I frequently find myself in total agreement with libertarians. This has caused quite a bit of self-examination and considering whether I fundamentally agree with libertarianism. After all, it is a simple, consistent, principled approach that I usually agree with. But in certain situations I am irreconcilably at odds with the libertarian position..
I figured there were a few possibilities why this might be so. Perhaps I was entirely wrong – maybe there actually isn’t anything wrong with things like prostitution or homosexuality. Perhaps I was leaving facts out of a libertarian analysis that, if present, would lead to the conclusion I agreed with – maybe, if I considered the question of pornography just right, I could evaluate it with a libertarian principle and demostrate that pornography was wrong. Or maybe libertarianism was fundamentally flawed – maybe drug abuse and obscenity and polygamy are just immoral despite what any political philosophy says.
Was I just entirely wrong when I disagreed with the libertarian position? I do my best to base my beliefs on the Bible. I am what most people would call a fundamentalist Christian. I believe the Bible is the inerrant, inspired word of God. So if the Bible says X, but my logic dictates ~X, it is my conviction that my logic is flawed. My faith is more significant to me than my philosophies or logic. Where the libertarian position differs from the Bible’s teachings, I will choose the Bible’s teaching every time even if it doesn’t make perfect sense to me. So I have to reject the notion that I am just wrong, because that would mean the Bible was wrong, and that is an unacceptable view for me.
But maybe I was leaving out something that would cause a libertarian analysis to produce results consistent with my Biblical (and often Jacksonian) morality. I thought about that one for months. I can make a somewhat reasonable case for a libertarian to still oppose things like prostitution or drug abuse. But still, it wasn’t a solid enough position for me, and there were cases when, try as I might, I could not make libertarianism agree with the Bible.
That left me with the conclusion that libertarianism is fundamentally flawed, and insufficient to use as an ethical compass. (It may be quite sufficient as a political philosophy, but the relationship of politics/laws and morals/ethics is for another day). I have three reasons for this belief.
First, libertarianism is too ambiguous. The only restriction on one’s behavior is essentially “don’t hurt anybody”. But the definition of hurting someone is too vague.
If you use a strict definition such as “hurting someone means causing them financial, emotional, or physical injury”, then you are left trying to justify indefensible behaviors. Does it emotionally, economically or physically injure someone for a voyeur to secretly watch them? No, of course not. The voyeur is just looking (no physical harm), no money is involved (no financial harm), and the victim is unaware of the voyeurism (so no emotional harm is possible). But I don’t think Peeping Toms are going to be defended by much of anybody.
But what if you use a loose definition of hurting someone – say, a definition that includes “violation of rights”? Does a Peeping Tom hurt someone by violating their right to privacy? Sure. But what other rights might someone have that my actions would violate?
Do people have a right to not be offended? Then I don’t have freedom of speech. A right to feel safe? That’s a recipe for a repressive police state.
A libertarian would argue that one does not have the right to not be offended, or the right to feel safe. But on what grounds? Because the libertarian says so? As far as I’m aware, libertarianism does not provide an adequate explanation of what constitutes harm, and why some rights exist but others don’t. It is arbitrary to say that my right to carry a gun trumps your right to feel safe and that you don’t have a right to feel safe anyway. Says who? Without an objective, internal standard, libertarianism is too ambiguous.
Second, libertarianism is frequently too simplistic. It fails to account for the interconnected lives of all members of a society – “no man is an island”. But some of what others do will affect me, even indirectly. This is known as unintended consequences, and is especially relevant as the number of people making a particular decision grows. Libertarianism doesn’t scale well.
As an example, let’s suppose my neighbor opens an “adult entertainment” establishment in his living room. Does he have the right to do it, according to libertarians? Sure. But what are the unintended consequences to me? What sort of people now begin to frequent the area? Has the risk to my family increased? I think most people would say so. I have been indirectly harmed. My proximity to my neighbor gives me some stake in his decisions that can’t simply be ignored.
Libertarianism also fails to account for the context and relationship among a person’s various actions. Correlations (not necessarily causality, though) can be shown, for example, between using pornography and the commission of violent sexual crimes. Is looking at porn evil according to libertarianism? If you isolate it from future actions, then no. But when you take many related actions together, they may collectively be shown to be evil even though individually many of them would not appear to be.
This is like the paradox discussed by Catherine and Ed in I.Q., where she explains that it’s impossible for him to cross the room to her. She suggests that at each step, he moves half the distance between himself and her. At each step, he’d still have a distance, even if it were very tiny, to cross. Consequently, he could never get to her. (This is a form of Zeno’s Paradox of the Tortoise and Achilles). You cannot always evaluate miniscule actions in isolation.
Finally, libertarianism sometimes produces answers that most anyone would clearly see are incorrect. Consider the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Both the priest and Levite passed by the injured man. Did they harm him? No. When they left, he was in exactly the same situation as before they came by, and the same as if they hadn’t come by at all.
But who could defend the actions of the priest and Levite as moral? It’s quite clear that they were wrong to refuse to help this man, just as wrong as Kitty Genovese’s neighbors.
While I regularly agree with libertarians on many issues, and perhaps I frequently look, sound, and act like one, I am not a libertarian. I believe the libertarian approach has a place in a broader, perhaps eclectic, ethical system. It answers many amoral questions quite well. But in my opinion, libertarianism does not provide a sufficient ethical approach to making moral decisions. As a Christian, I am called to a higher standard, also known as the Golden Rule. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is far superior to “do what you will, harm none”.