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The Libertarian Anti-Manifesto
[February 13, 2003]

By S. M. Oliva

Susan Lee, a member of the Wall Street Journal editorial board, has an essay in yesterday’s edition of that paper arguing in favor of “libertarianism.” Superficially, she makes a strong argument for the libertarian manifesto:

[L]ibertarians are concerned with individual rights and responsibilities over government—or community—rights and responsibilities ...Libertarians are not comfortable with normative questions. They admit to one moral principle from which all preferences follow; that principle is self-ownership—individuals have the right to control their own bodies, in action and speech, as long as they do not infringe on the same rights for others.

Lee is arguing the established libertarian position that politics and morality are mutually exclusive. She does this by stating that there is no virtue aside from that of “self-ownership,” something which requires neither reason nor hierarchal value to understand. Indeed, she explicitly rejects the need for ordered values:

Conservative thought proceeds from absolutes, hierarchies, and exclusivity. Libertarian thought promotes relativism and inclusiveness—although, admittedly, this tolerance comes from indifference over moral questions, not a greater inborn intent to live-and-let-live.

Moral absolutes, regardless of context, are an anathema to libertarian thought. This is because to say something is good requires one hold the opposite to be bad. But if something is bad, libertarians reason, than that means the government will attempt to ban it through the use of force. Therefore, the only way to secure a free society is to abolish moral absolutes, and thus morality, from all human interaction. By removing all the variables except one—“liberty”—libertarians adopt a simple-minded approach to philosophy.

But such simple-mindedness has a price. Divorcing political thought from morality has a devastating consequence—the negation of reason itself. For in order for reason to survive, man must use his critical faculty to make judgments on all sorts of matters. What libertarians denigrate as mere “preferences” are in fact profound moral choices. How a man trains himself to think, judge, and act is of paramount importance. In contrast, the libertarian approach tacitly applauds whim-worshipping: drug use, prostitution, sex with minors, sadism. It doesn’t matter what choices man makes for the only true value is the freedom to act upon one’s impulses without restraint or consequence. To adopt such a philosophy renders man impotent, for he becomes unable to organize his life around any sort of value. To promote such paralysis on a social level is barbaric in the true sense of the word.

Compare Lee’s argument to that advanced by Robert Bork in an earlier Journal editorial. The renowned conservative then claimed the following:

Good law must be content with partial principles, principles in the middle distance. Universalist abstractions cannot cope with concrete realities, including those of human nature. Attempts to make them do so beget reckless changes and authoritarian solutions.

This is substantively no different than what Lee argues. Bork says human beings are incapable of rationally integrating universal principles—which, incidentally, includes things like “liberty”—while Lee says such principles are irrelevant to man’s life. Neither wishes to face the reality that principles do matter, and that “universalist abstractions” are the key to man’s survival and growth. Without developing a conceptual hierarchy derived from certain basic principles, man would stagnate and ultimately die.

A proper moral hierarchy neither overtaxes man’s mind, as Bork claims, nor resorts to coercion, as Lee claims. The basic concept is simple without being simplistic: Reason is man’s tool of survival. From this building block, one can construct an objective morality around the concept of individual rights. Since reason cannot be exercised collectively, only through individual action, it follows that a moral society is one that recognizes man is an end unto himself, not a servant of some collectively determined goal. This means that while governments—the guarantors of individual rights—cannot force a man to act rationally, it also means that man, on his own accord, will judge certain behaviors right or wrong within a hierarchy of values. In the end, a truly free society can only exist if all men, or at least a substantial majority of them, accept and apply this hierarchy in their own lives.

 

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