Tuesday, April 10, 2012

MercatorNet: Why I am not a libertarian

MercatorNet: Why I am not a libertarian


Libertarianism and conservatism are often lumped together, but there are fundamental differences between the two philosophies that make them incompatible. 

Tea Partiers simultaneously promote both a conservatism based upon the principles of the American founding and a libertarianism based on individualism, but the two are ultimately incompatible.
Libertarians are good at explaining why the market works and why government fails, and they have made important policy initiatives in areas such as school choice. On the other hand, they actively oppose laws prohibiting obscenity, protecting unborn children, promoting marriage, limiting immigration, and securing American citizens against terrorists. These positions flow from core principles that have more in common with modern liberalism than with the American founding, and which threaten to erode our constitutional order even further.
The attraction of libertarianism is also its main defect: it offers neat solutions to complex problems. Unfortunately, reality is far more complex than libertarians acknowledge. Only conservatism offers principles adequate to that reality. Consider ten claims libertarians often make:

1. “The Founders of the American political order were libertarian.” Although the American Founders believed in limited government, they were not libertarian. The Constitution was designed for a federal system of government, specifying and limiting national powers and leaving to the states the exercise of their customary powers to protect the health, safety, morals, and welfare of their citizens. None of the American founders challenged these customary state powers, nor did they attempt to repeal them. ...
2. “Conservatism fears new ideas because it has no distinctive principles of its own to oppose them.” This claim, made by F.A. Hayek, is simply false as applied to American conservatism (as Hayek himself knew). American conservatism seeks to conserve the principles of justice that lie at the root of the American political order, what might be called Natural Law Liberalism. ...
3. “Only individuals exist, therefore there is no such thing as a ‘common good.’” ... Every human association, whether a marriage, business partnership, or sports team, has a common good, or why would it exist?
Common goods are not substantial entities standing over and against individual persons; they are the good of individual persons. But this does not mean common goods are always divisible into individual shares, like a cake. An orchestra, a marriage, an army cannot be divided without being destroyed. Within such associations individual persons exist as bandmates, spouses, and soldiers.
....
4. “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” The “harm principle,” first formulated by J.S. Mill, is a moral claim. It cannot be derived from moral skepticism without committing a self-referential fallacy: The argument, “We don’t know what is right or wrong, therefore it is wrong to do x,” is obviously invalid.
As a moral claim, the harm principle is not neutral with respect to competing conceptions of the good. Underlying it is the conviction that the good for human beings is to live according to one’s own conception of what is good, and to live in a society in which that freedom is protected. For the sake of this conception of the good, it requires the repeal of legislation enacted by those with a different conception of the good. It thus deprives them of their right to choose and live according to their own conception of the good. In effect, libertarians wish to compel other persons with whom they disagree to live in a society that these others find, often with very good reason, to be hostile to human flourishing.
....
5. “Conscription is Slavery, and Taxation is Robbery.” This is Murray Rothbard’s succinct summary of the anarcho-libertarian objection to politics. ....
Conservatives do not regard coercion as evil, simpliciter. Some limits liberate. Human beings enter the world utterly dependent, and they require for their security and development the authoritative and sometimes coercive direction of parents, teachers, police, soldiers, and judges. There are many subtle threads of coercion, conservatives argue, that make social cooperation possible.
Outside the bounds set by natural right, however, coercion is tyranny. It has been the greatest achievement of Western civilization to recognize the basic human needs, interests, and inclinations that make coercive associations necessary, to carve out their rightful scope and limits, and to bring them under the discipline of reason and the rule of law. ....
6. Virtue cannot be coerced, therefore government should not legislate morality.Coercive law cannot make people virtuous. But it can assist or thwart individuals in making themselves virtuous. ...
7. Government should not interfere in the free market. Because they oppose commerce in things that are intrinsically immoral and harmful, such as hard drugs, prostitution, or obscene materials, conservatives are accused by libertarians of opposing the free market. This is false. Conservatives value the free market as much as libertarians, as a means for mutually beneficial exchanges, as an occasion for the exercise of virtues such as creativity, cooperation, industry, honesty, and thrift, and as an indispensable source of information (through the pricing mechanism) for individuals on the best use of resources.
But conservatives oppose the “total market,” in which all human associations, such as families and churches, are falsely remade in the image of ordinary contracts, and in which all voluntary (short of force or fraud) contracts between consenting adults are enforced by law. In the libertarian universe there are no citizens, only consumers.
For conservatives, private property and the free market are important institutions for human flourishing, but their value and success critically depend upon non-market institutions such as the family and the political association, as well as a moral and cultural milieu favorable to honesty, trust, industry, and other important virtues. ...
8. The only alternative to libertarianism is totalitarianism. This is a false dilemma. Between the fantasies of libertarianism and totalitarianism is the wide spectrum of governments that have actually existed through most of human history. ...
Conservatives recognize the dangers of moral fanaticism, but they insist, with historical evidence to back them up, that the remedy is not to facilitate the debauchery of society by eliminating the props to good moral character, but to reinforce and support those props.
9. Libertarianism is based upon a realistic understanding of human nature.Libertarians accuse conservatives of being utopian or na├»ve about human nature. Self-regarding actions are sufficient for producing a free and prosperous society, they argue. Moreover, power by its very nature corrupts human beings and therefore should be narrowly circumscribed and vigilantly watched.
Conservatives reply that it is the libertarians who are utopian for failing to give proper weight to the full range of human motives, and to the exigencies of a free society and limited government. ...
10. “Freedom works.” A frequent refrain of Hayek, but what does it mean? Weapons also “work,” though not necessarily for good. Freedom cannot be evaluated apart from the ends that it serves.


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