Savage Reservations

Alan Jacobs has a smart response to Joe Carter’s previous post on libertarianism’s deficiencies:

All that to say that you can have a very low opinion of human nature and still be a libertarian; you just have to believe that our inevitable corruption has less dire consequences when personal freedom is maximized than when the rule of law has a far greater scope. And I would argue that the history of the past hundred years or so offers some evidence for this point of view.

Similarly, I don’t think Carter is right when he says that libertarianism “is rooted in an ethic of utilitarianism rather than virtue ethics.” I think it would be better to say that libertarianism doesn’t see the government as the primary custodian of virtue, at least not of most virtues. The model that George Will used to call “statecraft as soulcraft” makes libertarians cringe, not because they don’t believe in soulcraft or think that the cultivation of virtues is vital, but because they don’t trust the government to be a sound arbiter of what virtue is or to implement it in citizens. It is true that the Founders used that kind of language, but they lived in a much more ideologically unanimous society, with a narrower range of differences in citizens’ models of virtue. Our society is, I fear, too diverse in its moralities for that. I’d rather the soulcraft be left to families and communities, insofar as they’re willing to take up that essential task, and I’d like the government to enable that soulcraft simply through its role in preserving our freedoms.

My worry is that a hands-off approach to governance is only possible in a society that has achieved a certain level of cultural homogeneity.

This depresses me because I like our pluralistic model of social co-existence, and perhaps an extremely broad interpretation of the American creed is sufficient to hold a diverse society together. Driving through a leafy Northern Virginia suburb the other day, I remember feeling a certain appreciative thrill when I happened upon a mosque.

Furthermore, the idea that political liberty can only exist in a culturally homogeneous society implies that there is no intrinsic value to human freedom. If political liberty requires a bedrock consensus to weed out undesirable behavior, the only justification for constraining government is that cultural norms are more effective at policing society than political intervention. In other words, if government becomes more effective at reducing or eliminating certain undesirable traits, what’s the use of preserving political freedom or civil society at all?

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Filed under Conservatism, Culture, Libertarianism

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