October 5, 2010
While there was a time when I might have described myself as a libertarian, those days are long gone. In fact, I don’t even call myself a conservative anymore. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I agree with libertarians on many issues, and their governmental model is vastly preferable to what liberals have visited upon us. Yet there is a problem: However valid their vision of government may be, their vision of society renders it unattainable.
Thomas Jefferson once said, “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Now, I certainly agree with the first sentence, as it’s merely a statement of the obvious. But then we have to ask, what constitutes “injurious”? And, when determining this, do we completely ignore indirect injury? Then, if we do consider the latter, to what extent should it be the domain of government? (When pondering these matters, note that the Founding Fathers didn’t reside on the modern libertarian page. They certainly would have, for instance, supported the idea of state and local governments outlawing pornography and would be appalled at what is now justified under the First Amendment.)
However you answer these questions, you should question Jefferson’s second sentence. While it may make sense on the surface, it ignores that spiritual/philosophical foundation affects morality. And what happens when a people becomes so morally corrupt they elect a government that picks your pocket or breaks your leg?
Lest there be any misunderstanding, I don’t propose that our central government establish religion. But I do have a problem with the implication that a person’s most fundamental beliefs — which influence action — always do me “no injury,” as this leads to a ho-hum attitude that lessens the will to uphold proper traditions and social codes. And if you doubt the power of belief, wait until a European nation turns predominantly Muslim and watch what ensues — then get back to me.
And today’s libertarians have gone Jefferson one better. They ignore not merely religion’s effect upon morality but also morality’s effect upon government, as they apply their ideology not merely to law but also social codes. Indulging “moral libertarianism,” they not only oppose anti-sodomy and anti-polygamy laws, they also look askance at social stigmas that could discourage such sexual behaviors. Not only do they oppose obscenity laws, they’re wary of courageous condemnations of the obscene. Even that most intrepid libertarian, Glenn Beck, is guilty of this. When asked during an appearance on the O’Reilly Factor whether faux marriage was a threat to the nation in any way, he laughed and mockingly replied, “A threat to the country? No, I don't . . . . Will the gays come and get us?” I don’t know, Glenn, ask the Europeans and Canadians who criticized homosexuality and were persecuted under hate-speech law.
Quite fittingly, right after Beck answered, he quoted the “It neither picks my pocket . . . .” part of the Jefferson quotation, espousing the libertarian idea that we really shouldn’t care what others do as long as they don’t hurt anyone else. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, however, this is much like having a fleet of ships and saying that you don’t care how the vessels function as long as they don’t crash into each other. Obviously, if they don’t function properly, they may not be able to avoid crashing into each other. So libertarians may say “Whatever works for you — just don’t work it into government,” but what about when someone doesn’t work properly? Thinking that personal moral disease won’t infect the public sphere is like saying, “I don’t care what a person does with his health — carry tuberculosis if you want — just don’t infect me.”
And the proof is in the electoral pudding. Did you ever observe what groups vote for whom and wonder why? Churchgoing Christians cast ballots overwhelmingly for traditionalist candidates while atheists and agnostics support leftists by wide margins. In fact, consider this: Virtually every group involved in something those Neanderthal Christians call sinful or misguided votes for leftists. Goths? Check. Homosexuals? Check. Wiccans? Check. People peppered with tattoos and body-piercings? Check. You don’t find many vampirists, cross-dressers or S&M types at Tea Party rallies.
In light of this, do you really believe there is no correlation between world view and political belief? In fact, is it realistic to say that there isn’t likely causation here? And what can you predict about America’s political future based on the fact that an increasing number of people are embracing these “non-traditional” behaviors and beliefs? The irony of Jefferson’s statement is that whether our neighbor believes in twenty gods or no God, he will likely vote the same way (this is at least partially because paganism and atheism share a commonality with liberalism: the rejection of orthodox Christianity). And equally ironic is that he will elect people who do injury to the very Constitution Jefferson helped craft.
So there is a truth here hiding in plain sight: If someone is not a moral being, how can he be expected to vote for moral government? Do you really think a vice-ridden person will be immoral in business, when raising children and in most other things but then, magically somehow, have a moment of clarity at the polls? This is why John Adams warned, “Public virtue cannot exist in a nation without private [virtue] . . . .”
Despite this, libertarians tend to bristle at bold moral pronouncements that would encourage private virtue. As was apparent when I penned this seminal piece on the Internet’s corruptive effects, they fear that, should such sentiments take firm hold, they will be legislated and forestall the libertarian utopia. But they have it precisely backwards. As Edmund Burke said:
Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites . . . . Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.
Thus, insofar as the libertarian governmental ideal is even possible, it is dependent upon the upholding of morality, upon the “controlling power” of social codes. For not only do they help shape moral compasses, thereby increasing governance “from within,” insofar as that internal control is lacking, the social pressure attending the codes serves to govern from without. And insofar as this social control is lacking, governmental control fills the vacuum. As freedom from morality waxes, freedom from legality wanes.
Ultimately, the tragic consequence of the libertarian mentality is that it guarantees the left’s victory in the battle for civilization. This is because, in libertarians’ failure to fight for hearts and minds in the cultural realm, they cede it to leftists, who aren’t shy about advancing their “values.” And proof of this is in the social pudding. You see, if talk of establishing social codes and traditions sounds stifling, know that we haven’t dispensed with such things — that is impossible. Rather, the left has succeeded in replacing our traditional variety with something called “political correctness,” which describes a set of codes powerful enough to control the jokes we make and words we use, get people hired or fired, and catapult a man to the presidency based partially on the color of his skin.
As for elections, political battles need to be fought, but they are the small picture. For if the culture is lost, of what good is politics? People will vote in accordance with their world view no matter what you do. Thus, he who shapes hearts and minds today wins political power tomorrow.
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The libertarian chant, “I don’t care what you do, just lemme alone” sounds very reasonable, indeed. But as hate-speech laws, forcing people to buy health insurance and a thousand other nanny-state intrusions prove, when people become morally corrupt enough, they don’t leave you alone. They tyrannize you. A prerequisite for anything resembling libertarian government is cast-iron morality in the people. And we should remember that, to echo Thomas Paine, “Virtue is not hereditary.”
For this reason, neither is liberty. Scream “Live and let live!” loudly enough in the moral sphere, and in the hearts of men the Devil will live — and the republic will die.