Thursday, March 22, 2007

Libertarianism is Immoral

In an email conversation today, I opined that libertarianism is immoral, infeasible and undesirable. One of the participants acknowledged that I had arguments to support the infeasibility and undesirability of libertarianism, but questioned how I could say that libertarianism is immoral. I responded with what follows:

The easy answer is to tell you to go ask the nearest minister or priest - they'll tell you that Libertarianism is adverse to what Jesus had to say. The elevation of self-interest and self-reliance over your neighbor doesn't really capture the essence of Christianity. (I don't presume to speak of other religions with which I'm less familiar.)

Some libertarians will claim that they just don't want the government involved, and that, privately, they will be completely Christian in charitable support. Maybe. But that ignores another of the underpinnings of libertarianism - charity is destructive to the self-reliance of the recipient. And it also supplants what I think is a societal duty with an individual duty. I don't want my society to allow people to starve in the streets, even if it allows me to feed those I can.

This religious objection, however, leads me to the fact that libertarianism is anti-democratic. If 100% of Americans support taxation of tobacco, they wouldn't be allowed to make that decision. Economic freedom would trump democracy. Similarly, if 100% of us thought that the most effective solution to having people starve in the streets would be to levy a tax on us all to buy them food, we would not be allowed to do so in a libertarian system.

Perhaps impacting morality more directly, a libertarian world would be an environment in which immorality would be free to flourish. Polygamy, sex with animals, and selling heroin would be condoned. Racial discrimination would not only be legal, it would be economically necessary in many communities.

Ultimately, though, my objection to libertarianism is that it is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the human condition. Libertarianism is based upon individualism. The problem is that while I have met a few delusional people who actually believe that they are "self-made men" or "self-made women", I have never met a self-made infant. We begin our lives, and spend a good amount of our lives exceedingly dependent on others for survival, guidance, formation, etc. We cannot even survive as individuals - each of us owes our lives to others. Radical individualism ignores that we would not exist outside of some form of society. Even if we could survive from birth on our own, our very essence is determined by DNA from other people. My personal view of mankind is that we are not really absolute owners of our own lives. We, as individuals, are bound by genetic connections, received history, inherited society and, in my personal belief, a debt to a higher power. No man is an island.

Oddly enough, every libertarian I have ever met has run up a large debt to society. Many have held government jobs, and many have gone to state schools (not that private universities aren't state-supported in many ways, as well). It seems immoral to me that they who have drunk so deeply from the public well would deny the ladle to those who thirst now.

Even ignoring the inconvenient truth of their (and our) debt to the benevolent society our ancestors have delivered to us, I think it would be immoral to abandon our messy, contentious, gray area of a country in favor of a utopian view of pure economic freedom. I like public art. I'm happy that some farmers in mid-Missouri were coerced to sell their land at a reasonable price so that I can drive to St. Louis on I-70 and visit my mother. I appreciate the fact that public schools exist. I sincerely believe it would be immoral to sacrifice all that is wonderful about America for ONE chosen freedom.

Economic freedom is a fine thing, and I'm glad we have it, though I appreciate the limitations our society places on that freedom. Elevating personal economic freedom to exalted status in libertarianism is just as immoral as elevating collectivism to exalted status in a communist system.

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Blogger Captain Spaulding said...


Without knowing where to start, I'll just submit my Libertarian leaning comment to this passage:

"Oddly enough, every libertarian I have ever met has run up a large debt to society. Many have held government jobs...."

I once held a government job - firefighter.

Yeah, I got paid, but I guess putting my very existence on the line for $800 a month - then and since for a fellow Human - wasn't sufficient.

I won't even touch the morality statement due to blood-pressure issues - my being 116.

Gee Dan, can't wait for you to broad-brush Christians.

Don't hate me 'cause I like wearing black,

3/23/2007 4:32 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

In all sincerity, Captain, don't get your blood pressure up over this. I'm not knocking government jobs - and I'll acknowledge that firefighting is one that would pass the smell test for a libertarian.

But I offer my thoughts not as a pronouncement from on high, but as a peer's explanation of how I see it.

3/23/2007 6:16 AM  
Anonymous Keith Sader said...

I've always summed up Libertarianism with these five words: "Fuck you, I've got mine."

Now this is snarky and offensive, but OTOH, I think Libertarianism can server a skeptical view on what we do with/to our own self-government.

I do agree that the whole self-made man/rugged individual is a myth. The mountain man image that is so prevalent in this myth-telling always ignores one central fact: The self-made mountain man very shortly ended up as a corpse. The really successful ones leveraged their relationships with the native inhabitants of the early U.S.

3/23/2007 8:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think your analysis of libertarian v. democracy is a little shallow. Democracy isn't the end-all, be-all -- tyranny of the majority and whatnot.

I think the real lesson is that all forms of extremism are bad, and extreme libertarianism is no exception. But libertarian priciples can certainly be applied in a moral manner or tempered by morality, no?

3/23/2007 8:40 AM  
Anonymous travelingal said...

Dan, this is a very thought provoking topic. I admit I don't know much about the Libertarian party, so checked it out this morning. Then, I reread your post.

I don't necessarily agree that all Libertarians are immoral, although I do agree that their principles do not seem to put any limits on immorality.

But, this all has to be viewed in the context of what is the definition of "immoral" or "immorality".

I'm a conservative. In my opinion, abortion, especially partial birth abortion, is immoral. Liberals view it as a woman's right, not immoral, and the government should not interfere in this right. Libertarians would probably agree with liberals on this issue.

On the other hand, Libertarians and Conservatives find common ground on economic issues, including the limits to which the government forces (via taxation) each of us to care for one another. Generally speaking, the liberals view this as more of a moral issue than either Libertarians or conservatives.

