Religious conservatives should hope Hillary wins

Like Ted Cruz, millions of conservatives who have every reason to reject Donald Trump will vote for the Republican nominee in November. Cruz is just the most recent high-profile Republican to make the case that key differences between the two candidates—particularly on likely Supreme Court nominees—make Trump the better choice.

But Cruz’s and others’ reasoning is short-sighted. While it’s true that Trump’s known policy preferences are more conservative than Clinton’s, and while it’s likely enough that Trump will stick to these preferences, voting for him is still a bad bet for conservatives, and especially for religious conservatives.

Here are two reasons.

The first is that Trump as Republican president will come to represent conservatism. If we vote for him, then he’s in the club, whether we like it or not. And it’s unavoidable that the extent to which he represents conservatism is the extent to which he can corrupt it.

The second reason is that voting for a bad candidate only makes sense on a four-year time horizon.

In all likelihood, a vote for Trump is a vote for four Trump years and 4-8 years of the Democrat lucky enough to run against him in 2020. If Trump does become president, he will quickly become a historically unpopular one. Without popularity, and without the outsider’s appeal he has had this time around, he’ll be easily beaten by almost any Democrat not named Hillary Clinton in 2020. This includes any Democrat who chooses to run on a Sanders-esque platform of full-throated progressivism.


Hillary Clinton delivers a policy speech at Georgetown University to a sparse audience. (M. Scott Mahaskey/Politico)

On the other hand, a vote for Hillary is effectively a vote for a 4-year term, followed by 4 to 8 years of a (non-Trump) Republican president. Already unpopular, Clinton would have a very difficult time asking Democrat-weary voters for a fourth consecutive Democratic term in the White House, making 2020 a golden opportunity for conservatives.

In other words, a Clinton win in 2016 probably means more total Republican years in the White House between now and 2029. Choosing a bad Democrat over a bad Republican this year allows the possibility of a successful conservative candidate in the next few elections, while the second all but rules it out.

As for the Supreme Court itself (admittedly this is where the Trump temptation has the greatest pull), these four years are not uniquely crucial when the two alternatives are considered.

The thought of Hillary Clinton nominating two or three justices stings. In all likelihood her one-term presidency would end with only three conservatives on the court: Thomas, Roberts and Alito. Her (probably Republican) successor would have limited opportunities to increase that number by replacing liberals. But it becomes clear, taking a twelve-year look, that there are no good options for conservatives now that a damaged candidate has won the nomination.

Trump’s Democratic successor would likely replace Thomas and Alito and possibly Roberts between 2021 and 2029, pushing the court again toward a 5-4, 6-3, or even 7-2 liberal majority (Trump would at very best get the count of conservatives on the court up to 6, as no liberal justice would voluntarily step down during his presidency). Unless we think a Trump presidency would usher in a Republican dynasty in the White House, there’s no good reason to think it would leave the court in better shape a decade from now than a Clinton presidency.

There are some reasonable objections here as to the urgency of the situation. Isn’t it true that we can’t afford four years of Hillary right now? Won’t she irreparably damage the country? Isn’t this election a historic turning point?

Probably not. Every election feels that way. I say this as a Christian who suspects that, in the coming decades, religious institutions will be severely marginalized and believers forced to make painful choices between their faith and major aspects of public life. We know what persecution looks like, and we’re not there yet. Having a conservative president will be almost certainly be more important in 2026 than in 2018.

Bottom line: strategic religious conservatives should not, by voting, sabotage their own movement—particularly when the option remains to sabotage the other side. Let them have four years of Hillary. Don’t let us be stuck with Trump.

If judges were palliative-care physicians, assisted suicide would be illegal

childhospisstazkruglpreb2It turns out that doctors, more so than the general public, aren’t so sure about assisted suicide.

Eric Wasylenko, the award-winning palliative-care physician and bioethicist charged with implementing assisted suicide in Alberta, is one example. He opposes legal assisted suicide.

Physicians have been known for their uneasiness when it comes to actually taking part in assisted dying: in a Canadian Medical Association survey reported by the Toronto Star last year, only 29% of doctors said they would be willing to give a patient the means to end their life.

