Libertarianism, reconsidered

Joe Carter posts a lengthy critique of libertarianism. Do read the whole thing, but I think this quote sums up his argument:

The primary flaw in libertarianism is that it is rooted in an ethic of utilitarianism rather than virtue ethics. Without a person developing the corresponding moral character necessary for self-restraint, his liberty is bound to result in the harm of others. In fact, freedom without virtue is corrosive and will destroy everything within its range. The Founding Fathers understood this connection between liberty and a virtuous citizenry when they founded our republic. “‘Tis substantially true,” George Washington wrote in his farewell address, “that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.”

Order is a necessary precondition of liberty and must be maintained from the first level of government (the individual conscience) to the last (the state). The individual conscience is the most basic level of government and it is regulated by virtues. Liberty, in this view, is not an end unto itself but a means by which eudaimonia (happiness or human flourishing) can most effectively be pursued. Liberty is a necessary component of virtue ethics, but it cannot be a substitute. Since it is based on the utilitarian principle that puts liberty, rather than eudaimonia as the chief end of man, libertarianism undermines order and becomes a self-defeating philosophy.

If libertarianism is best understood as a utilitarian philosophy, we should stick to evaluating the empirical validity of policies advocated by libertarians. Saying that libertarian philosophy lacks virtue ethics isn’t attacking libertarianism per se, it’s attacking the broader assumptions of modern liberalism, which holds that politics is about maximizing citizens’ freedom of action and quality of life.

So while libertarians, progressives, and moderates may disagree about means, we generally agree on ends, or what should constitute a ‘good society’. This isn’t to suggest that progressives and libertarians share that much in common, but we are operating under the same set of core assumptions.

So what do conservatives mean when they say libertarians (or liberals) lack “virtue ethics?” Liberalism, broadly understood, doesn’t seek to coerce people into adhering to a particular moral worldview. We may embrace paternalism to enhance the quality of life of individual citizens, but we generally shy away from forcing people to adopt certain values. In this respect, liberal philosophy is extremely inclusive.

Does this mean that libertarianism (or liberalism) is inconsistent with morality? Not necessarily. One of liberalism’s core assumptions is that morality flourishes when government stays out of the way. Given the United States’ robust tradition of religious toleration, this isn’t an unreasonable position. The law’s problematic history of enforcing morality (see, for example, Prohibition or the War on Drugs) also lends credence to this argument.

So the most persuasive critique of liberalism is not that it fails to enforce a sustainable moral order, but that it actively undermines traditional morality by implicitly supplanting ethical virtue with its own emphasis on “material pursuits.” This recent post from Patrick Deneen offers one of the better explanations for why liberalism is not a morally neutral framework of governance, and why liberalism’s core assumptions often undermine personal virtue.

So my question to conservatives is this: What do you mean by terms like “ordered liberty?” Liberty as understood by liberals and libertarians means freedom of action constrained only by the rights of others. How would you define conservatism’s alternate frame of reference? If we concede that government is never really a value-neutral actor, what guidelines should define our approach to public morality? Whose moral values should we adopt as our lodestar? Should the process be majoritarian, or should we rely on some other source(s) of authority for determining public virtue?

I’m pretty familiar with the conservative critique of liberalism, but it always leaves me wondering what the alternative to liberal governance would look like. So conservatives – here’s your shot. (Un)enlighten me!


Filed under Conservatism, Libertarianism, Political Philosophy

3 responses to “Libertarianism, reconsidered

  1. Craig J. Bolton

    Sigh. I don’t know how many times this needs to be said, but libertarianism is solely a view about optimal political/economic institutions. It “underminds morality” only if one believes that the state is a parent for grownups.

    On the other hand, it does appeal that the terms “liberal” [aka “progressive”] and “conservative” have taken on a cast of being total life philosophies. The reason fo that isn’t hard to discern, however. America and most of the rest of the so-called Western world is becoming increasingly totalitarian. In a totalitarian society the public agenda has largely to do with running peoples’ personal lives.

    Personally, I am sick and tired of those who use to be called “blue noses,” whether they be “left” or “right.” I guess most people these days had inadequate parential training. Some of us where taught that it was none of our damn business what one did in their bedroom or what religion they espoused. But I guess proper manners of that sort are rare in a society which is obscessed with your neighbor’s business and not with one’s own.

  2. Such arrogance springs forth from the exsanguinating hearts of liberals with regards to their powers to shift the nature of their fellow man…

    No state can maximize human flourishing on behalf of her citizens without a subsequent dampening of human flourishing for some of them. Yes, it is a zero-sum game; subsidizing attempts to achieve happiness is not without some kind of cost.

    Those of us who recognize the power of classically liberal ideals understand what Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote:

    These are my politics: to change what we can; to better what we can; but still to bear in mind that man is but a devil weakly fettered by some generous beliefs and impositions; and for no word however sounding, and no cause however just and pious, to relax the stricture of these bonds.

    No matter what the state tries to do to better the lot of man, at the end of the day, it’s mostly throwing good resources after bad. And if those resources are being plucked from my pockets, I want no part of it.

  3. Pingback: Yet More Libertarianism «

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