TCS Daily

Freedom and Morality: A Response to the Prof

By Jude Blanchette - November 5, 2004 12:00 AM

For the past fifty years or so, the standard conservative argument against libertarianism has been this: it is a nihilistic, hedonistic philosophy that supposedly holds everyman as an island, free to pursue all sorts of deviant behavior so long as it's voluntary. To be "free" is to break away from the societal shackles of morality, tradition, and God. Libertarians, conservatives say, are naïve -- they believe man is inherently good, and therefore, no restraints on humanity are needed.

And so as both a Catholic and a libertarian, I admit that I'm not surprised by Prof. Bainbridge's recent TCS article, Law and Morality in America. It contains the same caricature of the libertarian philosophy that many conservatives have proffered over the last few decades. And like most of these "critiques," it contains only a germ of truth. There is not enough space here for a detailed rebuttal, but I would like to challenge several points:

  1. No doubt there exist libertarians who endorse the above sketch of libertarianism. Just as there are conservatives who are pro-choice and pro-drug legalization; doctrinal differences exist within any group of free-thinking individuals. Yet most libertarians I have contact with hold a deep reverence for what Russell Kirk called "the permanent things," as well as a pronounced faith in God. In this sense, there are many similarities between libertarians and conservatives. The difference is that libertarianism resides only in the realm of political philosophy: it holds that the individual should remain at liberty to pursue his subjectively defined goals with as little government coercion as possible. Notice this does not mean that he is free to do anything he pleases. Society does and should exert pressures on the individual to conform to a moral and cultural code.
  1. Prof. Bainbridge accuses libertarians of holding a "radical individual autonomy." Again, this is a very old and specious critique of libertarianism. Many libertarians do refer to themselves as "individualists," I think in part because they assumed their readers would have the imagination to understand what it was they meant. The term was fostered and used during a time when citizens had no individual worth and were prized only inasmuch as they satisfied the goals of the State. "Individualists" are not hermits, but men and women who refuse to be lumped together into a government-sanctioned collective. Societies, communities, neighborhoods and families thrive when free from government compulsion. To grant a political degree of autonomy is to allow the individual to expand his or her social relations.
  1. I would imagine that Prof. Bainbridge accepts there should be limits to the government's ability to legislate morality. Does he believe a man should be jailed for having, ceterus paribus, an extra-marital affair? Probably not, and the reason isn't because he endorses this immoral behavior; rather he understands that these are matters for which government involvement is unwise and, indeed, unwarranted. The libertarian would agree and go a step farther: the government should refrain from legislating morality, not because an objective morality doesn't exist, but because morality thrives in a free society. Furthermore, my Catholicism (and in that sense, my moral underpinning) is ultimately a relationship between myself and God. The foundation for good governance is not the extent to which it makes the American public conform to the belief system of certain elected officials, but its ability to allow citizens to peacefully and freely pursue their goals. The government intervenes, not when citizens are immoral per se, but when they violate the peaceful actions of others.
  1. Prof. Bainbridge writes: "Most libertarians refuse to accept the proposition that law can and should be based on moral principles derived from natural law." Again, there are libertarians (the contractarians, for example) who deny the legitimacy of natural rights as a basis for constitutional government, but there are just as many who find the only role for a government is to protect our property rights which stem from the natural law. In this sense, libertarians agree that a government is to enforce certain moral codes (thou shall not kill), but not that it should enforce all moral codes. Beyond the protection of property rights, government endangers the free society that allows morality to thrive.
  1. I would agree with Prof. Bainbridge's point that most Americans disagree with libertarians over the issue of morality. However, this is not because libertarians, in general, hold an alternative set of beliefs about what is right and what is wrong. Instead, what separates libertarians is their understanding of the nature and function of a government. By granting extensive powers to a government we happen to agree with to enforce a given moral code, we also give these powers to a government in the future that we may not like.

I welcome a healthy dialogue over the principles of libertarianism, but for too long, conservative critics have reissued the same arguments, apparently not bothering to read the countless responses by libertarians.

The author is Research Fellow, Foundation for Economic Education


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