states, the federal beauracracy was almost non-existent; and it has been spiralling out of control ever since. And there has been a cost in terms of our liberty, which is slowly, but continually escalating. There were many issues, and many very good men on both sides. We should try to understand how they became so conflicted.

Posted by: Richard at February 12, 2003 6:55 PM

Richard strikes a note of moderation, I and second it. The Civil War may have been necessary to effect the ultimate defeat of slavery, but it was damned costly, not only in lives, property and liberty, but in principles -- the main one being, in my view, the federalism of the Founders. It is sheer folly to discount these costs.



Ms. Lee and the libertarians (whose real and valuable contributions no one should belittle) are vulnerable on less esoteric grounds than their links to the paleolibertarians. When she writes, "Libertarianism is simplicity itself," alarms should already be ringing. Ever has been the urge in men to reduce the complexity of the world to abstractions; rare have been the benefits.

Posted by: Paul Cella at February 12, 2003 11:20 PM

Paul:



So, if offered Federalism back but blacks in chains, you'd take it?

Posted by: oj at February 12, 2003 11:47 PM

Now I am an apologist for slavery, huh?

Posted by: Paul Cella at February 13, 2003 12:05 AM

If you want to blame anyone for spiralling government bureaucracy, blame the Progressives (or if you insist on using the Civil War as the critical era the secessionists) and leave Lincoln out of it.



The man was simply reacting to events as best he coud.



It's kind of ridiculous to read some of this stuff i.e. if they'd left the Confederates alone, there'd have never been a New Deal!

Posted by: M Ali Choudhury at February 13, 2003 5:21 AM

Paul:



The construction "necessary...but" always suggests longing for the pre-existing condition. There are coherent arguments for pre-War America being superior--even in terms of overall liberty--to today. But in making them people--like the Rockwell types--have to accept that they are defending a system that included slavery.

Posted by: oj at February 13, 2003 8:19 AM

oj-

Sorry, but I think you are way off-base in your comment to Paul. It is perfectly reasonable to believe that the Civil War, though a net gain (the ending of slavery) had some real costs as well (the ending of the previous federal system and the loss of states rights). Criticizing that system because it included slavery is irrelevant, unless you think that there is some form of government that has existed that did not also include horrible acts.

Posted by: Matthew Judd at February 13, 2003 9:11 AM

Is any person born in the United States a citizen of the United States and is the relationship between the citizen and the United States direct rather than mediated by the states? Those are the two questions answered by the Civil War and the answers given (yes, in case you're wondering) seem to me to be unassailable.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 13, 2003 9:28 AM

Matthew:



The enslavement of human beings can no more be "irrelevant" than our current practice of abortion can be. As with abortion we can understand why people accepted slavery, but can't explain away that the War was fought to preserve it.

Posted by: oj at February 13, 2003 10:05 AM

" And though you may be comfortable with who you've defined out of humanity today, you ought to be conscious of who your fellow believers defined out of humanity yesterday"



This is an issue that has nothing to do with Libertarianism. Who is a person before the law and who is not has to be decided no matter what principles your system of law is based on.



Do foreigners count? Blacks? Women? Children? There are lots of times and places where the answers are different from ours (not that I don't think ours are right.)



The real problem is that new technologies keep on giving us new types of entity that we then have to decide on whether they are legal people: Fetuses that are viable now, but wouldn't be with 1960s medical technology. Clones. And you'd better start thinking about whether AI programs and genetically modified apes and dolphins with giant brains should have "human rights".



And by the way, there are pro-life libertarians.



The questions of "how should the government relate to individual humans?" and "is this a human being?" are orthogonal.

Posted by: ralph phelan at February 13, 2003 10:26 AM

" And though you may be comfortable with who you've defined out of humanity today, you ought to be conscious of who your fellow believers defined out of humanity yesterday"



This is an issue that has nothing to do with Libertarianism. Who is a person before the law and who is not has to be decided no matter what principles your system of law is based on.



Do foreigners count? Blacks? Women? Children? There are lots of times and places where the answers are different from ours (not that I don't think ours are right.)



The real problem is that new technologies keep on giving us new types of entity that we then have to decide on whether they are legal people: Fetuses that are viable now, but wouldn't be with 1960s medical technology. Clones. And you'd better start thinking about whether AI programs and genetically modified apes and dolphins with giant brains should have "human rights".



And by the way, there are pro-life libertarians.



The questions of "how should the government relate to individual humans?" and "is this a human being?" are orthogonal.

Posted by: ralph phelan at February 13, 2003 10:27 AM

From a comment on NRO by someone who thinks this was a lame attempt at describing libertarianism:



"I've always preferred Bill Niskanen's formulation that a libertarian is one who recognizes the difference between a virtue and a mandate, as well as the difference between a sin and a crime.

Posted by: ralph phelan at February 13, 2003 11:08 AM

Un, ralph, that's the point...Libertarianism too proceeds from normative decisions, which she elaborately disavows.

Posted by: oj at February 13, 2003 11:56 AM

I agree with the guy on NRO that hers is a real lousy explanation of libertarianism.

Posted by: ralph phelan at February 13, 2003 3:05 PM
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