But more revealing is the fact that, at least according to German survey data, doctors are less likely than the public to approve of legal assisted suicide at all.

A 2015 article in the journal Der Schmerz surveyed German doctors and nurses for their views on legal assisted suicide, finding only 54% in favor, in contrast with approximately 75% of the German public.

Among palliative-care doctors—doctors who have been specially trained to care for the dying—only 41% approved of assisted suicide, even when restricted to cases of fatal, incurable illness. 24% approved of euthanasia, in which a doctor directly administers lethal drugs.

Furthermore, only 15% of palliative-care physicians thought that assisted suicide should be permitted for people with nonfatal but incurable illnesses (such as mental illnesses).

While public information on the attitudes of Canadian physicians is scarcer, it appears to fit the pattern suggested by the German data. The National Post reported last week, citing the director of a Dying with Dignity office:

“[T]here are already other, troubling currents. Most of the publicly funded palliative care services in Alberta, well positioned to provide assisted death, are run by Covenant Health, a Catholic organization that says it will have nothing to do with the process.”

Despite these “troubling currents”, however, it is true that the medical profession as a whole is supportive of the direction of Canadian death policy. The Canadian Medical Association last year revised its policy to approve of euthanasia and assisted suicide, having previously opposed the practice.

Nevertheless, advocates of “compassionate” killing ought to be troubled by a medical profession that is only hesitantly on board with their program.

If the data are to be believed, either caring for the dying makes a person less likely to approve of euthanasia, or support for euthanasia makes one less likely to care for the dying. In other words, a more educated or a more compassionate Canadian public would probably be less agreeable to the new regime.

Advocates should be grateful the Supreme Court is not comprised of palliative-care physicians.

Are religious schools like BYU at risk of losing accreditation over same-sex marriage?


Last week, a superior court in the province of Ontario upheld a decision allowing the Law Society of Upper Canada to deny accreditation to a Christian law school, on the grounds that its Community Covenant, which requires abstention from sex outside (husband-wife) marriage, is a violation of the rights of gay and lesbian students. Trinity Western University, the third oldest university in British Columbia, has found little sympathy among the Canadian public and political class, and is unlikely to win any future legal appeals. The school’s administration has signalled that, if forced, it will cancel the opening of the law school rather than alter the Community Covenant.

While the decision applies to an ecumenical Christian institution in Canada, the significance for American Mormons is straightforward: the sexual standards in the Honor Code at Brigham Young University are virtually identical to those in Trinity Western’s Community Covenant. Is it possible, a Latter-day Saint might reasonably wonder, that in a decade or so BYU will find its own accreditation threatened amidst the legal aftershocks of same-sex marriage?

In the balance of considerations that can be weighed while guessing the likelihood of a threat to BYU’s accreditation (or tax-exempt status), there’s a major one on the side of optimism: the fact that of any country in the world, the United States has the most robust tradition of religious liberty. As a result, the Canadian decision on TWU is not necessarily a ten-year warning bell for BYU. But there are other facts to consider:

  1. The Canadian decision did acknowledge the religious liberty interest of the university in establishing religious standards as a way of promoting the “collective practice” of Protestant Christianity. Its decision was simply that the sexual liberty of gay and lesbian students—framed in the decision as non-discrimination—was more important.
  2. Similar reasoning is being used more and more often in US decisions. So far it has only been applied to religious individuals and businesses. The line between religious businesses and schools has been blurred before in discrimination cases, however, as when the Supreme Court stripped Bob Jones University of its tax-exempt status in 1983.
  3. Conservatives in Canada in 2005 were assured that legal same-sex marriage would not lead to religious liberty conflicts, so present assurances that US law won’t allow threats to accreditation are hard to interpret as permanent.
  4. Accreditation is granted by quasi-private bodies. The council that accredits BYU acts under the regulatory authority of the Department of Education, but is probably not bound as strictly by the First Amendment as a government actor would be.
  5. As of last month, marriage to someone of the same sex is a fundamental constitutional right in the United States, and the weights of jurisprudence are likely to shift as a result. It’s unclear whether the First Amendment automatically beats the Fourteenth in conflict, especially as the cultural climate becomes more secular by the year.

