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Libertarians and Atheists: A Dangerous Mix

Mar 19, 2007

Not all atheists are civil libertarians, and not all libertarians are atheists. But much like salt and pepper, more often than not they go together. A good case in point is Australian columnist Phillip Adams. He is both a card-carrying atheist and a die-hard civil libertarian. Such a mix usually spells trouble.

That was the case this weekend in his latest column. In a piece entitled “Ban it and watch it flourish,” (Weekend Australian, 17-18 March, 2007) he sought to make the case that prohibitions of just about anything are counterproductive, a waste of time, and not much fun either.

He begins with these words: “PROHIBITION doesn’t work. Didn’t work for grog. Doesn’t work for drugs. Failed with porn. Hopeless with ideas. Not only does prohibition not work, it’s entirely counterproductive.”

Thanks for those brilliant insights, Phillip. However, a slight paraphrase, if you don’t mind: “PROHIBITION doesn’t work. Didn’t work for pedophilia. Doesn’t work for traffic lights. Failed with guns. Hopeless with terrorism. Not only does prohibition not work, it’s entirely counterproductive.”

The truth is, prohibition works well on a lot of things, and that’s good news. Bad things should be banned, pure and simple. But that doesn’t suit Mr Adams. He further seeks to make his case in this fashion: “Taboo or not taboo? If you want to promote something, persuade the church or state to condemn it or, better still, ban it.” Actually he is amiss on several counts here.

A more accurate way of describing how governments can increase (or decrease) something goes like this: the more a government taxes something, the less you will tend to have of it. And the more a government subsidises something, the more you are likely to have of it. An example of the former is high-taxing nations that discourage work and productivity, while an example of the latter is the welfare state, where government largess encourages more and more people on to more and more welfare-dependency.

Moreover, both the state and religious groups condemn many things, and want to see many things banned or prohibited: murder, rape, and so on. The fact that these things are discouraged or banned by the state clearly does not mean they are increasing. Indeed, rates of these activities would surely be much higher if they were legalised. Thus seeking to discourage certain behaviours and activities is both a good idea and a practical one.

But Adams claims it just does not work on things such as drugs, alcohol and the like. Well, let’s look at those issues briefly. Take the matter of drugs. One of the nations with the lowest usage of illicit drugs in the Western world is Sweden, because it has one of the toughest, just-say-no approaches to drugs.

In Australia by contrast, which has a much weaker policy (really based on the harm-minimisation model) illicit drug use is much higher. The data bears this out quite clearly. Consider just a few figures: around 4 per cent of Australian adults use amphetamines, compared to just 0.2 per cent of Swedes. And 13 per cent of Australians use cannabis compared to 2 per cent of Swedes.

Prohibition and get tough policies work, in other words. Legalisation or weak enforcement policies however result in more such activity. So Adams is simply wrong here.

And even Prohibition in the US, much maligned by the libertarians, was not such a failure. It had many good results: consumption of alcohol declined substantially, as did the cirrhosis death rate for men (cut by two-thirds between 1911 and 1929), and arrests for public drunkenness dropped 50 per cent between 1919 and 1922.

The bottom line for many libertarians is that they simply want their various ‘pleasures,’ be it consumption of porn or drugs or free sex, and they don’t want anyone denying them their right to get all they can. Of course whether we have a right to such things as porn is another matter. But for many libertarians, talk of freedom of speech and other red herrings are used to justify a life of self-indulgence and hedonism.

Fortunately for this nation most of our intellectualoids only pen silly columns, and don’t govern our people or make our laws. If they did we would all be up the creek. Our libertarian gurus would likely have us all enjoying snuff films beamed into our homes 24/7; there would be heroin sold in Kmarts, child porn delivered with the junk mail, and terrorist manuals available in our school libraries.

Such extreme scenarios may not be all that far-fetched for some of these libertarians – or rather, libertines – who want no restraints on their appetites, no constraints on their lusts, and no checks on their selfishness. But no nation can long last that gives in to such irresponsible and reckless behaviour.

As the Apostle Paul so rightly warned, “in the last days perilous times shall come. For men will be lovers of their own selves … lovers of pleasures rather than lovers of God” (2 Timothy 3:1-4). That sounds like a pretty good description of where we are at today.

www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,20867,21395008-12272,00.html

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8 Responses to Libertarians and Atheists: A Dangerous Mix

  • The civil libertarians may dominate the MSM, and write the pen-silly columns, but they infest the justice system, both on the bench and at the bar, so that criminals are not punished.
    Indeed, so often the criminal is out of jail before his victim is out of hospital; and now plain thuggery is rewarded, as with the S-11 protesters getting $700,000, all courtesy of the civil libertarians.
    And then these same do-gooders complain about the rise of vigilantism!
    Murray Adamthwaite

  • Thanks Murray
    Yes there is no question that civil libertarians are not confined to the media, but are well ensconced in many other areas: academia, the judiciary, politics, etc.
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Murray said:
    “Indeed, so often the criminal is out of jail before his victim is out of hospital; …”

    Whilst I agree with your overall point, I suggest that we take care with over-statements – they can come back to bite us, especially if wielded by a libertine respondent.

