Thursday, September 13, 2007

Why I Am Not a Pure Libertarian

I occasionally catch snippets of the unruly Glenn Beck radio show. Rarely is Beck short on entertainment value, but I frequently find myself disagreeing with his overly simplistic take on issues. Some of his one-sided pronouncements ignore facts to the point of crossing over into the realm of propaganda. He’s good at evoking emotional responses by citing things out of context. But Beck can make me laugh.

Among Beck’s regularly stated positions is his occasional discussion of his lack of affinity for pure libertarianism. He seems to quite enjoy goading Ron Paul supporters over certain libertarian stances that he finds either immoral or impractical. The other day he went on an anti-libertarian tirade that had me laughing so hard that I nearly had to pull over.

But within Beck’s raffish romp I found a good description of why I can’t bring myself to be a rock solid libertarian. Beck said that part of him wants to be a libertarian and that he agrees in principle with libertarians on 80-90% of their positions. But he just can’t go all the way and accept the remaining 10-20%.

It comes down to morality, Beck said. Our Founders were libertarians, but even the most libertarian-minded of them understood that none of what they were establishing would work without a strong moral framework. Libertarians argue for a laissez-faire approach, not only to economic and political matters, but to moral issues as well. There is a strong amoral (not necessarily immoral) tendency in libertarianism; although, libertarians will argue that freedom from moral strictures eventually creates its own morality. Like Beck, I just can’t go that far.

Kay S. Hymowitz captures this sentiment much more eloquently in this Commentary article (reprinted in the Wall Street Journal). Hymowitz begins her article with a humorous look at the libertarian stereotype of “a scraggly misfit living in the woods with his gun collection, a few marijuana plants, some dogeared Ayn Rand titles, and a battered pickup truck plastered with bumper stickers reading "Taxes = Theft" and "FDR Was A Pinko."”

Hymowitz says, “The Libertarian Party's paltry membership has never reached much beyond the 250,000 mark, and polling numbers for Ron Paul, the libertarian candidate seeking the Republican presidential nomination, remain pitiable.” She also discusses trends that libertarians must find appalling.

“[A]ntistatist ideas like school vouchers and privatized Social Security accounts continue to be greeted with widespread skepticism, while massive new programs like the Medicare prescription-drug benefit continue to win the support of re-election-minded incumbents. A recent New York Times survey found increasing support for government-run health care, and both parties are showing signs of a populist resurgence, with demands for new economic and trade regulation.”

Conversely, Hymowitz also notes that libertarian principles have become more ingrained in economic and personal choice matters than at any time in modern history. But Hymowitz also argues that libertarians have gone overboard in the arena of personal choice to the point of even advocating for immoral behaviors that, left unchecked will completely destroy the basic framework required for principles of liberty to exist. She calls this “the cultural contradictions of libertarianism.”

Research shows, asserts Hymowitz, that the natural (ostensibly middle class) family is absolutely essential to creating and maintaining the economic structure in which liberty can thrive. And yet libertarians have willfully ignored the indispensability of the community and the natural family in their support of policies of “freedom” that have contributed to and are contributing to community and family breakdown.

Bizarrely, “do whatever you want” attitudes with respect to morality have led to substantial growth of the type government dependence and government intrusion that “libertarians reject on principle.” Divorce and out-of-wedlock births have created “an increased demand for state-funded food, housing and medical subsidies.” And due to liberal divorce policies, family law courts “are forced to be more intrusive than the worst mother-in-law: They decide who should have primary custody, who gets a child on Christmas or summer holidays, whether a child should take piano lessons, go to Hebrew school, move to California, or speak to her grandmother on the phone.” This is the antithesis of liberty.

Hymowitz writes, “The complex, dynamic economy that libertarians have done so much to expand needs highly advanced human capital--that is, individuals of great moral, cognitive and emotional sophistication. Reams of social-science research prove that these qualities are best produced in traditional families with married parents.”

But the family is of necessity a very undemocratic institution. A good family requires a level of constraint, intrusion, sacrifice, dedication, and compulsion that we would not tolerate in other social institutions (outside of prison, perhaps). And yet the family is also the laboratory in which principles of liberty are introduced, taught, and fostered in ways that our finest public institutions cannot come close to matching.