When confronted with these kinds of scenarios, there are two canonical (and contradictory) responses among Mormons who support same-sex marriage: denial and approval. Rod Dreher, in a more generally Christian context, named the phenomenon:

The Law Of Merited Impossibility is an epistemological construct governing the paradoxical way overclass opinion makers frame the discourse about the clash between religious liberty and gay civil rights. It is best summed up by the phrase, “It’s a complete absurdity to believe that Christians will suffer a single thing from the expansion of gay rights, and boy, do they deserve what they’re going to get.”

While Dreher’s point is made partly for snark’s sake, it should hit close to home in the online Mormon world. More than that, the point matters quite a bit, because the way that American Mormons approach the question of religious freedom could affect the ability of institutions like BYU to operate freely in the coming years and decades.

In April, Elder Hales, speaking at General Conference, left little room for either half of Dreher’s law. In response to those who deny that the space for religious exercise is shrinking:

The general lack of respect for religious viewpoints is quickly devolving into social and political intolerance for religious people and institutions.

As we face increased pressure to bow to secular standards, forfeit our religious liberties, and compromise our agency, consider what the Book of Mormon teaches about our responsibilities.

And to those who don’t mind the encroachment, he insists that it is the duty of Latter-day Saints to push back:

Brothers and sisters, we are responsible to safeguard these sacred freedoms and rights for ourselves and our posterity. …

[I]n your individual capacity, join with others who share our commitment to religious freedom. Work side by side to protect religious freedom.

This is the same narrative that church leaders have been telling at least since 1995, when The Family: A Proclamation to the World was announced in General Conference.

It’s worth acknowledging that, for more skeptical listeners, this language can come across hyperbolic. After all, it’s true that we are manifestly free from fear of persecution in our daily lives as Mormons, at least in most countries where members live. But it’s not enough to point out, as is so often pointed out, that the chance of clergy being forced to perform same-sex ceremonies is remote. This is the most obvious hypothetical conflict of same-sex marriage and religious liberty to come to mind, and maybe the subject of the shrillest paranoia from some members. But it would be a mistake to let it obscure the many realistic ways that the scope of religious exercise could be threatened in the coming years. Among these, the institutional marginalization of BYU is one possibility. Threats to religious tax exemptions could be next in line.

The reason, I think, for denial of the danger on the one hand and apathy on the other is a misunderstanding of what same-sex marriage really means. The degendering of marriage must eventually affect everyone because it both represents and affirms a novel worldview, one in which men and women are interchangeable, human relationships are ordered toward sex and the individual’s identity is authoritative in legal matters. Same-sex marriage lies along the road that was paved by no-fault divorce, premarital sex and legal elective abortion, and other signposts are now appearing ahead.

But regardless of whether we accept this characterization, we will likely soon be forced to accept that some of our liberties are at stake. The cultural and legal space we find ourselves occupying will be no bigger than what we decide now to claim.

The secular case against same-sex marriage

HumanumLast week, Latter-day Saint leaders speaking at the faith’s worldwide General Conference reiterated the Mormon stance on marriage and family: the family, understood as a married man and woman and their children, is the divine sociological unit on earth and in heaven. Same-sex marriage, they taught, is not consistent with the heavenly plan.

Most Mormons are supportive of Latter-day Saint teachings on marriage. For some, however, the special emphasis on traditional family values at the faith’s most important worldwide meeting left a feeling of unease. These members are devoted to their religion but suspect their leaders are misguided on the issue of same-sex marriage, held back by conservative cultural attitudes.

I no longer share their uneasiness: over the last few years I’ve become convinced that the Mormon position on same-sex marriage is prescient and ultimately correct. What first changed my mind on marriage was not renewed religious understanding, however, but exposure to sophisticated secular arguments for the classical definition. A few days ago I shared my interpretation of these arguments with some of my Facebook friends and was surprised at the positive response.

So I’m posting my Facebook comment, lightly edited. I don’t consider it a debate-ender, or even a definitive exposition of my beliefs about marriage. I do think, though, that it’s a good representation of something most people haven’t heard before: a straightforward secular case for male-female marriage laws.

