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May 30, 2012

The fatal flaw of Libertarianism is its inability to reconcile the worst in human nature, which it always defends as simply, “individual liberty,” with the desire to have minimal government.  The two ideas are contradictory, and so will never succeed in practice.

Libertarians get it wrong on the following key points.

The moral law finds its definition in the Declaration of Independence, and its structure in the Constitution of the United States.  The moral law asserts that life is the first morality and liberty is secondary to it.  Moral law finds its form and purpose where life and liberty intersect. The right to life of one man supersedes the right of another man to exercise certain liberties, if they threaten in any way the life of the first man.  One is made free to enjoy his liberties inasmuch as they do not harm or truncate the life of the individual, or the lives of a group or community who are proximate or related to him.

Libertarians will argue that drugs and prostitution should be legal, and that the individual moral judgments of people should be the primary source of constraint on their proliferation and effects.  Law enforcement may punish those who harm the lives of others through these activities. But, Libertarians will argue, the law should not intrude on the existence of the drug and sex industries, or the practices of those who have a preference for illicit drugs and/or hookers.

The moral law exists in part to shield the civil society from the corrosive effects of behaviors and substances that are known to cause harm to individuals, families, and communities. It’s a legitimate and necessary function of government to create laws which prohibit those things which accommodate and feed upon people’s vices, and result in moral dissolution and the destruction of lives.

Drugs and prostitution are two examples of the problematic intersections of life and liberty.  An individual’s life, being the primary consideration of the moral law, cannot be subjugated to the liberty of another who indulges in dangerous and demonstrably ruinous activities, and threatens those who must co-exist with him because of proximity or relationship.

Next time a Libertarian asserts that drugs and prostitution are “victimless crimes,” or that “it’s all about individual liberties,” remind him that his liberties do not trump the lives, or the civil society, of those who could be harmed by those activities.

This is where Libertarianism itself falls apart.  Libertarians will assert that men are fully capable of self-government. And this is true, when men are moral. The other plank of Libertarianism; that government shouldn’t make illegal any activities that don’t present an immediate threat to the lives of others, i.e. drugs and prostitution, are exactly the kinds of activities that prevent effective self-governance because they perpetuate immoral and undisciplined inclinations.
A moral people; those who are disciplined and self-regulated in all things from their physical appetites to their handling of money, are the most likely of all to practice effective self-governance.  Those whose “personal liberties” are championed by Libertarians; drug users, fornicators, and people who would have no moral compunction against abortion, are less capable of successful self-governance. And because of their inability to develop the character necessary for success in the Capitalistic system, they require a bigger government to pick up their slack, lest they languish in the gutters of their broken lives.
Government is not a necessary evil, nor is it necessarily evil. Government is a good when it performs its proper role within the constraints of Constitutional law. The law is the great moral paragon. When laws are established that recognize the absolutes of reality–such as the fact that a human child, whether in or out of the womb, is a human child–the culture of the body politic is permeated with the same moral sensibility. You may call such a sensibility a stigma, or a standard, but either way it is the back painting of the moral conscience of a self-governing people.
Laws against fornication, for instance, may seem arcane and unenlightened, but their establishment was less to prohibit individual immorality than it was to defend the society at large against certain practices which result in moral decline. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize an overall decline in the social health and stability of American families, parenthood, and marriage since the 19th Century when fornication was considered a serious breach of moral and civic law. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize that since the 19th Century, the government of the United States has grown enormously in proportion to GDP, as well as in the relative contraction of personal liberties, especially the right to keep and enjoy one’s property in the form of money.
It is reality that as people become morally dissolute, they become less able to care for themselves. They call upon the government to take care of the needs they cannot meet because they have been incapacitated through their profligate behaviors.  And the more government cares for people, the less incentive the people have to live morally, because the buffering effect of government social programs removes the consequences that would naturally impel them to correct their lives.  This self-consuming, reciprocal system of state support, dependence, and personal dissipation, will eventually collapse upon itself.  This too is reality.
Libertarianism has been around since the founding of the United States of America. It’s never found its footing  in party politics, although there are certain libertarian aspects in planks of both the Republican and Democrat parties.  The fatal flaw of Libertarianism is its inability to reconcile the worst in human nature, which it always defends as simply, “individual liberty,” with the desire to have minimal government.  The two ideas are contradictory, and so will never succeed in practice. Libertarianism is burdened with this failure in reasoning. It is also burdened in its failure to acknowledge that a government of, for, and by the people, is possible only when the people are moral.

Please leave your comment!

By Marjorie Haun  5/30/12

  1. Damian

    I have long believed that almost any form of government will succeed in a nation composed of moral and responsible people, so long as the members of government themselves are also moral and responsible.

    As a teacher of gifted/talented students, I have often confronted entire classrooms made of moral and responsible students who question the value of certain school rules which they see as insultingly patronizing. For example the notion of a “closed campus” implies distrust in the nature of young people. This conversation leads naturally into the function of law in society, which is usually written to correct the lowest forms of behavior in a population. This rule by law is an unfortunate but necessary consequence of living in a community where some individuals have low or non-existent personal standards.

    Those who hold themselves to very high personal standards often feel little need for the rule of law, and rarely find themselves in conflict with it. I believe that the libertarian impulse of many Americans has a similar origin, which is both noble and naive. It is generous and fallacious for a healthy, moral and independent adult to assume that all adults hold themselves to equally high standards. I have made this mistake too often in my own life and, when I am stunned to learn that others do not hold similar standards, have had to resort to the legal system to find justice.

    You have absolutely hit the nail on the head, once again, by identifying the complex chicken-and-egg relationship between moral dissolution, the incapacity for personal self-governance, and the increasing levels of social welfare provided by (or demanded from) the government. Thank you again for your refreshing and beautifully written blog!

  2. Alex

    I think you may be missing something. I believe that the libertarian position is the only logical one, because it says that a State should exist only to protect natural rights, which you mention nothing of. We have a natural right to life, of course. We have a natural right to pursue what we think might make us happy. Do we have a natural right to not have to see a risque billboard while walking down the street? These ideas came from Aquinas and Augustine, not Ayn Rand or Ron Paul.

    Another thing you are completely missing is the failure of the State to prohibit things like drug trade and prostitution. Massive black markets exist because of the government’s inability to regulate drugs and prostitution. Because of the State, drug trade has flourished in the United States. Because the DEA and Company confiscate so many drugs, the price of drugs is driven skyward (classic supply and demand). The government is basically subsidizing the drug business. And never before has prostitution violence been as high as it is now.

    Your position may sound great morally, and it probably appeals to lots of family-oriented people, but economically and logically, it doesn’t hold much water.

    • But remember that the primary natural right is the right to life. You have to acknowledge that one’s liberties to do what they want do not supersede the right to life of another. This is the delicate balance that the government must address with great care.

      • Ian Cunningham

        The government cannot force morality on the people. As Alex said, it has tried many times and failed to do so. The responsibility to sustain morality among people falls to the individual moral judgements of the people which are derived from both a natural sense of good and evil and also religion. The government’s sole role is to protect the freedoms of others to exercise and preach those religious beliefs.

        In a truly free society, those who do immoral deeds will often punish themselves and be forced to learn from their mistakes or suffer the results. I believe that the teachings of morality, as espoused by Christianity, are not only good for a person’s afterlife… but also for their physical well-being.

        Overuse of drugs and fornication can very much so lead to moral decay. But those who partake in such will be harming themselves most of all and should be free to do so. The government can’t keep someone from hurting themselves if they are truly determined to do so.

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