Libertarians vs. Social Conservatives

March 11, 2005

Government as Incentive to Chat

There's overlap within the cliques under the Republican Big Tent, of course, and there's theoretically broad footing for compromise and working together. Yet, disagreeing concepts of governance — disagreeing not only with each other, but also with the expression of them — make it difficult to carry on productive dialogue.

One must acknowledge that, in such large political groupings, there are examples of people to disprove any general statement. Nonetheless, it has seemed to me that, typical expectations notwithstanding, social conservatives stand a bit more firmly on that theoretical common ground than do libertarians or so-called moderates. Consider the following statement from the admirable INDC Bill:

Some or all of those [right-wing] themes may resonate with some of you, but they don't lay the groundwork for a long-term majority that's necessarily comprised of a coalition of interests. Conservative control of government shouldn't be a tool to legislate morality, social engineering or lynch-mob populism, rather serve as a lever to further disengage government from unsuccessful bureaucratic equations, let ideas rise and fall in a marketplace of honest debate, and allow decentralized localities to decide the mores and taboos of particular regions.

It appears that the necessary compromise platform for this long-term coalition between libertarians/moderates and conservatives is just about indistinguishable from a libertarian statement of principle! A social conservative might as well suggest that the compromise must be founded on an acknowledgment of God as the source of our rights. But Bill raises the fair point that libertarians and social conservatives have different understandings about the nature of government and its role in society.

Even taken in the spirit of one side's opening declaration, the problems with Bill's argument are threefold. The first Bill addresses in a follow-up post, in response to one of his readers, who wrote:

Please, not the old "legislating morality" canard again. Advocating for your position is one thing, but admonishing me that I shouldn't try to "impose my values on others" is something else entirely.

Let's make one thing clear - virtually every action taken by a legislative body is, in effect, "legislating morality." When a group of lawmakers passes a law banning murder, they are by their very action defining a moral boundary for society and by extension, "imposing morality" on said society.

Thus, the question is not "can morality be imposed on society?"; rather the question is "who's morality will be imposed?"

Bill responds, in part, by holding up the "compelling majorities [that] agree on things like murder," but that doesn't quite address the objection. For one thing, positing some theoretical number at which the will of the majority justifies moral law shifts Bill from statements of governmental principle to practical considerations. To see another difficulty with Bill's approach consider why (without turning to the practicalities of policing), if so many people agree that murder is wrong, we need laws against it.

The reason is hinted within Bill's appeal to "compelling majorities": it makes a statement about murder if democratically determined law has nothing to say about it. It says that the society believes that murder could be okay. I don't mean to suggest that the government ought to take a stand on every moral question. Sometimes the appropriate "statement about X" is that people disagree — and have a right to do so.

What makes social conservatives suspicious about libertarians and moderates' supposed even-handedly amoral stand — the second problem with Bill's argument — is that the issues that they claim as open to the liberty of disagreement seem conspicuously to fall in the direction of a particular morality. About the "popular socially conservative goal [of repealing] Roe v Wade," Bill writes the following (emphasis his):

A strategy centered around making the effective case to build a natural majority on a specific issue should eclipse and precede any strategy that's reliant on government, especially when that vision only reflects the will of a majority of the winning political coalition. And in the abortion example, based on shifting medical definitions that move the definition of "fetal viability" closer and closer to conception, there are still socially conservative legislative advances that can be made within the current atmosphere of public opinion.

Put aside Bill's continued privileging of public opinion in determining government morality. (One wonders about the legitimacy of legislating based on "the current atmosphere of public opinion" when it comes to restricting offensive entertainment.) It's difficult to see how a repeal of Roe v. Wade would fail to further Bill's goal of letting "ideas rise and fall in a marketplace of honest debate" and allowing "decentralized localities to decide the mores and taboos of particular regions." The government statement enforced by Roe v. Wade is that no locality can disagree with the proposition that abortion is not murder. (See also John Hawkins's post addressing Bill's claims about public opinion.)