If marriage is a real thing, then before we can decide what the rules of eligibility are, we have to know what it is–what marriage is. We want our marriage law to deal with real marriage, in the same way that, say, our criminal law deals with “real” crime, and not just anything the government wants to call crime.

So there are two big ideas about what marriage is and what it’s for. The “traditional” view says the essence of marriage is procreation. That the institution ultimately exists to name a husband as the legitimate father of a woman’s children, to compel him to stay with his children and their mother and to put a structure around human sexuality by means of marital norms. It sees marriage as a public institution ordered toward the creation of family life. It’s what you’d read in an anthropology textbook or court decision any time before the last two decades.

The “postmodern” view says that marriage is a formalization of romantic love and commitment, a private arrangement of consenting adults ordered toward mutual personal fulfillment, and family life if the spouses desire. The traditional view nearly always goes along with opposition to same-sex marriage, while the postmodern view goes along with support for same-sex marriage. The postmodern view and the traditional view don’t tend to coexist, because people who see marriage in the postmodern way nearly always deny that marriage exists for procreation.

So what’s wrong with the postmodern view? At least three things. First, it doesn’t explain why marriage needs to exist as a public institution in the first place. If marriage is about a relationship of love and commitment, then what’s the purpose of a government licence recognizing that love? Governments don’t regulate friendships or other close relationships–why marriage? And indeed, many people are starting to argue that marriage should be “privatized”, reduced to a contract. The traditional view explains exactly why marriage should exist publicly: because the public has an interest in having kids grow up within marriages.

Second, the postmodern view can’t exclude polyamorous couples or sibling couples who love and are committed to each other. Most people who are pressed on this either end up supporting poly and incestuous marriage or else say marriage shouldn’t exist as a public institution any longer. That’s a little worrying either way. This isn’t just an academic question any longer, either (I wrote a blog post on polyamory a while back).

Third, the postmodern view can’t justify the socially enforced norms of marriage: monogamy, sexual exclusivity and permanence. It would say that two is not necessarily better than three, if love is the goal; that extramarital sexuality is permissible with consent and that marriage need not last if love fades. (Poly, open and beta marriages are now things.) The traditional view justifies all three norms quite neatly. Monogamy is a reflection of the biological reality of procreation (one male, one female). Exclusivity is vital because cheating breaks up families, and that’s bad for kids. Permanence means that parents stay together even when things are tough, because breakups aren’t good for kids.

I’ve heard some people admit that the postmodern view is incoherent, but then ask why we can’t expand the marriage institution anyway. There are a lot of problems with this. By publicly formalizing a false view of marriage, we reinforce that false view. The norms that sprung out of the traditional view won’t keep existing without justification. This is bad for kids. People will also be less likely to understand why marriage needs to exist. If marriage is privatized, it will become as messy as divorce (which was more or less privatized throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s). There’s evidence from the Netherlands that opposite-sex marriage rates fell in response to marriage redefinition (I wrote a blog post on this).

One more thing. The big question people have is, “what about infertile and elderly couples? Are you saying they shouldn’t marry/can’t marry?” No, and I think this is made out to be a bigger philosophical conundrum than it is. Not every expression of a concept needs to fulfill the purpose of that concept. A for-profit business is still a for-profit business even if it fails to make a profit. A soccer team is still a soccer team even if they don’t score or win, or even if the team is lazy and doesn’t really try. However, a soccer team isn’t one if they don’t use a ball or nets when they play. The form, or the structure, of the institution does need to match the purpose. So marriage has to be male-female, and soccer teams have to use balls and nets. As long as something takes the form of a marriage, it’s still a marriage, even if it doesn’t appear to fulfill the ultimate purpose for the marriage institution. This is how we make laws; by means of concepts and definitions more than circumstances. Marriage is a male-female union because it is ordered toward procreation.

There are lots of other ways to justify the classical definition. One has to do with religious freedom. One has to do with the problems of fatherlessness and motherlessness. Another one deals with the ethical problems of third party reproduction. There are a few others. But the bottom line, for me, is that marriage *is* something. Before we can make a case for changing its form, we have to understand exactly what we’re doing and why.

