There was an interesting exchange on the American Enterprise Institute’s Enterprise blog, sparked by this Charles Murray post about the concept of duty. Murray was writing in response to Mark Sanford’s scandalous behavior, and this prodded Danielle Pletka to ask why we should care publicy about Sanford’s deeds. I found Murray’s response rather intriguing.

The harder part of your question, particularly for libertarians like me, is about the division of public and private roles if the public role is being performed competently and diligently. Here, I side with the Founders. Google any Founder’s name and the word “virtue” and you will find lots of quotes. Here are some examples . The common thread is that limited government cannot work without virtue in the public at large and in their leaders in particular. I agree adamantly with that conclusion, and attribute much of the current loss of limited government to the loss of that kind of virtue. In that sense, people in high positions (private as well as public) serve as exemplars–”role models” doesn’t begin to cover the gravity of that function. They don’t have the option of being reprobates, even lovable ones.

So that’s why I don’t cut unvirtuous overlings any slack even if they are competent. Mind you, I don’t want us to pass laws to make it easier to get rid of them. I just want all of us to look upon them with withering scorn. I bet you didn’t know it is possible to be both a libertarian and a grouchy old prude.


The reason I find this intriguing is that libertarians are usually the first to claim that we shouldn’t judge politicians by their private behavior, but I think Murray hits upon why that reasoning is flawed, especially from a libertarian point of view.

As a social conservative who has libertarian sympathies, I recognize that most behavior simply cannot be legislated. While the  phrase “you cannot legislate morality” is frankly silly and completely contrary to our experience, there is a kernel of truth contained in it.  Social issues generally lie outside the realm of legislative politics. But as Murray observes, the Framers stressed that a republican society needs virtuous people in order to thrive. (Thus Benjamin Franklin’s famous quip about our form of government—”a republic, if you can keep it.”)

Libertarians often forget this. In correctly noting that a polity cannot truly mandate private virtue, they seem to forget that private virtue is nonethless a necessity in preserving the polity. We absolutely must hold our public officials to a high standard precisely because we hope to live in a society of free and virtuous individuals. It’s called leading by example. And since a libertarian should theoretically prefer example to force,  they should be at the forefront in demanding greater virtue out of our public officials.

It also occurs to me that this jibes with the general tenor of Pope Benedict’s encyclical. The Pope acknowledges the great potential of the free market, but urges us to keep in the mind the common good. Freedom is worth nothing if we behave irresponsibly and selfishly. Surely we can appreciate the difference between a libertine and a libertarian ethic, a distinction that Charles Murray certainly seems to understand.

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