While I may be misreading his tone, it seems fair to contrast Bill's view of Roe with a paragraph from the third post in this series (certainly a legitimate comparison when it comes to the broader group with which Bill is aligning himself):

Where is the conservative outrage over the Bush Administration's recent judicial activism attempting to overturn the Death With Dignity Act, a piece of state legislation that was twice approved by Oregonian voters? The same culture of life that animates the core of opposition to Roe v Wade also seems to drive the bid to bring this case before the Supreme Court, regardless of its status as duly created law or relation to Constitutional rights.

Assuming their opposition to the action of bringing the assisted suicide case to SCOTUS, libertarians and moderates aren't following the nuanced approach to governance that they apply to abortion — blending the actions of the branches so as to conform with the popular will. First of all, I'd suggest that Bill inadequately justifies his accusation of hypocrisy by vaguely referencing the "core of opposition"; to my experience, most of that core would readily admit that the legal process is a matter of convenience. Still others, such as myself, would overturn Roe and, realizing the danger of the contradiction, argue for other approaches than judicial when it comes to assisted suicide.

The important point is that social conservatives don't have to be consistent when it comes to government theory. Indeed, the libertarian/moderate complaint on the table is that conservatives have political goals beyond the strict operation of the government. Only from the libertarian point of view is it inconsistent to support the culture of life regardless of means, which is to repeat what I implied above: libertarians/moderates aren't futilely holding out a hand of compromise, rather they are every bit as contentious toward those whom they are "in agreement with, annoyed by, affectionately bemused by, embarrassed for or respectfully tolerant of."

And their motive is no more pure when it comes to government theory. The motive that so often seems to underlie the libertarian approach to government is directly related to the need for murder to be criminalized: if social conservatives (and liberals) can no longer "impose" their morality through government, then libertarians can ignore them. The "marketplace of honest debate" need be no more than a form of entertainment when the urge to argue arises.

That brings us to the third problem with Bill's argument. The great unsung genius of our system of government is that it makes discourse matter. It gives stakes to the spirited debate in the public square. If libertarians win the argument that government "shouldn't be a tool to legislate morality," the essential tension that enables the government to bind us in an environment of mutual respect is gone, and with it our society.

And so, to end on a note of shared principle, I agree with Bill that we've strayed too far from the priority of "decentralized localities to decide the mores and taboos of particular regions," mostly because it would disperse the stakes involved with each particular fight. Political victory — on the lowest level possible for a given issue — is a necessary currency in the marketplace of ideas, even when one of those ideas is that it is alright to legislate morality.

Posted by Justin Katz at 5:38 PM

February 21, 2005

From Character to Culture

In response to my disagreement, Ramesh Ponnuru has elaborated on his suggestion that, if "it really is the case that 'matters of character' are 'matters that should precede governmental authority,' as Coleman concludes, then I think his separationist conclusion [about marriage and state] certainly follows." Inasmuch as Ponnuru's point is that pure libertarianism doesn't allow "much of a defense of marriage laws," I suppose I've no choice but to agree. One might as well attempt to dispute that socialism doesn't allow much of a defense of inheritance laws. But as with socialism, libertarianism is a flawed, weak, ultimately dangerous approach to government when implemented as a political philosophy rather than a general principle for assigning preference.

The question, as I addressed it, is whether the degree of libertarianism that can claim the broad appeal that Ponnuru appears to be assuming requires government's lack of authority over "matters of personal character" to translate into a separation of marriage and state. On a more theoretical level, the question can be taken to be whether that degree of libertarianism is justifiable (or sane).

I may very well be missing a step in his thinking, but it seems to me that Ponnuru is conflating concepts that are actually distinct. If we reject "the idea that the promotion of morality is a legitimate aim of the government," does that mean we "can't count in cultural effects that occur through subtle influences on people's behavior and beliefs"? I don't believe so. What's more, I don't think many people do, and I don't think this represents a emotion-driven inconsistency on our part.