Re-examining gay Mormon youth and suicide: What does the data say?

salt-lake-city-downtown-2[1]Do young Latter-day Saints, and especially gay youth, commit suicide at a higher rate than other youth in the US? The short answer: with the data we have, we don’t know. So what do we know for sure?

The Mormon teen suicide problem

Some readers may have read a recent interview in the Huffington Post with Wendy Williams Montgomery, a Californian mom and LGBT advocate. In the interview, Montgomery refers to a widely recognized problem within Mormon culture: the high rate of suicides among gay youth. “Mormons,” Montgomery asserts, “have the highest rate of gay teen suicides in the country.”

Over the last few years, the idea that Mormons have a problem with teen suicide, especially among gay youth, has become common wisdom. In 2012, a Reuters article highlighted the issue of gay teen suicide in Utah. The Huffington Post has featured the issue multiple times, as in a 2012 post. High-profile Mormon critic John Dehlin frequently discusses gay teen suicide among Mormons, and recently referred to the phenomenon as an epidemic. His characterization seems to fit the general impression: Mormons have a special problem with suicide among gay teens.

Missing data

There is no question that gay teen suicide is a reality among Mormon youth. In many cases, we have heard their stories, either through media or personal experience. Fortunately, we are more aware of this reality than we were in the past.

Unfortunately, however, these stories seem to be accompanied, more and more frequently, by statistical claims that are not supported by data. Mrs. Montgomery’s assertion that Mormons have the highest gay teen suicide rate in the country is unsourced in the original interview, and other blogs and outlets making similar claims are also missing sources. I surveyed all the government and health data I could find on youth suicide in the United States, and was unable to find any agency that collects public data by religion or sexual orientation (data so specific would be very difficult to collect). In fact, the American Association of Suicidology’s LGBT Resource Sheet notes, “to date, there is no empirical data regarding the number of completed suicides within the LGBT community.” The claim appears to be fabricated.

Other claims to the effect that Mormons, or Utahns, have a unique or unusually acute problem with gay teen suicide, or even teen suicide, cannot be supported by any data I can find.

The data we do have

Much of the interest in Mormons and teen suicide seems to originate from a 2006 article in the Deseret News, a newspaper owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The article pointed out a few statistics about suicide that would have been surprising to most readers at the time. First, that Utah had the highest rate of suicide among males age 15-24. Second, that Utah had the 11th highest overall suicide rate in the United States. And third, that the youth suicide rate in Utah had tripled over the preceding half-century (in fact, this is true across the United States). The newspaper didn’t cite its sources, but all of the categories of statistics they refer to are available through the CDC and other federal sources and appear to be genuine.

What else do we know? The data in that report is now nine years old, so it’s worth taking stock of the current reality. I’ve collected a set of more recent figures below, from public data and representative surveys:

  • Utah’s suicide rate among people age 15-24 is 9th highest in the United States, among 47 states with reliable data (CDC, 2013)
  • Utah’s suicide rate among males age 15-24 is 7th highest, among 46 states with reliable data (CDC, 2013)
  • Utah’s suicide rate among females age 15-24 cannot be reported as the number of cases is smaller than 20 (CDC, 2013)
  • Utah’s overall suicide rate is 5th highest in the United States (CDC, 2013)
  • Utah is 29th out of 40 states with available data for the rate of high school students who have attempted suicide (not completed suicide) (CDC, 2013)
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Utahns age 10-17. (Utah Department of Health, 2012)
  • Across 9 sites surveyed (all in the Midwestern or Eastern US and California), lesbian and gay high school students had a rate of attempted suicide that was approximately 4 times higher than for straight students (CDC, 2011)
  • A representative survey of students in Grades 7-12 across the US using the Add-Health database found that Mormon gay teens reported significantly less depression and fewer suicidal thoughts than their nonreligious peers. (Add-Health, 2010)
  • The same survey found that religious gay teens had a lower attempted suicide rate than nonreligious gay teens (the number of cases did not allow for statistical significance, however).   [Update: These last two statistics came via an author and are unpublished. I have not been able to independently verify them, as I don’t have access to most of the Add-Health dataset. Take with a grain of salt! Thanks to Mike in the comments section for doing some digging!]

The following are additional relevant results from a small non-representative 2009 survey conducted by the Family Acceptance Project and affiliated researchers, included at the suggestion of commenters below.

