Libertarianism and Marriage, Part One

I am not a libertarian. I am a conservative. While both favour small or limited government, libertarians have a radically different view on cultural and moral matters. Thus there is a big difference between the two, as I have explained elsewhere:

As a Christian I find myself more or less at home with conservatism, but libertarianism tends to leave me cold. There is far too much immorality and amorality being passed off as freedom in the libertarian world: legalised drugs, legalised porn, legalised prostitution, legalised abortion, and so on.

I believe there is a legitimate role for the state to play in some of these areas, and open slather in all these areas is far more harmful than helpful. But again I discuss this in more detail elsewhere, eg.:

For these reasons I cannot be an avid Ayn Rand fan:

For that matter, I am no great fan of Ron Paul either. Here is not the place to go into detail on this, so three quotes will have to suffice. Josh Craddock, speaking of abortion, rightly states, “By elevating the 10th Amendment, Ron Paul ignores the federal government’s Fifth and 14th Amendment duty to protect the lives of all Americans from state tyranny. We must remember that the relationship between national and state governments is irrelevant to fundamental moral issues. No level of government – whether local, state, or federal – has the authority to permit the murder of innocents.”

Alan Keyes says, “Ron Paul is touted by his supporters as a strong, principled defender of the U.S. Constitution. But the states’ rights doctrine he articulates is not based on the principle of residual sovereignty exemplified by the Constitution’s Tenth Amendment. It is based instead on a libertarian ideology that ignores the God revering premises of constitutional self-government. This ideology falsely conflates decent liberty with licentious individual freedom. It self-destructively confuses Constitutional government based on the sovereign right of the people, with Confederate government based on a specious notion of States’ ‘rights’ which illogically includes the right to do wrong. It derives these specious rights by asserting at the State level an unlimited ‘popular sovereignty’ that casts aside the republican idea of government limited by respect for God-endowed unalienable rights.”

Or as Matt Barber stated, “Mr. Paul is many things, but conservative is not one of them. He’s a died-in-the-wool libertarian. That’s one part conservative, two parts anarchist. Ronald Reagan often spoke of a ‘three-legged stool’ that undergirds true conservatism. The legs are represented by strong free-market economic principles, a strong national defense and strong social values. For the stool to remain upright, it must be supported by all three legs. If you snap off even one leg, the stool collapses under its own weight. Mr. Paul is relatively conservative from an economic standpoint, but in true libertarian form, has snapped off the legs of national defense and social values.”

But enough of Paul in particular. Let me just say a tad more about libertarianism in general, after which I will tie all this into the issue of marriage, and the fight over same-sex marriage. A recent piece on a great website has provided ten reasons why Catholic philosopher Nathan Schlueter is not a libertarian.

The entire piece is well worth reading, but let me highlight just a few of his points. In his introduction he says this: “Libertarians are good at explaining why the market works and why government fails, and they have made important policy initiatives in areas such as school choice. On the other hand, they actively oppose laws prohibiting obscenity, protecting unborn children, promoting marriage, limiting immigration, and securing American citizens against terrorists. These positions flow from core principles that have more in common with modern liberalism than with the American founding, and which threaten to erode our constitutional order even further.

“The attraction of libertarianism is also its main defect: it offers neat solutions to complex problems. Unfortunately, reality is far more complex than libertarians acknowledge. Only conservatism offers principles adequate to that reality.”

He examines the notion of the common good. “Common goods are not substantial entities standing over and against individual persons; they are the good of individual persons. But this does not mean common goods are always divisible into individual shares, like a cake. An orchestra, a marriage, an army cannot be divided without being destroyed. Within such associations individual persons exist as bandmates, spouses, and soldiers.

“The common good of the political association consists in the ensemble of conditions in which persons and associations can more easily flourish. These are nicely summarized in the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States: ‘to . . . establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity’.”

He also looks at the “harm principle” of J. S. Mill. “As a moral claim, the harm principle is not neutral with respect to competing conceptions of the good. Underlying it is the conviction that the good for human beings is to live according to one’s own conception of what is good, and to live in a society in which that freedom is protected. For the sake of this conception of the good, it requires the repeal of legislation enacted by those with a different conception of the good. It thus deprives them of their right to choose and live according to their own conception of the good. In effect, libertarians wish to compel other persons with whom they disagree to live in a society that these others find, often with very good reason, to be hostile to human flourishing.

“Further, the harm principle is neither self-evident nor demonstrably true. It certainly cannot apply to children and mental incompetents, as Mill himself knew, and this concession significantly undermines the principle.