The idea that Americans generally reject is that it is a legitimate aim of the government to promote morality per se. It is difficult to imagine what the proof might look like, but arguendo, if it could be proven that every act of fornication brought our civilization closer to doom and ruination, then few would be the purists to declare the SCOTUSian right to privacy inviolable.

This is why we spend so much time arguing over whether same-sex marriage will have deleterious effects. Many supporters of same-sex marriage may see it as such a basic right that damage to society is irrelevant, but even they surely understand that their cause is dead if they ever reach the point of having to argue as much. Ponnuru refers to the principle that "everyone has the liberty to swing his fist until it hits someone else's nose," and I will concede that this understanding of government's purview is broadly held. That does not mean, however, that "subtle influences on people's behavior and beliefs" are outside of the state's authority. Rather, it means that the "cultural effects" must be persuasively arguable as wounds.

Unless Ponnuru's conclusion, as follows, is intended to illustrate the shortcomings of libertarianism, then it falls to a subtle, but decisive, distinction intellectually and as a matter of what America's citizens actually believe:

If you don't see a legitimate role for government in promoting morality at all... then you would support same-sex marriage only as a move toward a contractarian policy. Ultimately, I think, you would have to say that marriage is none of the government's business.

In the paragraph previous to this one, Ponnuru suggests that "liberty and social welfare" are truly what "marriage laws promote." Taking that as true, it doesn't matter that those ends are accomplished "precisely by encouraging moral behavior." The question is whether those ends are accomplished "precisely by encouraging moral behavior."

Posted by Justin Katz at 9:23 AM | Comments (1)

February 18, 2005

Finding the Seam Between Factions

In conversation at the Republican event that I mentioned over on Anchor Rising, differences of opinion arose with respect to prioritizing "libertarian" issues and "social" issues. To be honest, I think I'm too exhausted to take up that or any matter but so lucidly. Still, to get some thoughts down, I'll let my fingers type some compounding points, letting my eyes check in from time to time from behind heavy eyelids.

The bottom line is that all issues, even those that rouse libertarians, are moral, "social" issues. We may all want lower taxes, for example, but there must be moral reasoning to justify cutting them. Moreover, tax cuts are not an obvious good if separated from an invocation of some form of ideology, and there are two options for considering efforts to amass wealth: a larger purpose or greed.

Particularly in Rhode Island, folks are willing to give their charity by proxy. High taxes hurt a given family somewhat, but families can feel, whether justified or not, that they "gave" to others in dire need. They support a system in which the government does what people are, ostensibly, not willing to do to help each other. In the ineluctable cycle of such things, these people gain the mindset that they are investing in protection of themselves. That isn't true, at least not for most families, but it is the feeling that they buy with their tax dollars.

Mixed up with the moral vanity of supporting giveaways, money and the purchased trappings of modern life can be means to an end, or ends unto themselves. One gets the sense that, for some people, consent to high taxes is a palliative for guilt over greed. As if the Mercedes is forgiven because the taxes help to fund welfare.

In a sense, those trappings are buy-offs embedded in the hidden forces of an unhealthy worldview seeking validation — an anti-individualist, anti-religious, anti-family, misanthropic worldview. Unfortunately for those willing to be bribed, the cost rises over time, changing form; high taxes become time lost for the sake of work becomes a separation from family becomes a family spread out across the country because taxes are too high in one area, stifling opportunity, and accustoming parents, children, and siblings to hardly seeing each other anyway.

With these generalities, I'm not drawing a sufficiently solid line that it ought to be followed as an argument to promote tax cuts, or any other cause. However, it circles an important bit of strategy: the social issues that strain family life overlap any political issues that affect citizens directly or indirectly (e.g., taxes and economic policy). It isn't enough to tell people that they can keep more of their money. It isn't enough to say that children will be able to stay within an easy drive if the economy improves through the government's making some hard decisions. As the culture sinks generations-deep into its corrosive mire, we must increasingly convince people that the traditional family is important in the first place.

