Paul’s post reminds me of how Charles Murray almost convinced me to become a libertarian. When I first read his What It Means To Be A Libertarian nearly fifteen years ago I was compelled by the thrust of his argument. “Freedom is first of all our birthright,” Murray claimed. “An adult making an honest living and minding his own business deserves to be left alone to live his life. He deserves to be free.”
Libertarianism appeared to be an attractive political philosophy, particularly for a conservative who was uncomfortable with the current Republican-tinged strands of conservatism. Reading Murray’s book was similar to the experience I had in high school when after reading Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead I wanted to become an Objectivist. To join the Randians, however, required denying a concept that I had known was undeniably true: original sin. That was also the problem I had with with libertarianism. Like objectivism and liberalism, it required accepting a romanticized view of human nature.
Like other “isms”, libertarianism is difficult to define.* At its essential core, libertarians believe that each person owns his own life and property, and has the right to make his own decisions about how he shall live, providing he respects the rights of others to do the same. Cato Institute executive vice-president David Boaz adds that the basic political issue of libertarianism is the relationship of the individual to the state. (Since Boaz is one of the intellectual leaders of big-L libertarian philosophy I will use his “Key Concepts of Libertarianism” throughout this critique.)
The primary flaw in modern American libertarianism is that it is rooted in an ethic of utilitarianism rather than virtue ethics. Without a person developing the corresponding moral character necessary for self-restraint, his liberty is bound to result in the harm of others. In fact, freedom without virtue is corrosive and will destroy everything within its range. The Founding Fathers understood this connection between liberty and a virtuous citizenry when they founded our republic. “‘Tis substantially true,” George Washington wrote in his farewell address, “that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.”
Most libertarians, of course, are not hedonists. They do believe that the rule of law is essential to government, though instead of rooting it in natural law theory they rely on “spontaneously developed legal rules.” (I find it rather surprising that a theory that relies on such concepts natural rights and natural harmony has so little use for natural law.) Boaz’s assertion reminds me of the old Calvin and Hobbes game of Calvinball where the rules on how to play are made up as you go along.
Boaz also contends that individuals should not be subject to the state’s “arbitrary commands.” (The fact that he doesn’t explain the difference between rules that are spontaneously developed and those that are arbitrary is simply one of numerous problems with his viewpoint.) By placing an overemphasis on individual liberty without an equal accent on individual virtue, the libertarian unwittingly erodes the foundation of order on which his political theory stands.
Order is a necessary precondition of liberty and must be maintained from the lowest level of government (the individual conscience) to the highest (the state). The individual conscience is the most basic level of government and it is regulated by virtues. Liberty, in this view, is not an end unto itself but a means by which eudaimonia (happiness or human flourishing) can most effectively be pursued. Liberty is a necessary component of virtue ethics, but it cannot be a substitute. Since it is based on the utilitarian principle that puts liberty, rather than eudaimonia as the chief end of man, libertarianism undermines order and becomes a self-defeating philosophy.
Contrary to what libertarians might believe, order does not arise spontaneously. It is either cultivated from within, through self-disciple, or is forced upon an individual from forces outside themselves (i.e., by the laws or mores of the community) if they lack the requisite character. Once established, this order has to be maintained to be effective. In the absence of order there is no peace, no justice, and certainly no natural harmony. Therefore before we can address the relationship between ìthe individual and the state we must first establish the relationship between individual liberty and order maintenance.
Take, for example, the so-called victimless crimes of prostitution, vagrancy, or public drunkenness. Many libertarians support the decriminalization of all these acts since, they claim, these do not necessarily harm other people or their property. But how long could a community last if such liberty is granted free reign? As the renowned criminologist James Wilson notes:
This wish to “decriminalize” disreputable behavior that “harms no one”—and thus remove the ultimate sanction the police can employ to maintain neighborhood order—is, we think, a mistake. Arresting a single drunk or a single vagrant who has harmed no identifiable person seems unjust, and in a sense it is. But failing to do anything about a score of drunks or a hundred vagrants may destroy an entire community. A particular rule that seems to make sense in the individual case makes no sense when it is made a universal rule and applied to all cases. It makes no sense because it fails to take into account the connection between one broken window left untended and a thousand broken windows.
This is the heart of Wilson’s “Broken Window theory” of crime:
At the community level, disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence. Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in rundown ones. Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.
In a similar fashion, the breakdown of community standards does not break down all at once. Rather each broken window of virtuous behavior (recreational use of drugs, for example) leads to more window-breaking until the community lacks the virtue necessary to govern itself and requires a higher level (the state) to step in.
Libertarians, of course, are primarily from the middle to upper classes of society. They are not affected by such behavior precisely because the police maintain a level of order and discipline within their communities. If, however, they had to live with such activity on a day-to-day basis, they would likely revise what was considered arbitrary and what is considered spontaneous.
*There is, of course, more than one version of libertarianism as my Christian libertarian friends often point out to me. However, unlike in conservatism with its endless prefixes (neo/paleo/crunchy/etc.), libertarianism does not provide such clear lines of differences between the various strands. My critique may not apply to all strands, though I think it applies to most. As Russel Kirk would say, many libertarians are really conservatives who just don’t realize that’s what their personal philosophy should be called.