    I would add to Bill’s reply that such folk often choose research-type positions where they have access to lots of data. Then they can play various games such as “I’m an expert” and “Blinding the masses with [pseudo-]science” to reinforce their case.

    His list (to which I would add the bureaucracies, separately from politics) covers all the major research-driven callings apart from advertising.

    John Angelico

  • The title was somewhat misleading. Civil libertarians are often opposed to libertarian philosophy, which usually means a very free market.
    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  • Bill,

    You have used the term “libertarian” throughout your piece as if it means the same thing as “civil libertarian”, when they have entirely different connotations.

    And how can you justify the sweeping generalisations and disparaging comments you make about civil libertarians? Civil liberties include freedom of association, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, the right to due process, the right to a fair trial and the right to privacy. Surely you don’t oppose these rights? Would you prefer an authoritarian society?

    I’m also at a loss to understand your headline. You haven’t explained why civil liberties and atheism are a dangerous mix. Your assertions about snuff films, child porn, heroin in K-mart etc. are exaggerations.

    Daniel Farrelly, Sydney

  • Thanks Daniel

    Yes, the term ‘libertarian’ has different connotations, so further clarification is needed. There are at least three main understandings of the word. One has to do simply with the belief in freedom of the will, in a more philosophical and theological sense. That is not my concern here.

    A second understanding is more of a political one. It refers to those who want maximum liberty and a minimum amount of regulation, especially on moral and cultural issues. John Stuart Mill of course comes to mind here (or, as in this case, Phillip Adams). Anarchists would be the extreme version, but civil libertarians tend to want no restrictions on such things as human sexuality, drug use, pornography, absolute freedom of speech, and so on. Thus they tend to oppose all forms of censorship. Their views are often quite at odds with those of cultural conservatives.

    The third main usage refers to economic libertarianism, as in various free market ideologies, laissez-faire capitalism, etc. Names such as Hayek and Friedman would be included here. Cultural conservatives have less problems here, and tend to be advocates of the free market as well. But there can still be tensions.

    For what it is worth, I am a cultural conservative, and generally supportive of free-market economics. But I realize that often unbridled capitalism can work against some of my conservative principles. Thus I am not happy the way the corporate world targets kids, say in suggestive clothing and the like. As another example, I would generally agree with someone like Friedman on preferring capitalism over socialism, but would disagree with him on the issue of drug legalization.

    The items you list in your second paragraph are what might be properly called the features of classical liberalism. Of course I support all of these, and see no problem with them. They are not to be confused with the demands of the radical civil libertarians however

    As to the headline, yes I could have used something else, perhaps something more clear. And I did try to suggest that there is often a connection between non-believers and civil libertarianism (in the second sense of the term).

    As to those examples, I did say they were “extreme scenarios”.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Bill,

    Thanks for clarifying your views, but I still disagree with your terminology. Your “second understanding” of civil liberties is a very narrow one. Most civil liberties groups in Australia with which I am familiar embrace the full spectrum of freedoms that you call “classical liberalism” and are not concerned purely with “moral issues”.

    I also challenge your generalisation that “civil libertarians tend to want no restrictions on such things as human sexuality, drug use, pornography, absolute freedom of speech”. I don’t know of any civil libertarians who are absolutist in these matters. The more usual position is to recognise that there are limits to freedom of speech, child pornography and incitement to violence being common examples.

    I also find it puzzling that you think social conservatives would be comfortable with fiscal libertarianism, which is a rather extreme and essentially impractical free market ideology. The unbiblical “God helps those who help themselves” is at odds with much of Christian belief, e.g. Isaiah 25:4 “For You have been a defense for the helpless, a defense for the needy in his distress, a refuge from the storm, a shade from the heat…”

    And you have yet to explain why (civil) libertarianism and atheism are a “dangerous mix”.

    Daniel Farrelly

  • Thanks Daniel

    I don’t think I need to belabour these points. As to free markets and conservatism, the two are often found together, but with tensions, as I said. I certainly prefer the capitalist option over the socialist one, and I think Scripture does too. That is not to argue that complete laissez faire economics is without problems.

    No one denies that care for the poor and oppressed is biblical. What is disputed is the best economic and political means of dealing with these problems. I think statism, welfarism and socialism are not the best options here, and that generally speaking, the free market set up best deals with these issues. But if you want more on that, I will have to pen yet another article for yet another day!

    Finally, as should be clear from now, I find radical civil libertarianism to be of real concern, or dangerous, and I also find atheism to be so. So if both are combined in one person or one ideology, I just see double trouble, that’s all. As I said, a better title could have been used.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

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