Libertarian reason unmoored from social conservative principles ultimately has no basis articulable in terms of pure reason. Principles will inhere, whatever the case, and for society to continue to function, we cannot allow those principles to be negative by default, as attacking libertarian issues alone would ensure.

Posted by Justin Katz at 12:22 AM

January 16, 2005

What's Troubling You Is the Nature of My Game

In Lane Core's latest edition of Blogworthies, I came across this excellent explanation from Rightwingsparkle:

So this is what I have to say to my Southpark Republican friends. Let me give you a little perspective if faith is not a part of your life. Imagine that someone you love more than anything in this world, your child, is constantly being depicted in a gross or perverted manner in print, TV, and movies. Imagine a show that depicts your child, calling him by the name you have given him, being sexually raped or molested with no hint that there is anything wrong with that. I would think you would be enraged. You would scream from the roof top. ... That is the way religious conservatives feel about this culture. ...

So maybe you Southpark Republicans can be a little more understanding of those of us who rant against the sexualization of our kids, the crudeness of our public airwaves, and the anger and sadness we feel fighting the Golaith of our society who seems to only care about what adults want and not what kid's need.

Posted by Justin Katz at 12:29 AM | Comments (9)

January 7, 2005

"We are the new party of the inclusive!"

My, my, how quickly pandering and moral compromise become virtues when one tastes victory. We can't blame libertarians (or "South Park Republicans") for wanting to mold the Republican Party in their own image, but without jumping into the factional spitting match, I submit to you this: when those for whom the term "Big Tent Party" inspires adolescent snickers become too prominent in it, the Republican Party will crumble.

The issue at hand, as you may have guessed, is the mini-controversy arising from a post by Michelle Malkin:

Many social conservative groups have launched a protest against the White House inauguration committee's decision to invite Kid Rock to perform Jan. 18 at the Washington, D.C., Armory in a concert hosted by Bush daughters Jenna and Barbara. ...

Some "South Park conservative-" types are ridiculing the protesters. "Lighten up," they say. But I'm with the family groups on this. The inaugural celebrations should highlight the best the GOP has to offer. A guy who, as World Net Daily points out, "dedicated his first album to songs about oral sex and who was voted the Sluttiest Male Celebrity at the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards" and who titles songs "F--- U Blind" and "F--- Off" doesn't belong there, even if he is a rare celebrity Bush supporter.

After years of arguing with liberals over the difference between "censorship" and "sensibility," some of the responses are only surprising because they are coming from further right than usual. Alex Brunk takes the tack that there's nothing out of the ordinary about Kid Rock, after all, so declining to hand him a microphone (accessing a considerable audience) at our shared celebration is exclusionary:

Sure a lot of his songs are inappropriate, but so what, he's no different from any other musician that way. ... And as long as Kid Rock doesn't sing something inappropriate at the inauguration, there's no reason we should exclude him from the event.

INDC Bill apparently shares Alex's range of listening habits:

I guess they don't allow contemporary musicians in the big tent - four years of Pat Boone and the Oak Ridge Boys it is. And that singing cop. But how many times can you listen to the National Anthem in a row, really?

That's right. You got your "contemporary musicians" like Kid Rock down one aisle and your Pat Boones down the other, with nothing between. Peruse the lyrics (Parental Advisory!) that Michelle has included in her post for a sense of just how run-o'-the-mill Kid Rock really is.

Even allowing for the undeniable fact that Kid Rock is "profane and raunchy," no less a personage than John Hawkins takes the position that supporting our cause is sufficient expiation for those sins:

... as far as I'm concerned, anybody who's supports W and sticks up for the troops like that is OK to play the inauguration in my book.

I'm particularly sympathetic to the praise of Kid Rock's support for our troops, but I would warn fellow right-wingers against elevating political support to a height that diverts our eyes from other considerations. There are more important things than rewarding stars for taking the right stance. Woven throughout the criticism of Malkin's post are hints that Republicans are catching the Democrats' lust for the "youth vote":

This is exactly the kind of behavior that drives young people away from the Republican party. Congratulations, Michelle, you’ve championed the act of alienating some more potential (R) voters.

