Libertarianism: Left and Right —

Libertarianism: Left and Right — I just ran across an essay, “What Libertarianism Isn’t” by Ed Feser, on, written in the wake of the “cultural libertarianism” debate instigated by Jonah Goldberg. In his essay, Feser argues that libertarianism, the right, and traditional morality fit hand in glove, and that folks like Nick Gillespie of Reason have made a big mistake in celebrating transgressive pop culture, and in extending a hand to the cultural left instead of remaining monogamously wedded to the right. I think Feser’s position is badly mistaken. We need to spread the love around!

My comments below will make much more sense if you read Feser first.

One of Feser’s main contentions is that:

There is, in particular, nothing in libertarianism that entails that one ought to be in the least bit hostile to or even suspicious of traditional morality or traditional moralists. There is thus no reason whatsoever why libertarians and conservatives ought to be divided over the question of traditional morality.

No reason whatsoever?I find it fantastic to suggest, as Feser does, that libertarianism and traditional morality are cozily complementary. It’s not far wrong to say the whole history of humankind has been characterized by affronts to liberty in the name of morality. A morality that forbids the coercive enforcement of moral norms is traditional morality in rather the way punk is traditional music. Sure, it’s now part of the scene, it’s got a history, and a culture has grown up around it, but the history is short, the culture is young, and only a spate of people care much about it. Funny sort of tradition, that. In order to get libertarianism and genuinely traditional morality to fit together, one must dismantle traditional morality and extract one of the mainsprings–the part that says it is morally permissible and often obligatory to compel people with the threat of violence to meet their moral obligations. Once you’ve put things back together again, you haven’t anything traditional in the normal sense of the word.

Feser argues that Nick, Virginia, and folks like myself present a false alternative. One can either choose traditional morality and coercion, or weak-kneed amoralism and freedom, “as if there were no third position, viz. that of those who reject the use of state power to enforce traditional morality, but are nevertheless critical of those who flaunt it.” Well, it looks to me like Feser’s giving us a false alternative: either traditional morality or none at all. But there’s always non-traditional morality, and that’s what I would defend (and what I read Nick to be defending). I’d argue that the correct moral theory is a modestly relativistic individualism. Relativistic because the good life varies from person to person. Modest because the range of possible good lives is limited by biology and experiential development. And I’m certainly willing to make strong moral judgments about people and policies that interfere with our ability to discover and pursue the best kind of lives for ourselves.

Now, it strikes me that Feser’s missing the implicit argument of Reason after its cultural turn. The argument is that libertarianism supports free-markets (among other things). Markets in fact give rise to an active consumer culture. Consumer culture provides people with the ability to pick among a variety of lifestyles and modes of expression, and to develop an individualized style and sense of identity that contributes to a more satisfying life than could otherwise be had. Because modestly relativistic individualism is true, this is a great moral boon. Capitalist consumer culture helps us to search the space of possible good lives, and thus makes it easier to discover the best kind of life for ourselves. However, commercial culture does in fact tend to undermine traditional morality. Traditional morality does in fact tend to be authoritarian and express itself politically. (Whether or not it must “in principle,” it does). And, proponents of traditional morality do in fact react to challenges to traditional morality with coercive limits on markets and freedom. Because libertarianism defends markets, markets produce consumer culture, and consumer culture undermines traditional morality, libertarianism and traditional morality really are at odds. Most conservatives understand this, and that’s why they are antagonistic to libertarianism.

Feser argues strenuously that traditionally sexual and family morality are a necessary part of the good and free society. He ridiculously asserts that “everybody knows this.” It turns out that what everybody knows it that we must maintain a social ethos that abhors adultery, divorce, pre-marital sex, (homosexuality?), and pornography. And we all know that we’ve got to drop the ruse that marriage might be a vehicle for personal satisfaction, and just suck it up and sacrifice ourselves for the kids.

Let’s just suppose, thankfully contrary to fact, that Feser is right about this. He needs to deliver some goods before he can claim a coherent position. First, he needs to show us how it is possible to put these norms into place without employing coercive means. And he needs to argue, against the history of the world, that a society where such norms were dominant would not use coercive means to defend them against the inevitably corrosive forces of consumer culture. I don’t think he can deliver. Indeed, I think he’s caught in a bad dilemma. If we don’t have strong families, then (says Feser) we don’t have a bulwark against the state. And we don’t have strong families unless we’ve got traditional sexual morality. But markets undermine traditional sexual morality. So either we have to use the state to protect traditional sexual morality or we lose the protection against the state that the family affords. But if we have to use the state to preserve our bulwark against the state, then the point of having the bulwark is vitiated. I think Feser’s right about the importance of intermediary institutions, but I think he’s wrong that they’ve got to be traditional family and religion, and so I don’t think there’s really a problem. But I think he‘s got a problem.

Several times Feser asserts that we’ve experienced serious moral decline of late. I flat out disagree. I think we’ve experienced serious (net) moral advance. (The left is responsible for a little, the right is responsible for a little, and the market is responsible for most.) This is really the nub of the issue between conservative and progressive libertarians. Feser argues that libertarians and conservatives are joined in their picture of the dignity of man, while the left sees humans as “little more than clever animals, or as cogs in a vast social machine, helpless victims of forces beyond their control.” The most one can really get out of this is the suspicion that Feser sees lots of conservatives socially, and finds that he can fit in by spouting demeaning falsehoods about the left. The claim’s just ridiculous on the face of it. One need only be awake to observe that great swaths of the right explicitly avow that human beings are fundamentally flawed, corrupt and base creatures, who are undeserving of love and salvation, but get it anyway from an inscrutable, magical being. I don’t see the dignity in that. And, to look at the other side of it, much of the left is evidently animated by a genuine belief in human dignity and the value of each person, and genuinely care (often rather more than the glib right) about issues of exploitation and dehumanization, although they are more often mistaken about the causes.

I’m sure that libertarianism won’t get far culturally without the help of the cultural arbiters — the artists, media and literary intellectuals. And we have no hope of gaining their help without showing how libertarianism has interesting things to say about the issues they care about, and how libertarianism best supports the kinds of lives they themselves want to live. Conservatives have always been as great a threat to personal liberty as liberals have been a threat to the market. Once it is shown that libertarianism and traditional morality are indeed in serious tension, it is worse than arbitrary to suggest that libertarians should remain locked up in a room with the right. Of course, the company we keep is up to each of us, and if we want to consign ourselves to irrelevance, that’s a choice we are free to make.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center