  • Gay youth who experienced high levels of family rejection were 3.4 times as likely to attempt suicide, 2.8 times as likely to experience depression, and 1.7 times as likely to use illicit drugs than gay youth who experienced low levels of rejection. Note: Unfortunately, the researchers who wrote the original journal article misinterpreted odds ratio as relative risks, and accordingly reported higher numbers for the foregoing statistics (specifically 8, 6 and 3 times instead of the above figures). This appears to be a good faith error–misinterpretation of the odds ratio (a very unintuitive statistic) is extremely common, even among researchers. The journal article is restricted, but available here to those with institutional access. General information about misinterpreting odds ratios is here.

To the best of my knowledge, these statistics are the closest we can come to answering the statistical questions surrounding gay teen suicide among Mormons, or within Utah. Specifically targeted data on completed or attempted suicide among gay Mormon teens simply isn’t available.

The data speak well enough for themselves, but it’s worth pointing out that none of the relevant data points appear to justify an unusual suspicion about Utah (or, by extension, Mormons). This is especially true since the surprisingly strong link between high altitude and suicide rates has become well established. Among high-altitude states in the Rocky Mountain West, Utah appears to have overall rates within the average range, and youth rates slightly lower than the average. We have no empirical data specific to Utah for gay and lesbian youth, but we can assume that like other states, the rate of attempted suicide, and presumably completed suicide, is considerably higher than for straight youth.

It’s also worth noting that Utah’s overall suicide rate has increased relative to other states since 2006, while its youth suicide rate has fallen in comparison to other states. Furthermore, the Add-Health dataset mentioned above suggests that Mormon gay youth are relatively less at risk for suicide than nonreligious gay youth. [Update – I haven’t been able to independently verify this. See above.]


While only systematic recordkeeping and representative surveys can answer the questions we’re most interested in, we shouldn’t ignore anecdotal evidence about suicide. The sense among many concerned observers in Utah and elsewhere that the situation is bad and getting worse probably reflects an important reality. Youth suicide in the US has quickly gotten worse over the decades, and a disproportionate number of these suicides across the US, including within Utah, are among gay youth. Combined, these two trends might be giving an alarming impression to those concerned about the well-being of gay teens; an impression made locally that could be transformed into misplaced claims, such as Mrs. Montgomery’s. So her hypothesis–that Mormons in particular have an unusually severe problem with gay teen suicide—could possibly be an observer’s local interpretation of nationwide trends, but it cannot be supported or rejected by the data itself, as far as I can tell.

The hypothesis cannot be confirmed or rejected by theory, either. Many advocates who highlight the issue of suicide among Mormons do so within the framework of a particular narrative, at the center of which is the idea that Latter-day Saint sexual values are harmful. Since there is no data to support the assertion of abnormal suicide rates, the theory seems to be doing all the work. But there are other theories that could be put forth—Latter-day Saints could just as well hypothesize that robust Mormon families and supportive faith communities lead to lower rates of suicide among gay youth. But this would also be unjustified; it would be best for everyone to refrain from attempting to explain phenomena for which there isn’t evidence in the first place.

Those who believe in Latter-day Saint sexual values and those who do not should be able to agree: one youth suicide is too many, including among gay youth. Even if the Mormon problem is not unique, it is still a problem. We don’t need statistics, and certainly not unsourced statistics, to tell us this.

Why I am no longer a libertarian

Ron Paul libertarianThe “libertarian moment” may have finally arrived. An essay about American libertarianism in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine argues that younger voters’ social liberalism, fiscal conservatism and dissatisfaction with the political establishment is becoming a wave that new libertarian politicians are on the verge of riding into political relevance.

Whether or not this is true, the essay makes for an accurate glimpse into the libertarian movement’s self-narrative: libertarians comparing themselves to rock stars, libertarians for legal weed and hip with the kids, libertarians as champions of liberty, libertarians unconstrained by petty partisanship.

But the essay doesn’t get to the heart of libertarianism, which is something more than rejecting Republican hawkishness and Democratic entitlement spending or being simultaneously opposed to bailouts and carbon taxes. The essence of libertarianism is not political, but inescapably philosophical. Below are the reasons I rejected that philosophy.

