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March 24, 2004

The Libertarian Fantasy Government

While running a couple of errands, a little while ago, I heard a caller on the radio arguing one of those points that is so dumb it takes a bit of intelligence to find it plausible. In a nutshell, he declared that morality is not, properly speaking, part of the American system of government. Everything is based on laws derived from individual rights.

In some ways, this represents the first lap around the track for those who have rejected the notion of a government based on higher principles of a more religious nature. Essentially, all he's done is to re-label morality as individual rights, without crediting morality as the basis for rights. He's appealing to the same concept of objective, transcendent truth that he thought to leave behind at the starting line, but he's added a layer of obscuring rationalization. At some point, he'll come across somebody's explanation of why this is so or something will trip up his rhetorical structure, and he'll be off again for the next lap.

For one example of his case, the caller tried to make a distinction between the religious Commandment "thou shalt not kill" and laws governing murder. The former is a moral declaration having to do with the sanctity of the individual life, in his formulation, while the latter is an assertion of the legal right of a person not to be killed for no reason. But last I heard, the most accurate translation of that Commandment actually is "thou shalt not murder," and indeed, all religions growing from the Old Testament recognize some form or other of legitimate infliction of death. Moreover, the concept of "no reason" requires a subjective measure and an appeal to morality.

A second example to which the caller made recourse was that judges rule based on the law rather than morality. If only that were true! Even accepted "objective" law leaves room for judgment on such matters as whether discrimination is "invidious." More importantly, judges who do handle the law objectively do so simply because that's their prescribed function within our government system. What do such people think the legislature is for?

At best, folks who take this caller's view are describing their ideal government based on their own moral principles, rather than the U.S. government as it is actually constructed. To the extent that this ideal is both legitimate and feasible, it is as a limited ideal for government within a society that has assigned power to areas of life and culture that more appropriately and effectively dabble in morality. This construction, as I see it, is the nation that our Founding Fathers sought to create, and we've managed to mangle it so horribly in part because we've slipped into legalisms and rhetorical illusions.

Posted by Justin Katz at March 24, 2004 5:13 PM
Liberalism vs. Conservatism