Thomas Hibbs writes in this NRO article that “religion, skepticism about government in economic life, strong families, and personal entrepreneurism” are essential to fostering vibrant communities that take care of themselves and require less government intervention. That is, strong communities are required for liberty to flourish. But like strong families, strong communities require the limitation of some individual freedoms for the common good. Libertarianism seems to recoil that the phrase, common good.

Some of the elements mentioned by Hibbs, such as entrepreneurism and being skeptical of government resonate well with libertarianism. But other elements actually limit maximization of personal freedom. And yet all of these elements are needed to create and protect liberty. What is needed is a balanced approach that maximizes liberty without killing the goose that lays the golden egg. But pure libertarian ideology, at least as far as my exposure to it, refuses to give any quarter to reasonable limitations on personal freedoms.

The libertarian refutation of a societal moral framework that fosters the kinds of families and communities that produce individuals that can create and sustain liberty stems, claims Hymowitz, from a radical search “for absolute freedom.” She says, “It is a quest that has left little room for the confining demands of family and other unchosen social bonds.” In other words, it is yet another attempt to create utopia that carelessly leaves destruction in its wake.

Many libertarian principles ring true to my heart. Like Glenn Beck, part of me longs to be a libertarian, but the excesses of libertarian amorality prevent me from going there. I believe that John Adams was correct when he said, “Our Constitution is designed only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for any other.” Amorality is modern libertarianism’s Achilles’ heel.


Jesse Harris said...

One thing that really gets me about libertarian thought is their notion that a free market is one totally devoid of government regulation. I'd have to wonder if they've paid attention to the likes of AT&T or Microsoft, companies that corner a market and compete unfairly. When government doesn't make regulations to promote a competitive environment, you end up with the tyranny of a market controlled by a few (or a single) key players, none of which you get to vote for. I've not been able to see how that's freedom.

Scott Hinrichs said...

One of the main jobs of government is to create and sustain a legal and regulatory framework that fosters healthy competition. Monopolies, regardless of whether they are government-run or privately-run, are undesirable because they ultimately limit freedom. Libertarians understood this 60 years ago, but it seems that it has been forgotten or discarded in recent decades.

Jeremy said...

For a good simple explanation of the two most frequently encountered philosophies of libertarianism read the Wikipedia entry for libertarianism. I consider myself a libertarian; one who is pretty pragmatic I'll grant you, but a libertarian nonetheless. I'm definitely not an amoral anarchist like the straw man libertarian knocked down by Beck or Mr./Ms. Hymowitz in your post.

Reach's contention that libertarianism equals amorality isn't backed up with any specific examples of the amorality he finds so disturbing. Sure we believe people should be allowed to do what they want without harming others but that doesn't mean we think it is good or beneficial to society when their behavior is harmful to themselves. Jesse's criticism doesn't really apply to libertarianism since lasting monopoly power isn't possible without the absolutely anti-libertarian corporate welfare which has supported every American example of a lasting monopoly in our nation's short history.

Reach, you said it comes down to morality. I agree. If you think it is right for government to use its guns to compel others to accept your “moral” desires for them even when what they are doing doesn't negatively affect anyone other than themselves you are the one who has morality issues. Your desire to control others through the force of government reflects poorly on your understanding of agency and the whole point of our existence. That is a moral shortcoming far worse than any you could accuse a libertarian of.

Libertarianism isn't often very practical in today's world. Thats ok with me. I think we as individuals should try to be more free in every way that we can while accepting that our current government isn't anywhere near ideal. I think libertarians are the only ones attempting to move our government in the right moral direction. Conservatives support Republican big government socialism/fascism and Liberals support Democratic big government socialism/communism. I think libertarians actually have a future among those Americans who are sick of the pointless partisan gamesmanship displayed day in and day out at nearly every level of government. Americans want smaller government because it makes sense. They aren't going to find it among conservatives or liberals. Why not the libertarians then?

y-intercept said...

I don't know if it wise to reject a person or system of belief based simply on a caricature of their beliefs. I am going to take a stab in the dark here, but I would venture a guess that you aren't too happy when people reject Mitt Romney based on caricatures of Mormons.

I think that there are some big problems with modern radical libertarianism. The modern radical libertarianism has many of the same logical roots as other radical movements.

