Conservative Colloquium

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Libertarians Wish to Legislate Morality…Just Like Everyone Else

Posted by Tony Listi on July 17, 2010

I’m getting very tired of hearing libertarians (and others) say, “You shouldn’t legislate morality!” As if their philosophy and policy proposals were morally neutral!

Ironically, most Big Government statists have a sounder grasp of the general relationship between morality and politics than libertarians. The “Don’t Legislate Morality” objection against conservatives and statists alike is mere smoke and mirrors, a rhetorical flourish with no substance whatsoever. Rights are always a matter of morality, regardless of where one’s moral assumptions come from.

Libertarians wish to codify their morality of liberty into law. The most thoughtful and principled libertarians would support liberty even if it did lead to impoverishment, inefficiency, and misery. They see liberty as a moral issue; liberty in itself is not morally neutral. Violence against the life, liberty, or property of another person without just cause (self-defense or reparation for previous injury) is not merely bad for material prosperity but bad for people; it is immoral, a violation of human rights. Moral relativism or neutrality simply doesn’t exist in conscientious libertarianism (or any other political philosophy).

And yet there are many people in this country (socialists, leftists, regressives, liberals, etc.) who disagree with this libertarian morality of non-violence. They believe that it is very moral to enact laws that plunder some people in order to give to others or that make people act in certain ways. In fact, they believe libertarianism in itself to be immoral. So libertarians need to ask themselves: “are we trying to impose our morality of non-coercion on others?” That answer has to be YES. Libertarians oppose the (im)moral assumptions behind statism and statist laws. A law has no less moral or immoral content merely because it allows people to freely act in certain ways, for the allowance of that freedom is based on moral presuppositions.

The question is not whether we should legislate morality (for that is a given) but “what is moral?” and “what can the law prudently do to enforce that morality, if anything?” And conservatives and libertarians agree more on these questions in comparison with the statists, especially when it comes to economic issues. In the realm of economics, I’m about as libertarian and Austrian as they get. Of course, when it comes to issues of abortion and marriage/family, I part ways with libertarianism– for reasons that I can explain in even libertarian/scientific terms, phraseology, and paradigms, showing how libertarianism breaks down in these cases.

So if you’re a libertarian reading this now and happen to disagree with me on these social issues, please refrain from incoherent slogans about “legislating morality.” They’re irrational and self-contradictory. Realize that you and I are both making moral claims. Then we’ll understand each other better, find more common ground, and be better able to cooperate politically.

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4 Responses to “Libertarians Wish to Legislate Morality…Just Like Everyone Else”

  1. John said

    Conservatives miss the point. Absolute liberty is the goal regardless of the good and bad by-products that arise from it. Under the banner of absolute liberty, bad things may happen and people may get “screwed”. So be it. The libertarian (and I am one) concerns him or herself not with these matters as all things are temporary (proven; we all die). There’s a great line the fantastic movie “The Departed” paraphrased below that, for me, defines what it is to be libertarian:

    “How is your mother” – Costello
    “She’s sick…I think she’s dying” – henchman in bar
    “We are all dying…act accordingly.” – Costello

    • Tony Listi said

      Absolute liberty is an impossibility and absurdity. The fact that we are forced to die is one proof of it. You do not have the liberty to change yourself into a mouse. The attempt to change what cannot be changed does frequently result in terribly bad consequences.

      To not concern oneself at all with good and bad consequences can only lead to misery and unhappiness. I’m not even sure it is possible.

  2. Random Passerby said

    As a catholic libertarian, I can assure you that you have an inaccurate understanding of what libertarianism is and is not…and while I could expound at length, I will merely point to one sentence:

    “In the realm of economics, I’m about as libertarian and Austrian as they get. Of course, when it comes to issues of abortion and marriage/family, I part ways with libertarianism”

    A) There is no consensus view as to an orthodox libertarian position on abortion… get 10 libertarians in a room and chances are you will have 5 pro-lifers, and 5 pro-choicers. To say that the pro-life libertarians aren’t libertarian at all…or rather, and exception to the rule, exposes your bias against libertarianism and suggests a desire to paint it as you want it to be…rather than what it is.

    B) Re: “marriage/family”… I’m not sure what you think the orthodox libertarian position on the family is…but I know many libertarians with very sound and traditional family structures who might take offense at your suggestion that they don’t have correct family values…

    • Tony Listi said

      A) I understand this very well. But strictly speaking, pro-life libertarians aren’t really pro-life because they are libertarian. Strictly speaking, libertarianism (devoid of the notion of children’s positive rights) may not allow for killing the unborn baby, but it does allow for “eviction,” abandonment, neglect, etc.

      B) You apparently fail to understand that I’m talking politics. I’m not talking about the personal lives of libertarians but rather their views toward public policy regarding marriage and children.

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