Personal freedom is libertarianism’s only value

Libertarians are obsessed with liberty, and they are generally eager to admit this about themselves. While most Westerners agree that personal freedom is desirable, libertarians make a bolder claim, and it is in some ways their only claim: individual liberty is the ultimate political good.

It’s an innocuous-sounding and deceptively elegant statement that can distract a casual listener from considering the necessarily corollaries. When libertarians tell you they “just” believe in individual freedom, they mean it. Any other political good—fairness, compassion, equality, democracy, tradition, goodwill, public health, brotherhood, order, peace, progress, solidarity, authority—is not a good in itself, but is measured in terms of its consistency with the overriding good of freedom. If liberty requires less democracy, libertarians are in favor. Order and peace are good, but not if they have to be won at the cost of someone’s freedom to do as they please. Even authority, to libertarians, has no real legitimacy except to the extent that it serves liberty.

But while liberty is indeed a good thing, it’s really not the only good thing. We live in a complicated world, and solutions to its problems are rarely sufficiently simple to withstand being summed up in a slogan.

Libertarian mantras to the contrary, heroin and consensual incest should probably remain illegal. A zero percent income tax rate is probably a naïve suggestion in a globalized, advanced society. There’s probably no free-market solution to climate change. There are hundreds more examples. The point is not that libertarians are wrong about these issues–it’s that they ignore, at everyone’s peril, every conceptual dimension of these issues except that of liberty versus tyranny.

Libertarians ultimately fall back on a very vulnerable claim

The liberty-only worldview of libertarians is nearly impossible to justify from any philosophical standpoint. Various libertarian theorists have tried to “prove” it—Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, Hans-Hermann Hoppe—but end up making spurious or absurd arguments. Rand makes fantastic leaps of logic from Aristotelian logical axioms to libertarian property rights that only seem plausible when wrapped in a narrative (Atlas Shrugged). Hoppe actually tries to say that because people speak to each other with civility, they are somehow proving that the non-aggression principle, a moral claim, is an objective truth.

Most libertarians who are awake to the moral indefensibility of this claim say that their arguments don’t really rely on it–that they have arrived at their elegant maxim by observation of the world. Pure freedom, they say, happens to lead to every other political good.

But this is an extraordinary claim to which I have never seen even an ordinary justification, let alone the extraordinary one that would be required (even geniuses like Milton Friedman ultimately have fallen short and often resorted to moralizing). I speak from experience in saying that libertarians who believe a truly free system will automatically give rise to all the other political goods listed above are almost certainly deceiving themselves, and are glossing over the many inconvenient subtleties with a sheen of moral certitude.

Libertarian fundamentalism, including free market fundamentalism, really doesn’t always work as a policy. The uncomfortable truth is that the libertarian method of political analysis is to identify the policy consistent with individual liberty, then to tell whatever narrative must be told to support that view. Ultimately, libertarians are slaves to an intoxicating but naïve intuition that negative liberty is the ultimate good.

They inevitably become amoral about anything consensual

Libertarians are accustomed to explaining to others that their private moral opposition to certain behaviors is separate from and irrelevant to their political attitude to those behaviors. They may morally oppose cocaine use, bestiality and the unrestricted sale of organs (for example) but they don’t coerce others into abiding by those subjective moral codes.

However, as I discovered personally, a laissez-faire public attitude on human behavior is often accompanied by moral apathy in private. This is probably because the libertarian ethic is itself a moral judgment; one that supersedes for its adherents any other.

This discovery is borne out by research connected with psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory, which identifies six axes of human moral taste: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Everyone cares at least a little bit about each of the six moral goods, but the relative importance of each foundation varies quite cleanly by ideology. On tests of moral attitudes, both liberals and conservatives have been shown to have relatively broad palates of moral taste. Libertarian morality, on the other hand, is dominated by the liberty/oppression foundation. Libertarian social connections

In other words, libertarians do not have the same moral sense as the rest of us. While they oppose murder, rape and theft on the basis of liberty, many of them see acts like burning flags, eating one’s deceased dog or public nudity as morally neutral.

