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Friday, September 14, 2007

Force Fetishists

Why is it that every few years some prominent newspaper or magazine publishes a critical article about the freedom philosophy (libertarianism) that rests on the same confusion over two key but simple concepts? Such confusion should have been dispelled by 1875 when Lysander Spooner, the colorful individualist anarchist and abolitionist, wrote his great essay Vices Are Not Crimes: A Vindication of Moral Liberty. In that essay Spooner took pains to distinguish actions that harm the actor (vices) and actions that harm others by invading their persons or property (crimes). He wrote:

Unless this clear distinction between vices and crimes be made and recognized by the laws, there can be on earth no such thing as individual right, liberty, or property; no such things as the right of one man to the control of his own person and property, and the corresponding and coequal rights of another man to the control of his own person and property.

For a government to declare a vice to be a crime, and to punish it as such, is an attempt to falsify the very nature of things. It is as absurd as it would be to declare truth to be falsehood, or falsehood truth.

Spooner was not naive; he understood that vices may negatively affect other people. Nevertheless, they are not crimes:

Vices are simply the errors which a man makes in his search after his own happiness. Unlike crimes, they imply no malice toward others, and no interference with their persons or property.

In vices, the very essence of crime — that is, the design to injure the person or property of another — is wanting.

This isn't rocket science. So why do so many people miss the point? Maybe they don't want to get it. The latest example is Kay S. Hymowitz, writing on Wednesday's Wall Street Journal website and in the September issue of Commentary magazine. Freedom Fetishists: The Cultural Contradictions of Libertarianism, her wide-of-the-mark attack on the freedom philosophy, is a review of Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern Libertarian Movement by Brian Doherty and The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America's Politics and Culture by Brink Lindsey. Much of what she writes about libertarianism could be criticized, but I'll zero in on her fundamental fallacy.

Hymowitz attempts in her article to tie the libertarian movement to the Aquarian moral radicalism of the 1960s. This is not entirely wrong, but as an activist in those days I can attest that the movement was so diverse that any broad statement about its moral views is bound to be mistaken. How do you characterize the personal morality of a group with factions that admired the ethics, respectively, of Aristotle, Jesus, Max Stirner, Ayn Rand, and Timothy Leary?

Yet Hymowitz is undeterred. She writes:

Despite Mr. Lindsey's protestations to the contrary, libertarianism has supported, always implicitly and often with an enthusiastic hurrah, the Aquarian excesses that he now decries. Many of the movement's devotees were deeply involved in the radicalism of the 1960s.

Nor should this come as a surprise. After all, the libertarian vision of personal morality — described by Mr. Doherty as People ought to be free to do whatever the hell they want, mostly, as long as they aren't hurting anyone else — is not far removed from if it feels good, do it, the cri de coeur of the Aquarians.

Notice the subtle — and wholly illegitimate — move Hymowitz makes. Doherty, writing a book about a political movement, describes it as subscribing to the belief that People ought to be free to do whatever the hell they want, mostly, as long as they aren't hurting anyone else. Yet Hymowitz characterizes this position as the libertarian vision of personal morality! She asserts that libertarianism supported Aquarian excesses. Where's her evidence? She further claims that movement activists were involved in '60s radicalism. But that is vague. Was that moral or political radicalism? It makes a difference.

See the problem? It is perfectly coherent for someone to believe that we ought to be free to do whatever we want (except invade other people's persons and property), while also believing that we should not do whatever we may want to do at a given moment. More precisely, one can defend the right to (noninvasive) moral freedom while holding the strictest views about how we ought to live. (I've known Catholic, evangelical Protestant, Christian Science, orthodox Jewish, and Muslim libertarians — not to mention atheist Aristotelians.)

In case some readers missed Hymowitz's sophistical two-step, she repeats it: [W]hen one's moral compass consists of nothing more than doing 'whatever the hell you want' and avoiding physical harm to anyone else's person or property, it is very easy to get lost. But who advocated such a moral compass? Certainly not the libertarian movement, even in the '60s. First, the movement, a disparate, often contentious group of people, was in no position to hand out moral compasses. Second, being a political movement, it would have had no interest in doing so. Any libertarian who practiced the Aquarian ethic was doing so not qua libertarian, because libertarianism doesn't tell you what you ought to do, but only what you ought to be free to do. Hymowitz thinks that for a libertarian, can implies ought. Where's her evidence? Those are two different ideas. A libertarian may practice Aquarian morality or Aristotelian eudaimonism but not specifically as a libertarian. It makes no sense to say, I am an Aquarian or a eudaimonist (or whatever) because I am a libertarian, but it makes perfect sense to say, Because I am an Aquarian or a eudaimonist (or whatever), I am also a libertarian.

In other words, Hymowitz is so confused on this point she has put the cart before the horse. Libertarian political philosophy tells you what you should not do — initiate physical force — but it does not tell you what you should do. That is the task of broader moral philosophy. (Concern for promoting a free society should, of course, create private or nonpolitical opposition to attitudes that are not per se coercive, such as racism, sexism, other bigotry, and nationalism. On what has been called thick libertarianism, see this.)

Freedom Fetish

Since Hymowitz sees libertarianism as a freedom fetish (dictionary definition: excessive attachment or regard), we are entitled to conclude that she wants government to limit individual freedom even when other people and their property are not invaded. That is to say, she necessarily favors the use of state brutality to regulate at least some peaceful relations among people. Whom is she willing to trust with that power? She has in mind such matters as divorce, out-of-wedlock births, drug use, and gay marriage. With drugs we've seen how effective prohibition can be. The misnamed war on drugs has created untold misery, bloodshed, oppression, and corruption — and not just for drug consumers and manufacturers — while doing nothing to eliminate drugs from society. (The authorities still can't keep them out of prisons!) Does Hymowitz really wish to create more black markets and underground activities, with all their attendant baggage? Granted, individuals will sometimes use their freedom in regrettable ways. But is that grounds to condemn freedom itself or the movement that promotes it?

(On the relationship between freedom and the evolution of the family, see Steven Horwitz's recent article in The Freeman here.)

As soon as the law seeks to regulate nonviolent conduct, it enters into a hopeless thicket. Distant legislators and bureaucrats have no better qualifications to tell others how to live under complex circumstances than they have to centrally plan an economy. They couldn't possibly know what they would need to know in order to prescribe conduct in the infinite variety of situations that can arise in a person's life. Once the law moves beyond the mere prohibition of physical force, all the evils of social engineering kick in with a vengeance. This is part of what Leonard Read had in mind when he titled his best-known book Anything That's Peaceful:

By my title … I mean let anyone do anything he pleases that's peaceful or creative; let there be no organized restraint against anything but fraud, violence, misrepresentation, predation; let anyone deliver mail or educate or preach his religion or whatever, so long as it’s peaceful; limit society’s agency of organized force — government — to juridical and policing functions, tabulating the do-nots and prescribing the penalties against unpeaceful actions; let the government do this and leave all else to the free, unfettered market!

All of this, I concede, is an affront to the mores. So be it!

I suppose libertarians can be flattered that every few years conservatives feel it necessary to publish an article such as Hymowitz's. We must be doing something right. But if they don't start showing a basic understanding of our political philosophy, it will be tempting to believe they just don't want to.

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.