But attempting to appeal to that particular voting bloc comes at the price of a central conservative objective: molding them. Of course, as Jeff Blogworthy points out, attracting younger generations can be very helpful toward that goal:

We cannot persuade everyone to our way of thinking in a single epiphany. If we want people like Kid Rock and his followers to change and embrace a better way of life, it is a change that will occur incrementally. If we immediately break fellowship, what chance do we have to persuade them?

The problem is that the increments at hand aren't of degrees, but of issues. As Hawkins alludes, the "fellowship" is over politics and national security, not "a better way of life." While applauding the geopolitical agreement, we can too easily allow acceptance of social differences to become affirmation. Jeff Blogworthy notes that the "establishment criticized Jesus for associating with 'tax gatherers and sinners'," but we're not talking about mere association with regular folks. We're talking about putting a prominent figure — who, as far as I know, has not repudiated his older material, no matter how much he may have "matured" — up on stage for emulation.

And that is where our blind eye becomes most detrimental. Consider the opinion expressed on Bobo Blogger, from which I took the title for this post:

Kid Rock raises his young child as a single parent, is muli-talented, having recently scored some points with country radio, and while not the best role-model, he is a model of what one can do in America. Up from the worst streets in Detroit to fame and stardom. ...

What he does for entertainment value sould not relegate him to the depths of slime. However, while not entirely a fan of his music, and certainly not his early cuts, I still admire a working class guy who makes it big albeit as a slut!

It is an indication of corruption, not beneficent inclusion, when how a man makes it from slum to stardom is apparently of as little concern as whom one must parade in order to keep the kiddies' hands in the Big Tent.

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:22 PM

November 13, 2004

Just an Observation on the Republican Coalition

In the political realm, such statements are often taken to be veiled threats, particularly among tentative allies. But I mean this to be purely and simply an observation that our libertarian friends may wish to ponder.

The coalition formed between social conservatives and libertarians has been an uneasy one all along, and the latter have often made the point that they'd be perfectly comfortable switching sides... except for a few not-so-minor concerns about foreign policy and creeping socialism. This sort of wrangling is to be expected as the Republicans' success increases the margins for the party's antipathetic supporters to lean away from each other. Still, I'd advise that no clique convince itself too thoroughly that it is the visitor to the other's big tent and therefore owed deference.

The advice came to me when I read the following from M. Simon, whom Glenn Reynolds quoted on Instapundit:

Voting coalitions are ruled by the least committed members.

So the question to the cultural conservatives is: do you want 2004 to be the Republican high water mark or would you like to extend the string?

While the sentiment of the first sentence has clear merits, its language is interesting: "ruled." I suppose the apropos question is what, precisely, M. Simon believes those mercurial members' dominion to be. We social conservatives might suggest that it is not we who would trade our kingdom for a horse, or a donkey... or an elephant.

Another argument in this skirmish comes to mind. As Eugene Volokh explains it:

What's more, even if the 22% constitutes a plurality, that doesn't tell us much about just how important the issue to a majority of voters. Among other things, look how sensitive the plurality question is to the way the options are given or classified: If you combine terrorism and Iraq under the rubric of "national security," and combine their 19% and 15%, moral values gets displaced as the plurality winner. Likewise if you combine health care (which presumably means making health care more affordable) and economy/jobs, which put together count for 28%, into a single economic well-being category.

So who are the least committed members? Those of a plurality whose votes relate to the direct functions of government, involving foreign and/or economic policy? Or those who vote — as libertarians often complain — according to criteria on the other side of a wall of separation? Farther down in his post, M. Simon asks:

Do you want to make gains on the economic front and on the war or is abortion so important that you would give up further progress in those areas?

It's a good question — one that Republican libertarians and social liberals ought to begin asking themselves. After all, they're the ones who don't vote the way they do based on their social views.