It’s worth mentioning for the sake of context that self-identified libertarians are overwhelmingly male and white and disproportionately agnostic or atheist. They tend to be younger and extraordinarily socially detached, and are likely to intellectually inhabit the internet instead of the real world.

Libertarians reduce complicated realities to simplistic models

If you’ve had conversations with libertarians about politics, you may have at times suspected they were speaking a different language. This is probably because they were. In order to deal with the world in such a way that libertarian theory makes sense, libertarians have reinvented the meanings of many ordinary words.

For example, to the dismay of most experts, libertarians insist on defining government as no more than a “monopoly on violence”. Sociologists think that marriage is an institution the identity of which is difficult to pin down, but to libertarians, it is clearly just a contract of union between two people. A law, to libertarians, is a “threat of force” without any greater significance.

Definitions like these are appealing because it’s very easy to reason toward libertarian conclusions on their basis. Since law is just a threat of violence, the government can easily be characterized as abusive and arbitrary. If marriage is just a contract, then it’s obvious the government should just “get out of the marriage business”. If the state is just a monopoly on violence, then isn’t it our enemy?

Libertarians thus conveniently sidestep the weightier questions of philosophy, anthropology, sociology, psychology, religion and law by defining them away.

It’s no error to simplify reality to a model for the sake of reasoning more easily about it—humans must do this to survive—but libertarians have insisted on a self-contained, internally consistent model within which they can give an easy answer to every question. So their reality is considerably simpler than anybody else’s. This leads to another problem:

Libertarians feel entitled to strong opinions on issues they know little about

Many non-libertarians are content to leave an issue aside or take a tentative stance when the relevant field of study is outside their intellectual comfort zone. Take monetary policy—most Republicans and Democrats defer to economic experts because handling the money supply is a genuinely daunting policy question, one about which even Nobel Prize winners disagree. Libertarian amateurs, however, dive headlong into these very deep policy waters. Ron Paul (a physician) wants to “end the Fed”, others want to return to a gold standard, and some want to privatize money altogether.

Whether they are ultimately right or wrong on monetary policy is beyond my ability to discern, but also beyond theirs: in justifying their radical opinions, these libertarians bypass a very large field of economic research and innovate convenient theoretical simplifications (like ignoring the differences among various parts of the money supply). As a result, when they make predictions, they’re often horribly wrong.

Libertarians overstep on more than monetary policy, of course. When a libertarian confidently promotes a brash, heterodox policy stance (say, legalizing prostitution, dismantling most government departments or getting out of the UN), you can be fairly confident that they’re mistaken. If they happen to end up being right, they were probably correct for the wrong reasons.


Admittedly, libertarians have made some important contributions to the broader political discussion. This is especially true when it comes to certain realms of economic theory, which can better bear than social theory libertarianism’s characteristic hyper-rationalism. For example, libertarians have arguably been empirically vindicated in their theory that minimum wage laws are ineffective and even harmful anti-poverty tools. Furthermore, liberty is an indispensable political good, as libertarians do well to remind us.

But libertarianism is not the answer to our broader societal question because it is not a real-world ideology. It’s ideally designed for collegiate theorizing or internet debating precisely because it is impersonal and abstract. My distaste for libertarianism is admittedly personal, because I was for a time deeply immersed in its glittering, imaginary world. As a result, I have sketched a portrait of the movement that is unfair to the more moderate thinkers among them. (However, most moderate libertarians don’t fit the profile of the prototype: either they are religious libertarians, or older than most, or just mislabeled socially moderate or dovish conservatives.) But if I’m treating libertarians harshly, I am ultimately doing so intentionally. There are many libertarians (maybe half of them) who really are as fanatical as I’m claiming, and of those who are not, many of them are at risk of becoming fanatics.

My escape from libertarianism was into conservatism, but my complaints against it are similar to those lodged by liberals and centrists. Reasonable thinkers across the political spectrum should be able to find a rare place of agreement on the issue. To quote modern liberalism’s patron saint (as I rarely do): “No, we aren’t going to have a libertarian moment,” Paul Krugman wrote in response to the NYT piece this week, “and that’s a good thing.”

Photo credit: “Ron Paul for President” by r0b0r0b, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.