“The greatest objection, however, is the narrow construction Mill gives to it. For him, as for other libertarians, the principle only applies to bodily harm. But why deny the existence of moral harm? If it is true that some actions are intrinsically self-destructive or self-corrupting, then it is also true that encouraging such actions can cause harm to others. Prostitutes, panders, pushers, and pimps all profit from the moral corruption of others. Why should society be forced to treat these actions with indifference because of a questionable moral claim like the harm principle?”

And he assesses the oft-heard objection that ‘virtue cannot be coerced’: “Coercive law cannot make people virtuous. But it can assist or thwart individuals in making themselves virtuous. Law is both coercive and expressive. Not only does it shape behavior by attaching to it penalties or rewards; it also helps shape attitudes, understandings, and character. Libertarians who doubt this point can examine the difference in attitudes toward racial discrimination in America before and after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or the availability of pornographic materials before and after Roth v. United States (1957), or the stability of marriage before and after the introduction of no-fault divorce laws in the 1970s. The law, both by prohibition and by silence, is a powerful signal of acceptable behavior, and thus a powerful influence on character. When the behavior in question involves moral norms that are consequential for the rest of society, it is a proper object of law.

“This is not to say that the law must prohibit every vice or mandate every virtue, as libertarians often suggest. Aristotle, Aquinas, the Declaration itself all make clear that ‘prudence will dictate’ whether the costs outweigh the benefits in concrete circumstances (e.g., difficulty of enforcement; more pressing needs with scarce resources; the danger of encouraging underground crime, etc.). But this is prudence in the service of principle, not mere pragmatism.”

All ten of his points deserve a close reading. But with this foundation in place, I now want to look at the libertarian claim that the state should have no interest in marriage, and it should not concern itself with the debate over same-sex marriage.

How are those concerned about the institution of marriage, and the homosexual attacks on it, to assess the libertarian position on this? That will be the subject of Part Two of this article:

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5 Replies to “Libertarianism and Marriage, Part One”

  1. Bill

    Some of this makes sense but it concerns me that your definition of conservatism = federal legislation. I don’t think that is what the historical definition of conservatism was ever supposed to be. Conservatives believe that moral authority is *dispersed* where you seem to want it centralised.

    But I am happy to be corrected if I have gotten you wrong.

    I probably lean more towards libertarianism on matters of drug taking, marriage, and pornography but on abortion, obscenity, etc, I would side with you over Paul because these are grave intrusions (in the first instance its murder) into people’s private lives.

    But legalisation doesn’t not equate with moral approval. I would still take drug abuse, pornography, and most instances of divorce as immoral. But I believe society needs to use methods (I.e. shame) other than federal power to combat them.

    Damien Spillane

  2. Thanks Damian

    But I of course nowhere say ‘conservatism = federal legislation’. I did say I am first of all a Christian, so I cannot be an anarchist or radical libertarian. God ordained the state to maintain justice at the very least. If the US Constitution for example says it is primarily about the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, then a basic function of government must ensure justice for all people – the first step being of course the protection of life. So there is a solid case for a constitutional protection of innocent life.

    And in a more general sense governments have some minimum responsibilities to promote the common good and help maintain the moral ecology of a society. Sure, there will be debates as to how that all manifests itself in terms of law and so on, but a biblical Christian cannot be a radical libertarian who champions only individualism at the expense of the community.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  3. Dear Bill,

    I notice your discussion of libertarianism brings in John Stuart Mill’s concept of liberty as primarily a secular, civil, individualist entity. I assume that what Aussies call “small ‘l’ liberals” owe much of their ideas on liberty to Mill’s essay on that topic. Biblical liberty is built on the work of God as Redeemer, Lawgiver and Judge of all the earth… Ultimate liberty is paradoxically found by bowing the knee to one Lord. Imperfect human gropings after liberty will be eclipsed when Christ establishes His Messianic kingdom on earth at His return.

    The unpalatable fact for this present age is that the theocracy of God and His Christ is the only regime which guarantees true freedom!

    John Wigg

  4. Damian, you said:

    I probably lean more towards libertarianism on matters of drug taking, marriage, and pornography but on abortion, obscenity, etc, I would side with you over Paul because these are grave intrusions (in the first instance its murder) into people’s private lives.

    I don’t follow how you put pornography and obscenity in different places there. I would see pornography as a subset of obscenity, which would include behaviour as well as depictions.

    John Angelico

  5. Another good article by Schlueter:

    “Libertarianism would have us believe that men are such devils that no government should be allowed, and at the same time are such angels that character, virtue, and liberty will arise “spontaneously” from mere market processes. But human beings are neither devils nor angels. They need government in order to be free, and they need freedom in order to govern well. This is not the Jekyll and Hyde of libertarianism; it is the paradoxical truth of the human condition that lies behind conservatism. We ignore it at our peril.”

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

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