Conservative Theology

Libertarianism vs. Conservatism, Pt. 2

Responses to Objections

Religion and Politics


My good friend Rick did me the great service of making excellent criticisms of my essay on libertarianisms.  I started to post a response in the comments, but it quickly got too long.  In any case, here is my response:

"I disagree with your premise that giving a social norm the weight of (sovereign) law is distinguishable from governmental intervention. Sovereign law, for better or worse, IS government intervention."

The point was not that it was or wasn't governmental "intervention" - sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't, but rather, a law doesn't require a government. See for example this post about the powers of text.

In fact, you find throughout history many laws that have no explicit punishments.  That is because, often, none is needed.  By intermarrying society and law, you can have laws that don't require governments.  When you separate them, the only thing that enforces law is a government.

"Rather than allowing individuals to define the terms of their relationships (or to choose NOT to define them, a possibility you've overlooked)"

I am unclear how an undefined terms of relationship would work in a legal context, except, perhaps, by ceding authority to social norms!

"A market would exist (in fact, already does exist) for ready-made contractual arrangements, especially for relationships as common as marriages"

But this is only part of the point.  The fact is that, (1) that there are always unexpected parts of a relationship which the law must handle.  These are handled according to societal norms and goals, precisely because that is what is left when a contract breaks down, and (2) marriage impacts much more than just the people getting married.  I pointed this out here.  If marriage communication is, in fact, privileged, then who receives this privilege is a societal issue, and not one of the contractants of marriage.  The possibility of children introduces players into the contract which were not a party to it.  This means that either (a) the children are treated as simple property, or (b) that society establishes norms regarding their handling, which would have priority above the contractural relationship.  In fact, even though there are many other places where society and law have a necessary interaction, the existence of children alone bring together societal norms and law in a very powerful way.

The fundamental problem of libertarianism is that it presumes that we can be, for the most part, disconnected from each other, and even elevates that to a societal goal - to be connected to only those people you choose. 

In reality, though, this is neither possible nor desirable.  Libertarianism, similar to liberalism, places extremely high value on the degrees of freedom that an individual can do.  While I agree that there shouldn't be any unwarranted restriction on degrees of freedom, I find this highly suspicious as an end-goal.   Is the ability to pick my nose in public really the purpose for which liberty aspires?  I should hope not, for if so it makes it a goal not worth persuing.  I agree that liberty is important.  I also agree that the nature of liberty requires that society allow things that it normally doesn't agree with, and that society and law, while overlapping in many areas, are not coextensive. 

Liberty is the combination of self-mastery, faith, and humility.  It is self-mastery in that none of us are free unless we can get control of ourselves - the biggest source of bondage is actually the lack of personal control over ourselves, not other people.  In addition, liberty is about the faith that others' may be persuing societal good by means which are radically different, and not necessarily completely understood.  Also faith in the fact that most errors in this direction are not fatal.  Finally, it is about the humility to accept that there is room for disagreement in everything.

From this perspective, while individual degrees of freedom are important, they are not the only consideration.  Freedom to err is vitally important for the freedom to be correct, but this doesn't mean that liberty implies that I should be able to just do anything I want.  That is the attitude of my children, I should hope that by the time they are adults they will have sufficient self-mastery to be beyond that.

"In addition, government recognition (aka regulation) of marriage also allows the government a guise of legitimacy under which to confer benefits on one group at the expense of another. Tax and other benefits are provided to married people but denied to gays, polygamists, and unattractive singles."

Just to point out, most of the "benefits" are actually to unmarried cohabitators.  We found this out this summer.  The state social workers were encouraging us to divorce so that we would have more access to benefits.  They determined that we were going to need $89,000 in assistance each year, but that my salary (which is less than that figure) disqualified me from receiving anything.  However, if we divorced, then Christa would be able to get the full benefits package.

"Your conclusions about contracts for burgers and lawyers attending weddings are nothing more than unsupported hyperbole."

I disagree.  The fact is that law is actually moving more towards your view with regards to basic human interactions.  And, with that, we are receiving a constant increase in the number of things we have to sign.  We have crazy lawsuits because we no longer have a societal expectation for self-responsibility.  Therefore, in nearly every interaction, we have contract which disclaim problems that occur from a lack of self-responsibility.  We have idiotic privacy forms we have to fill out at the doctor's office.  We have stupid EULAs we have to click through to install software.  Why do we just click through them?  Because we know what they say.  However, if, instead of everyone lawyering up, we instead had a means of social expectations interacting with the law, we could do away with (a) the lawyers to draft them, (b) the lawyers to fight with them, and (c) having to read them all. 

The problem with the libertarian position is that it assumes a lot of the societal interaction that it rails against.  Most libertarians agree that lawsuits about stupid things are stupid.  But that is just because they are assuming conservative, not libertarian, values.  In libertarianism, society doesn't affect legal expectations, so why should self-responsibility be assumed?

The nanny-state of liberalism is simply the byproduct of the libertinism of libertarianism.  When an ethical self-mastery is no longer part and parcel of what it means to be free, the only valid social response is the nanny state.

So, to sum up, I would say:

  1. Liberty is about more than individual degrees of freedom.  Increasing individual degrees of freedom is an important part of liberty, but other parts (such as self-mastery) are more important
  2. We are interwoven with each other.  A legal system (or a definition of freedom) that ignores this is simply anti-realist.  Marriage and children are interesting precisely because the point of them transcends the two people involved.
  3. Removing social norms from legal expectations does in fact mean that we will have to lawyer-up for the smallest detail.  The other option would be that those who don't have lawyers are at mercy of those who do (which removes their liberty more than just about anything else I can think of)
  4. When you intermix societal and legal norms, you get the advantages of law without having to have a large institution of government for enforcement.  It is their separation which causes us to have a large, coercive government which only has power due to its coercive abilities