Thursday, April 14, 2005

Where Conservatism and (Sensible) Libertarianism Come Together


Edward Feser, writing at Right Reason, says this:
If “libertarianism” is merely another way of describing the classical liberal presumption in favor of free markets and limited government, then it is a healthy tendency which conservatives ought to welcome. But if libertarianism entails also that government can and must be neutral between views about the moral legitimacy of abortion, same-sex marriage, and euthanasia; that we can have no enforceable positive obligations to other human beings other than those we explicitly consent to take on; and that a society can be perfectly just as long as property titles are respected, no matter how morally depraved that society might otherwise become, then it is a view that is in my estimation false and dangerous, and ought to be opposed by every conservative.
The launching point for Feser's post is an article by Jennifer Roback Morse in the latest Policy Review, from which I quoted from in a recent post.

My agreement with Feser on the social issues doesn't make me a conservative. Morse has a compelling argument for the essential libertarianism of social conservatism:
It is simply not possible to have a minimum government in a society with no social or legal norms about family structure, sexual behavior, and childrearing. The state will have to provide support for people with loose or nonexistent ties to their families. The state will have to sanction truly destructive behavior, as always. But destructive behavior will be more common because the culture of impartiality destroys the informal system of enforcing social norms.

It is high time libertarians object when their rhetoric is hijacked by the advocates of big government. Fairness and freedom do not demand sexual and parental license. Minimum-government libertarianism needs a robust set of social institutions.
Perhaps there's still some hope for a conservative-libertarian fusion, or at least a fusion of limited-government conservatives and neolibertarians.

UPDATE: I have reread a post of mine from August 10, 2004, in which I took issue with a pair of Tech Central Station columns by Feser. I ended my commentary on Feser's TCS pieces by saying this:
I accept that not all libertarians think alike about all issues, but neither do all conservatives, liberals, Democrats, or Republicans think alike about all issues. The important thing, to me, about conservatives, liberals, Democrats, and Republicans is that they don't share my commitment to what Feser describes so well
as the view in political philosophy that the only legitimate function of a government is to protect its citizens from force, fraud, theft, and breach of contract, and that it otherwise ought not to interfere with its citizens' dealings with one another, either to make them more economically equal or to make them more morally virtuous.
I therefore ally myself with those who share that view. If that isn't moral neutrality, what is?
It is now clear to me, in light of my recent agreement with Jennifer Roback Morse's position on the issue of marriage, that I am sliding away from what might called a position of "moral neutrality." But perhaps a better way of putting is that I have, since last August, clarified my own thinking about the justification for libertarianism.

Libertarianism cannot be justified on either of these bases, which are the tenets of what I call fundamentalist libertarianism:
  • Rights are immanent in humans; that is, humans are innately endowed with rights, which no one may take away from them.
  • Humans own themselves; it is therefore wrong to deprive them of rights. In fact, it is impossible to do so, given the innateness of rights.
Libertarianism cannot rest on such assertions because they have three fatal flaws:
  • First, they are pulled out of thin air: Who or what endows us with rights? By the same token, whence self-ownership?
  • Second, they simply beg the crucial questions: What is a "right"? How is it defined? Who defines it?
  • Third, they are not self-evidently true.
As I wrote here:
Fundamentalist libertarians argue that the only right is liberty -- the right to be left alone as long as one leaves others alone -- and that it is a natural right with which human beings are endowed a priori. In one rendition, liberty is immanent -- something that simply is in human nature, perhaps as a gift from God. In another rendition, humans are endowed with liberty as a logical necessity, because humans own themselves.

But appeals to immanence and self-ownership are no more meaningful than appeals to faith. Such appeals fail because they take liberty as a first principle. Liberty, which is a condition of existence, cannot be a first principle, it can only serve the first principle of existence, which is self-interest. Only experience (of the right kind) and reason can show that liberty serves self-interest.

The appeal to liberty as a first principle is unconvincing, except to those who already want to believe in the immanence of liberty because they understand that liberty serves their self-interest. A belief in the immanence of liberty -- whether it is God-given or simply axiomatic -- is a skyhook: "a materially unsupported (and thus implausible) entity or process."

The concept of self-ownership as the basis of liberty is simply another skyhook. Yes, "I" am "me" and not "you," but what gives me the right to be left alone by you, without sharing your burdens? Where does my self-ownership come from? Who or what imprinted it on me? And there we are, searching for a skyhook.

Rights -- though they can exist without the sanction of government and the protection of a state -- are political. That is, although rights may arise from human nature, they have no essence until they are recognized through interpersonal bargaining (politics), in the service of self-interest. It is bargaining that determines whether we recognize only the negative right of liberty, or the positive right of privilege as well. The preference of human beings -- revealed over eons of coexistence -- is to recognize both liberty (usually constrained to some degree) and privilege (which necessitates constraints on liberty).

The problem for libertarians, therefore, is to convince the body politic of two complementary truths: Self-interest dictates that liberty should be the paramount right. The recognition of privilege as a co-equal right undermines the benefits that flow from liberty.
In the same post I went on, at length, to show the logical absurdity of appeals to immanence and self-ownership as the basis of libertarianism. I came down on the side of consequentialism:
The virtue of libertarianism is not that it must be taken on faith but that, in practice, it yields superior consequences. Superior consequences for whom, you may ask. And I will answer: for all but those who don't wish to play by the rules of libertarianism; that is, for all but predators and parasites.
In later posts I explicated those superior consequences. (See here, here, here, and here.)

Does my consequentialism -- which has led me to support traditional marriage, oppose abortion and euthanasia, and support preemptive war -- somehow make me a conservative? I think not. My support for those positions isn't a priori, as it would be if I were a conservative. Rather, my support for those positions comes from my considered judgment that they will have superior consequences for the general welfare. Among those consequences, they will advance liberty and the blessings that flow from it.

Libertarians should value liberty not because it is "good" per se but because it has good consequences. As I wrote here:
Fundamentalist libertarianism reduces liberty to a matter of faith. If libertarianism cannot stand on more than faith, what makes it any better than, say, socialism or the divine right of kings?
I therefore reserve the right to agree with conservative positions. And I shall, when the consequences serve the general welfare. I also reserve the right to differ with conservative positions. And I shall, when the consequences disserve the general welfare.

In either case, I am confident that the general welfare is served best by liberty, and that liberty is not served when the state recklessly subverts socially evolved standards of behavior in the name of license masquerading as liberty.