Libertarianism’s Poison Pill

by Robert Arvay

Libertarianism is the political equivalent of a brightly colored fruit. It may taste sweet, but lurking within, there is poison. No sooner does one taste of the libertarian ideology, than immediately he discovers both its sweetness and its bitterness, both its appeal to social conservatives, and its unacceptable liberal implications. Yet despite that, it remains a tempting political force, one that is attracting an increasing number of followers.

In light of that, the important question for social-issues conservatives is this:  how must one navigate the waters of libertarian thought? How does one reach its safe harbor of freedom, while avoiding its treacherous currents of libertine excess? How does one apply libertarianism’s strengths without adopting its weaknesses?

One must begin by identifying exactly what libertarianism is, and what it is not.

At first glance, to the uninitiated, libertarianism appears to be merely a hodge-podge of eclectic policy positions, with no internal consistency. For example, on the one hand, it advocates lower taxes, smaller government and strong property rights. So far, that is appealing to conservatives. But on the other hand, it also supports gay rights, legalizing recreational narcotic drugs, and permitting prostitution, all of which are anathema to the social right on moral grounds.

How does one make sense of this?

What is important to understand about libertarian thought is that it is not, in fact, a hodge-podge. Its individual policy positions are not eclectic, but rather, consistent with its central theme of individual liberty and personal freedoms. This central theme is the part of it which is very attractive to conservatives of all stripes. And it is also the part which makes it sometimes awkward to seemingly oppose individual liberties in favor of conservative social values.

To win this argument with Libertarians, social conservatives must first understand, and then clarify, their views on why small government must remain small, while at the same time, government must sometimes seem to intrude, (as liberals are fond to say), into the bedrooms of private citizens.

This conservative argument is not ready made. There is no one-liner that can encapsulate it. Indeed, many a social conservative stumbles around in embarrassment for an answer to the libertarian’s strongest arguments. He knows that his social-conservative principles are correct. But against the sharpened tip of the libertarian sword, the conservative shield seems insufficient to ward off the piercingly logical arguments of (what seems to be) a hybrid of liberal and conservative thought, the best of both worlds.

But although the argument for social conservatism is not simplistic, it is strong, indeed, much stronger than the cases for either liberalism or libertarianism.

It is not simple, because social conservatism is a product of the values that have shaped our nation and our Constitution for thousands of years prior to the present day. A religious analogy will illustrate the point:

Beginning with the exodus of Moses and the Israelites from Egypt, Western culture has always been about freedom. But it has never been about license. Freedom from slavery under Pharoah did not evolve into freedom to worship the golden calf. To use a secular analogy, freedom of speech does not include the freedom to commit fraud.

For freedom is not merely a right, it is also a responsibility. With the freedom from tyranny comes the duty to do good. Were it otherwise, the Declaration of Independence might well eliminate the words, “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” and substitute instead, “permitted by their government to exercise certain negotiable rights.”

For, without acknowledging that human rights come from the Supreme Being, one concedes that all human rights are conditional upon whatever is the current structure of power, the particular fad of the moment. Subjective rights are not rights at all, but merely temporary, revocable privileges.

To recognize that human rights come from God is to affirm that there is a God, and that His commandments are not subordinate to the whimsy of men, but are absolute and eternal.

In short, the written Constitution embodies the highest ideals of thousands of years of Western civilization and culture. It embodies them, it is founded upon them, but it does not replace them. This is why John Adams wrote that. “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

If the Constitution could stand apart from the centuries of context which gave rise to it, then it could be imposed upon any nation, with exemplary results. But it is clear from history and from current events as well, that no document can transform an unjust nation into a just one. No embodiment of ideals can save a people who do not share those ideals. Were it otherwise, the US Constitution could have been forced upon the nations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and today they would be shining examples of religious freedom. Sadly, they remain dark examples of religious intolerance and sectarian brutality, where women are oppressed, and free speech is stifled.

It is vital then, to understand and embrace not only the written words of the Constitution itself, but also its underlying values. Those words are indispensable, but they are an edifice which rests upon an equally indispensable moral foundation.

To be sure, the religious foundations of the Constitution must never be twisted so as to institute a state religion. But neither must those foundations be undermined with imported values that are in contradiction to the Constitution. Sharia law is, for example, a deadly injection into the national culture, a perverse distortion of religious freedom. The determined and persistent efforts to slip it into civil law must be aggressively countered.

And also to be sure, there is much room for debate as to which social conservative values should be enshrined into written law, and which should not. It is wisely said that morality cannot be legislated.

But it is equally true that immorality can indeed be legislated, and many laws do just that. Forcing landlords to rent to unmarried couples, forcing professional photographers to accommodate homosexual weddings, and requiring pharmacists to supply abortifacent drugs are just a few examples that come quickly to mind.

In the near future, licensing of brothels, clean injection centers for drug addicts, and a requirement that grade schools teach homosexual propaganda, will likely be enacted. To varying degrees, they already have been.

Libertarian thought provides no reliable remedy to the social poisons that society is ingesting. Its values may be those of freedom, but they are also the values of the golden calf.

Libertarianism has much to recommend it. But a poison lurks within it, and only clear thinking can save us from that.

3 thoughts on “Libertarianism’s Poison Pill

  1. I think an easier way to see the twisted thinking of some Libertarians is to understand the main role of government. That is to protect life (HUMAN life). Thus protecting people from termination (abortion) falls into this role. But also protecting people from their own destruction, such as drug addiction (causing health problems, mental problems and death), homosexual behaviour addiction and other sexual addictions (causing all sorts of health problems).In addition, Libertarians should also include in the equation the COST to society of health care related to addictin (sexual, drugs, smoking, alcohol, etc.).Once all of that is understood, then a Libertarian is a small c conservative.

  2. I think that Libertarians fail to recognize the critical role of family in society. In a completely libertarian society, there would be no marriage per se. It would be granted no special status in law. And look. Since about the 1940s (give or take), divorce has become the norm, out of wedlock cohabitation is protected under the law, and single motherhood has become a plague, resulting in poverty and criminality. In this area, Libertarian thought has prevailed, and the results are devastating to individuals and to society as a whole. It is difficult to predict what will happen when one abandons social mores. The results take years to become manifest. But they are inexorable.

  3. I think that Libertarians fail to recognize the critical role of family in societyRight on point Robert. While it has some good points it is an extreme of an extreme …..

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