Ayn Rand was brought up in Russia and weened on The Dialectic. She was able to show that if you flip the thesis-antithesis conflicts at the foundations of Communism, that you can come up with a radical theory of liberty.

This really isn't that revolutionary as you can use the Dialectics to make any system of thought radical. Why, it would even be possible to combine Marxist Dialectics and Islam to make a strange Radical Islam.

We need to watch out for radical forms of any groups. However, it is not wise to judge any group simply by their most radical element.

My guess is that you dislike people who judge Mormonism based on the actions of the polygamist cults. Many Christians are tired of being defined by whacked out evangelicals. Socialists hate being judged on the atrocities of Communism. Republicans hate the caricature that they are some how fascists (ooops, that last analogy was not fair because fascism is not a radical form of Republicanism, it is just a different form of socialism.).

There is actually a great deal of depth to the classical liberal and libertarian tradition. For that matter, it probably the best thought through system for organizing a society to date. When properly applied, the system almost always leads to prosperity.

If you followed groups like Cato, you would realize that the Libertarians have a very large role for goverment. Government is just restricted to a few areas. David Boaz and other Libertarians have pointed out that with the Libertarian plan, government would still be massive. We would just have a little bit more freedom.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Jeremy and Y do a good job of pointing out the many wonderful aspects of libertarianism. They're right. And that's why I'm right there with the libertarians on much of their agenda.

However, I stand accused of rejecting a caricature of libertarianism. I think Hymowitz does a fine job of pointing out how liberal policies with respect to family have done much to weaken this essential institution. Liberal divroce laws and relaxation of sexual mores, policies which have been strongly supported by libertarians, have created far-reaching damage, the full extent of which will only become more visible over several more generations. I don't think this is a caricature of libertarianism. It may be, as Y suggests, a focus on the radical edge of libertarianism, but given the enthusiasm among libertarians for scrapping societal moral strictures, I hardly think so.

After accusing me, Jeremy turns around and employs a caricature of my arguments to claim that I am willing to enforce morality at the point of a gun. Hmmm.... Somehow I can't see that in my arguments. I am only arguing that it is necessary to accept minimal limitations on personal freedom in order to foster the framework in which liberty can thrive. I advocate for policies which recognize the natural family and the ideal structure for fostering a free society.

The CATO Institute has many wonderful thinkers, and I very much appreciate their input and influence in political and economic thought. But no matter how much I want to hop whole-heartedly on board, I find myself repeatedly coming up against a basic philosophy of amorality, particularly with respect to family issues, that seems pervasive in modern libertarian thought. For that reason, I am with them much of the way, but not all of the way.

Jeremy said...

Sorry...I didn't intend to make a characature of of your philosophy of government. If you think about what government actually is though you'll see that when you want it to enforce your morality on others you really are asking that the threat of violence be used on those whose behavior you don't approve of. Government can't do anything by itself without the benefit of its monopoly on the use of force granted to it by its citizens. Libertarians just argue that those who control government should be very careful before using this tool to intrude in individuals' lives in any way.

For the record I don't know of any libertarian who understands the importance of government involvement in marriage who thinks loosening divorce laws has anything to do with libertarianism. Some people think it should be easier to get divorced and others don't. That has nothing to do with one's basic philosophy of the purpose of government. We aren't in favor of loosening sexual mores...just in getting the government out of the business of policing them.

Do you really think that governmental policy is the reason for the sexual revolution? Seriously? I'd be more prone to blame the invention of birth control, poor parenting, and an evolving culture. I guess you could argue that liberals and libertarians are against the old blue laws which make adultery and fornication criminal offences but those laws were ignored for years before the sexual revolution...

y-intercept said...

The big problem with Libertarianism is that many people (including many Libertarians) confuse libertarianism with that of being libertine. Libertarianism leans strongly on personal morality. Modern Liberalism is really a flip flop of Classical Liberalism. The classical liberal envisioned a world with people of strong character, and a small government. Modern liberalism envisions a world of people with weak character and a massive if not totalitarian government.

True libertarians start with the premise that people are responsible for the results of their actions. When you take meth, you and all of the people around you suffer from your libertine actions. The modern liberal encourages libertine action with the promise that the government will take care of you.