Posted by Justin Katz at 12:01 PM | Comments (3)

November 5, 2004

Bargaining with Libertarians

As much as it represents an area of strong interest for me, and as much as I believe that it will be the next round of cultural battle, I've been reluctant to jump into the latest fray between conservatives and libertarians. We haven't even had a post-election weekend, yet!

As you're likely aware, Stephen Bainbridge started the whole thing off with his "Those Annoying Libertarians" post and a related Tech Central Station piece. From the latter:

Most libertarians refuse to accept the proposition that law can and should be based on moral principles derived from natural law. Some of them know that the American people strongly disagree. Knowing that their agenda of radical individual autonomy therefore cannot prevail in democratic processes, they have turned to the courts.

Over the past few days, Glenn Reynolds has turned "annoying libertarians" into a new Instapundit meme here, here, and here. It was the promise of "advice to social conservatives" from Randy Barnett that finally led me to click through to a post on the Volokh Conspiracy, and it was there that I found a paragraph that begs response:

My own view on how to maintain the winning coalition is Grover Norquist's: the "leave-us-alone" strategy, which happens to fit our original Constitution (as amended). This entails leaving gay marriage (which I support) to the states, and the substance of public school curriculum (including moments of silence and pledges of allegiance) to locally-elected school boards. (My only exception would be for when the liberty of adults is at stake as in Lawrence v. Texas, but we have debated this before and I won't be drawn into another debate over this issue right now. I am just identifying this area of disagreement I have with some conservatives.)

Giving due consideration to the time constraints under which Mr. Barnett wrote his post, I still find myself chuckling at the implied tradeoff. We (social conservatives) relent in beginning the slow process of making same-sex marriage a national issue through constitutional amendment, even as momentum builds toward the same elevation through the quick process of litigation; they (libertarians) will look the other way if some schools here and there decide to continue reciting the Pledge and ask the students to spend a quiet moment saying something to Somebody. Central cultural issue; watered down nod to tradition.

Is that the sort of compromise that libertarians will require to maintain our winning coalition? I'm no expert in negotiation, but that wouldn't strike me as fair even were our numbers of adherents relatively even, let alone when the balance leans in the other direction. If we're talking tradeoffs and compromises, there's a pretty obvious issue on which libertarians could begin to soften their stance; it starts with an "A."

Since the libertarians are being sporting enough to advise social conservatives about ways to work together, let me add in my own constructive thoughts: stop presenting society's choice as between reasonable libertarianism and fascistic theocracy. As it happens, in the same post, Prof. Reynolds linked to Eric of Classical Values, who provides a perfect example. Having complained that Bainbridge isn't "entirely fair to small-l libertarians with common sense enough to believe that voting is preferable to using the courts," Eric writes:

I think that big government statism is bad, and that it is immoral to use government force to tell people how to live their personal lives absent harm to others. I consider this a moral view -- my moral "norm" if you will. At the heart of the recognition by the Second Amendment of the right to keep and bear arms is a very moral view that individuals have a right to defend themselves and their homes, and to overthrow a tyrannical government.

This is at once morality AND individual autonomy.

As I and many others have argued before, at the other end of the spectrum (for lack of a better word), there are people who believe that various collections of written words (which they attribute to God) should supersede individual autonomy, and should constitute the final word of human "morality." Their ultimate goal, theocracy, would, by eliminating the element of choice in personal morality, destroy morality in the name of saving it.

Between Eric and Barnett, even baffled social conservatives ought to be able to discern the outlines of libertarians' view of us. The debate is seen as between rational people who wish to ensure the greatest degree of individual freedom and religious nuts picking through "various collections of written words" (also referred to as scriptures, texts, or books) pondering how best to correct God's error of granting free will. If these are the sides, then perhaps it is reasonable to propose trading a state-by-state reformulation of the pivotal institution of marriage for the opportunity to take that first step to theocracy: forcing children to stand quietly for a few moments.

