Monday, April 25, 2005

Conservatism, Libertarianism, and Public Morality

In a recent post I reservedly endorsed limited-government conservatism:
I...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.
That post was inspired by Edward Feser's post about "Libertarianism and moral neutrality" at Right Reason. Feser there refers to his recent article ("Self-Ownership, Abortion, and the Rights of Children: Toward a More Conservative Libertarianism"), which appears in the Journal of Libertarian Studies. I've now read Feser's article and find that I am in deep disagreement with him. My disagreement hinges on Feser's constant resort to a particular conception of morality that seems disconnected from a deeper principle.

Feser seems to see morality as a set of a priori prohibitions of certain types of behavior. He argues that libertarians ought to embrace those prohibitions because they follow from the Self-Ownership Proviso (which he attributes to Erick Mack):
[R]espect for others' self-ownership rights entails abiding by restrictions on the use of one's own property and self-owned powers enshrined in...the Self-Ownership Proviso (SOP)....

Evens non-invasive us of one's property and powers can violate another's self-ownership if it effectively nullifies or disables the other's ability to bring his self-owned powers to bear on the world....

Taking self-ownership seriously thus entails endorsing the SOP. But this, as we are now in a position to see, means that respecting self-ownership requires taking a decidedly conservative position concerning abortion and the the rights of children.
I reject the self-ownership principle as a valid basis for libertarianism because self-ownership is an a priori concept with no anchor in reality. That is why I am a consequentialist libertarian, who rests his libertarianism on the demonstrable belief that the enjoyment of liberty makes us better off. (For more, go here, then go here and follow the links.)

A consequentialist libertarian may -- as I have done -- reject abortion as a step down a slippery slope toward involuntary euthanasia. As for children, here is a sensible consequentialist principle: Bad behavior toward children breeds bad behavior in adults. Children should be treated well and brought up properly for the sake of general well-being (less crime, greater prosperity, etc.).

I am certainly not ruling out love -- which matters greatly to the proper upbringing of children -- nor empathy -- which causes most of us instinctively to protect children. But empathy and love are human instincts that seem to operate independently of one's political leanings.

Conservatives, a priori libertarians, Democrats, Republicans, and socialists all may feel love and empathy toward others, but each adheres to, and wishes to enforce, a different (if inchoate) code of behavior on others. It is that enforced code of behavior -- that public morality -- which shapes our ability to pursue happiness through social and economic intercourse.

I do not trust any public morality whose first principles are demonstrably inconsistent with the general welfare -- general happiness, if you will. That is why I will stick to consequentialist libertarianism and leave the other "isms" to "true believers."


The Origin and Essence of Rights
A Footnote to My Theory of Rights
Why I Am Not a Conservative
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?
The Trouble with Libertarianism?
Does Libertarian-Conservative Fusion Have a Future?
Libertarianism and Conservatism
Judeo-Christian Values and Liberty
Libertarianism, Marriage, and the True Meaning of Family Values
Where Conservatism and (Sensible) Libertarianism Come Together

Getting Neolibertarianism Wrong
Fundamentalist Libertarians, Anarcho-Capitalists, and Self-Defense