By forcing people to accept responsiblity for their actions, libertarianism is really a force for stronger morality.

The libertarian view is that society grows stronger as the free people in that society grows stronger. The radical left knows that the weakness of the Libertarian regime is the individual. By encouraging libertine action, the left weakens the individual and increases the demand for a strong state.

Unfortunately, a good portion of the Libertarian party is people who want to do something that is currently illegal. Modern liberalism has classical liberalism pinned in a corner.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Jeremy, I completely agree that government necessarily is imbued with coercive powers and that we should be extremely careful about which powers we give to government. I once worked for IRS, and believe me, I saw how coercive powers worked.

I don't think I'm arguing that governmental policy is the main reason for the sexual revolution. However, when government is used to jump on board and further that cause, it is not good.

Just as government's job is to maintain a regulatory and legal structure that encourages competition, it's job is also to maintain a regulatory and legal structure that supports the kind of family and community stucture that produces individuals capable of maximizing and properly handling liberty. Without this, liberty will necessarily erode.

Y, your comments are very apt. Good parents want their children to learn to be responsible for their own actions. Good citizens accept responsibility for their own actions as well.

But there are very few people out there that are willing to allow out of control folks to follow their libertine path to its ultimate conclusion in all cases, because this inflicts too much pain and suffering on others. The question in these instances is where to draw the line. The more out of control people there are, the more the rest of society suffers and is penalized for their behavior.

Last year, after a number of students from my son's high school held a fight at a local park, the entire student body of the school was punished by essentially being in lockdown mode for months. The students, the vast majority of whom had nothing to do with the fracas, hated being penalized in the name of safety. The teachers hated doing what they had to do to carry out the policy. Parents hated it as well. But the lockdown did accomplish its desired goal of keeping the students safe and under control.

Our society can bear only so many people that 'do whatever feels good' before broad liberties are reduced. For this reason, we need citizens that understand what liberty means and how to employ self-discipline so that liberties are enhanced rather than diminished. Government has a role in developing and maintaining the structure in which this can occur.

Most recent libertarian literature I read seems to deny this, arguing instead that it just sort of happens on its own. I don't see that it does just happen on its own. It requires individuals and institutions committed to this cause to make that happen. Our Founders understood this. That is why the Constitution is not a pure libertarian document. That is why most of them were religious men.

y-intercept said...

"Our society can bear only so many people that 'do whatever feels good' before broad liberties are reduced."

I agree with that statement.

Your example of school is interesting. Most libertarians would like to see students in private schools where the discipline tends to more strict than public schools.

You are correct that libertarians think that many of the social issues take care of themselves. They do so by people freely entering associations. They freely organize and join churches, schools, professional societies, charitable organizations.

People even freely join associations that perform regulatory duties. For example United Way is an independent organization that helps oversee and regulate local charitable efforts. Charities join the United Way as it helps prevent crossover and gaps in charitable efforts.

Businesses support the United Way as the UW is in a position to channel funds where they are most needed.

The classical liberal style of libertarianism isn't anti-institution. Institutions will continue to exist because people freely form institutions. That is what they do.

There is a radical libertarianism (more akin to anarchism) that is anti-institution and completely libertine. This radical groups is destructive like all other radical groups. Radical libertarianism is paradoxical. In the name of freedom, they seek to deny people the freedom to join institutions.

Alienated Wannabe said...

Great article. Great discussion.

Anonymous said...

The Republican Liberty Caucus is a group that embraces many libertarian principles, but doesn't require "purity" of its members. I doubt the Libertarian Party requires purity to be a member as well. Have you taken the World's Smallest Political Quiz? Agreeing with libertarian principles about two-thirds of the time puts you in the libertarian quadrant by their metric.

Anonymous said...

... and a good reply to Hymowitz by Anthony Gregory at

Scott Hinrichs said...

Thanks for the link. Gregory makes some good points. For example, he suggests that the amount of decadence in society is tied to the growth of the government leviathan.

But Gregory also engages in the same tactics for which he criticizes Hymowitz, essentially tearing down straw men. He insinuates that all war is about killing innocents, as if there is never a need to protect a nation's people and property. He argues, in essence that putting up guardrails equates to enforcing one's will by violence.

I can go about 80% of the way with Gregory's arguments, but I just can't go the other 20%.