Posted by Justin Katz at 4:24 PM | Comments (1)

October 25, 2004

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Randian

Now, I'm not declaring that any views ought to be banned from the opinion pages, or even that any particular attitude of expression ought to be banned. I'm not denying that providers of argumentation ought to challenge their readers, sometimes even offering them the other side in unvarnished form. After all, once upon a time, the Providence Journal published a strongly worded piece of mine that its targets would surely find offensive. Still, I find myself wondering what the thought processes were that landed Harry Binswanger's assault on the Ten Commandments within that same paper's pages.

That said, excerpts can't capture the permeating turns of phrase designed to cast scorn toward the religious, and I'd prefer to take on Binswanger's ideas, such as they are. Read the full piece to judge for yourself whether it deserved publication. Here's the essence of the rhetorical case:

In sum, the first set of commandments orders you to bow, fawn, grovel and obey. This is impossible to reconcile with the American concept of a self-reliant, self-owning individual.

The middle commandment, "Honor thy father and mother," is manifestly unjust. Justice demands that you honor those who deserve honor, who have earned it by their choices and actions. ...

The second set of commandments is unobjectionable but common to virtually every organized society -- the commandments against murder, theft, perjury and the like. But what is objectionable is the notion that there is no rational, earthly basis for refraining from criminal behavior, that it is only the not-to-be-questioned decree of a supernatural Punisher that makes acts like theft and murder wrong.

The basic philosophy of the Ten Commandments is the polar opposite of the philosophy underlying the American ideal of a free society. Freedom requires: a metaphysics of the natural -- not the supernatural; of free will -- not determinism; of the primary reality of the individual -- not the tribe or the family; an epistemology of individual thought, applying strict logic, based on individual perception of reality -- not obedience and dogma; an ethics of rational self-interest, to achieve chosen values, for the purpose of individual happiness on this earth -- not fearful, dutiful appeasement of "a jealous God" who issues "commandments."

Rather than the Ten Commandments, the actual grounding for American values is that captured by Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged: "If I were to speak your kind of language, I would say that man's only moral commandment is: Thou shalt think. But a 'moral commandment' is a contradiction in terms. The moral is the chosen, not the forced; the understood, not the obeyed. The moral is the rational, and reason accepts no commandments."

I like that last line. Apart from the circularity — rationality is sufficient to derive morality, because morality is rationality — how perfect a blind assertion of radical libertarians' central flaw!

The moral is the rational, and reason accepts no commandments.

Thou shalt follow no commandments! Presumably, that includes such "commandments" by which rationality and reason are defined. In that case, what could it possibly mean to apply "strict logic" in a world that bends to "the primary reality of the individual"? Petitio principii? Sorry, bub, not in my reality. Justice demands that I honor my mother and father because they've earned it? Well (the impulse-driven rationalization might go), they'd deserve honor if they'd just stop trying to rope me into helping them with irrational appeals to my status as their "son."

With a nod toward Binswanger's offense at the suggestion that his ideology is inadequate to construct a moral society, let's accept that murder and theft are wrong by definition. "Refraining from criminal behavior" is entirely rational in an "earthly" way; the question is, what behavior ought to be criminal? Sure, it's easy to see that murder is wrong, but what is murder and what is licit killing?

Preborn, or even pre-rational, humans can't express their desire to live, or even their awareness that they are alive. May they be killed? Some might argue that the elderly and disabled drain resources in order to maintain lives that they illogically consider worth preservation. Fair to say "no"? Maybe it isn't theft to commandeer the property of those who devote their resources to imposing on others' freedoms by asserting religious morality in the public sphere; maybe it's "justice."

As I've said of Binswanger before, in tangential context, the option he favors is essentially "unlimited minority rule." Such people have striven to layer abstruse concepts to disguise the conclusion toward which their ideology leads. But a "metaphysics of the natural" becomes an epistemology of determinism dictated by the powerful in the form of chosen values serving a rational self-interest that follows a strict logic that the rest of us are too dense to comprehend. In short:

Let me do whatever I want. To do otherwise would be unacceptably irrational, because there's no rational reason to restrict me.

And thou shalt not be irrational.

Posted by Justin Katz at 1:49 PM | Comments (2)