So as I see it, it is our definition of "immorality" that separates one group from the other.
In my opinion and the opinion of most people, our society as we know it would crumble if any one group would be allowed to take their definition of "morality" or "immorality" to the very limits of their interpretation.

3/23/2007 8:57 AM  
Blogger emawkc said...

Gotta agree with Anon on this one Dan. You're pretty much putting the extreme spin on something you obviously disagree with.

I consider myself a libertarian (lowercase), in that I believe in the liberty and the responsibility of the individual to fend for themselves, rather than rely on government programs.

Too often, people tend to focus on their individual rights and forget about their individual responsibilities.

For example, the problem with with current govt. programs (though they have been getting better) is that they often end up trying to provide (food, money, housing etc.) for the poor rather than trying to help poor get out of poverty.

This leads to the offspring of the poor being born into the same situation, so it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle of dependance on government aide.

I think the whold "teach a man to fish" thing sums up my libertarian leaning.

3/23/2007 8:59 AM  
Blogger les said...

Interesting topic; Dan is accused of an "extreme" portrait of Libertarianism; maybe "pure" is as good a word.

emawkc says: "I think the whold "teach a man to fish" thing sums up my libertarian leaning."

A hard thing to argue with--I personally agree that trying to pass along skills is better than pure charity. But it also brings up the fundamental failings of Libertarianism to me--teaching a guy to fish doesn't really help if the dude upstream strings a gill net across the river, or decides that the downstream edge of his property is a great site for a polluting industry. Libertarianism readily promotes a self-perpetuating aristocracy; you can call it meritocracy, but possessing the means of production, education, health care, etc. makes it much easier to merit--and we all, no matter how good, share first with those nearest us.

3/23/2007 9:23 AM  
Anonymous travelingal said...

I think the perfect example of all of this is the debate over national health care. It is a moral issue and it is an economic issue.

In my opinion, it is immoral to allow someone to die simply because they cannot afford to pay for healthcare and I know this happens. On the other hand, I do not want to see the quality of our current healthcare system deteriorate to one like Canada has where there are such long waiting lists to get healthcare that you could die waiting for it simply because you are far back in the line (and this also happens).

Hopefully, we can come up with something that is morally right and achievable fromt the viewpoint of all "parties". It will be interesting to see how well Massachusett's model works.

3/23/2007 9:26 AM  
Anonymous Steve said...

Sorry Dan -

You're getting way too academic. The truth of the matter is that there's merit in many of the libertarian beliefs, but taken to the extreme, it may seem immoral.

I'm not a libertarian.

But I could also give you an example of prewar Germany, and argue that a pure democracy can give rise and tacit support to the holocaust.

I can also argue that organized religion has caused more deaths in the world than any other human oganization the world has known. But the fact here is that organized religion is both good and bad.

Dan - you outa focus on the fact that anything when taken to the extreme is immoral, and that ultimate reason lies somewhere in the middle of just about everything.

That's reality. Why don't you focus on that?

3/23/2007 10:48 AM  
Anonymous Steve said...

What you're really trying to say, Dan, is that anything taken to the extreme is immoral.

There ya go.

3/23/2007 11:19 AM  
Blogger reverse_vampyr said...


This is definitely an interesting post. But I was kinda surprised that you factored Christianity into the early point of the argument, given the fact that mixing government and religion is anathema to most Liberals. I guess unless it suits a purpose, eh? Sauce for the goose.

Reading through the Libertarian website, I can't see how anyone can come away with the impression that it's a "f*ck you, I've got mine" philosophy." Seems much more dedicated to encouraging responsibility outside of government mandate. I do, however, think it can be taken too far, especially when used to justify pedophilia, bestiality, and other extreme red herrings.

The "libertarianism in a vaccuum" argument really gets way too silly. I think travelingal and emawkc have it closer to the truth. And I have to agree with what seems to be the consensus of comments here: any political viewpoint taken to the extreme is a bad thing. And produces immorality.

Therefore, I think that as interesting as this premise is, I think you fail to prove your own point. Libertarianism isn't any more immoral than any other political belief/party. It could be if taken to extremes. But then, that would apply to nearly any other belief. What matters is that whichever party one chooses to align one's self with, decisions are made with consideration for mutual respect.

Much in this discussion has been academic. However, the Liberal tenet of taking from the successful to perpetuate the lazy (and thus, ensure the power of the politician involved) is currently in play in American politics. And it has proven far more immoral and destructive to our society than anything you put forth in your essay.

3/28/2007 9:39 AM  
Blogger les said...

From a poster suggesting the portrait of Libertarianism is too extreme:

"However, the Liberal tenet of taking from the successful to perpetuate the lazy (and thus, ensure the power of the politician involved)"

Well, that's nicely balanced and non-judgmental.

3/29/2007 3:15 PM  
Blogger les said...

I know, I know, it's too late, but from Creek Running North:

The Self-Made Man
The Horatio Alger hero, who pulled himself up by his own bootstraps (made by non-union cobblers) and strode the road to success (paved at government expense.)

3/29/2007 4:52 PM  
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3/10/2009 1:26 AM  
Anonymous BobJones said...

I think that Rockwell, Laurence Vance, and a few others would disagree with you about libertarianism's incompatibility with Christianity. The whole issue is government coercion, and assuming that there would be no safety nets without the government requires one to ignore history (services provided by churches, The Grange, fraternal orders such as the Masons etc).

All other forms of political thought can be summed up by "Fuck you, I want what you have and I'll use the government to get it from you. Then I'll pretend that I have the moral upper-hand." See, we can be snarky as well.

6/24/2009 2:02 AM  

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