If Men Were Angels

Libertarians, God bless them, are always looking for simple solutions to complex problems. Here, for example, is David Bernstein, writing at The Volokh Conspiracy:

I doubt [that] any two libertarians agree on the exact boundaries of libertarianism, but how’s this for a working definition: “A libertarian is someone who generally opposes government interference with and regulation of civil society, even when the result of such government action would be to clamp down on things the individual in question personally dislikes, finds offensive, or morally disapproves of.”

Thus, for example, a libertarian who hates smoking opposes smoking bans in private restaurants, a libertarian who thinks homosexual sodomy is immoral nevertheless opposes sodomy laws, a libertarian who finds certain forms of “hate speech” offensive still opposes hate speech laws, a libertarian who believes in eating natural foods opposes bans or special taxes on processed foods, and a libertarian who thinks that all employers should pay a living wage nevertheless opposes living wage legislation. It doesn’t matter whether the libertarian holds these positions because he believes in natural rights, for utilitarian reasons, or because he thinks God wants us to live in a libertarian society. [“How’s This for a Working Definition of ‘Libertarian’?,” February 26,2015]

This reminds me of the title of a poem by A.E. Housman: “Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff.” Why is it stupid stuff? Because it omits an essential ingredient of liberty, which is line-drawing.

By Bernstein’s logic, one must conclude that anything goes; for example, a libertarian who hates murder, rape, theft, and fraud must oppose laws against such things. Bernstein, like many a libertarian, propounds a moral code that is devoid of morality.

Bernstein might argue that morality is supplied by prevailing social norms. Which, until the bandwagon effect produced by the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, would have meant the non-recognition of homosexual “marriage”. But libertarians were prominent in the chorus of voices clamoring for the Supreme Court to make a national law recognizing homosexual “marriage”, even though the marriage laws still on the books in most parts of the nation — laws that defined marriage as the union of male and female — arose from prevailing social norms. Libertarians have a slippery way of proclaiming laissez faire while striving to enforce their own moral views through law.

Libertarianism is an ideology rooted in John Stuart Mill’s empty harm principle (a.k.a the non-aggression principle), about which I’ve written many times (e.g., here). Regarding ideology, I turn to Jean-François Revel:

As an a priori construction, formulated without regard to facts or ethics, ideology is distinct from science and philosophy on the one hand, and from religion and ethics on the other. Ideology is not science — which it pretends to be. Science accepts the results of the experiments it devises, whereas ideology systematically rejects empirical evidence. It is not moral philosophy — which it claims to have a monopoly on, while striving furiously to destroy the source and necessary conditions of morality: the free will of the individual. Ideology is not religion — to which it is often, and mistakenly, compared: for religion draws its meaning from faith in a transcendent reality, while ideology aims to perfect the world here below.

Ideology — that malignant invention of the human spirit’s dark side, an invention which has cost us dearly — has the singular property of causing zealots to project the structural features of their own mentality onto others. Ideologues cannot imagine that an objection to their abstract systems could come from any source other than a competing system.

All ideologies are aberrations. A sound and rational ideology cannot exist. Falsehood is intrinsic to ideology by virtue of cause, motivation and objective, which is to bring into being a fictional version of the human self — the “self,” at least, that has resolved no longer to accept reality as a source of information or a guide to action. [Last Exit to Utopia, pp. 52-53]

A key aspect of ideology — libertarian ideology included — is its studied dismissal of human nature. Arnold Kling notes, for example,

that humans in large societies have two natural desires that frustrate libertarians.

1. A desire for religion, defined as a set of rituals, norms, and affirmations that are shared by a group and which the group believes it is wrong not to share….

2. A desire for war. I think that it is in human nature to fantasize about battles against tribal enemies….

If these desires were to disappear, I believe that humans could live without a state. However, given these desires, the best approach for a peaceful large society is that which was undertaken in the U.S. when it was founded: freedom of religion guaranteed by the government, and a political system designed for peaceful succession and limitations on the power of any one political office….

I think that it is fine for libertarians to warn of the dangers of religion and to oppose war…. On other other hand, when libertarians assume away the desire for religion and war, their thinking becomes at best irrelevant and at worst nihilistic. [“Libertarians vs. Human Nature,” askblog, February 17, 2017]

In Madison’s words:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. [The Federalist No. 51, February 6, 1788]


Related posts:
On Liberty
Line-Drawing and Liberty
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
The Myth That Same-Sex “Marriage” Causes No Harm
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament
Parsing Political Philosophy (II)
Libertarianism and the State
My View of Libertarianism
More About Social Norms and Liberty
The Authoritarianism of Modern Liberalism, and the Conservative Antidote
The Harm Principle Revisited: Mill Conflates Society and State
Liberty and Social Norms Re-examined

2 comments

  1. Very refreshing! A related paradox… Libertarians (the Rothbard-Rockwell type, not pseudo left-libertarians) condemn utopianism, and justifiably so. It is something that we should strive to keep in check. However, such striving for this-wordly perfection is an odd but insuperable aspect of our nature. Thus to seek to completely eliminate or ignore utopian attitudes and its role in society is itself utopian. But then, as you point out, the idea that there are social norms that will magically enforce themselves sans state and police is really classic millenarianism and straight out of Rousseau’s notion that we would really behave ourselves but for corrupt institutions.

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  2. I agree, a penchant for utopianism seems to be part of human nature. It can be ridiculed and resisted, but never eliminated. Rousseau’s idyllic “state of nature” is diametrically opposed to that of Hobbes’s “warre of every one against every one”. Hobbes was much closer to the truth, at least when it comes to relations between “tribes”. The Hobbesian solution — Leviathan — strikes me as overkill, however.

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