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.

What do we think of death?

Large majorities in most Western countries now support legal doctor-assisted suicide. An Angus Reid poll conducted last year found that four fifths of Canadians are in favor of legal euthanasia for terminally ill patients, given certain restrictions.

There is a persuasive argument in favor of consensual killing that combines the asserted liberty of the person over his/her own body with an emotional concern for the distress felt by the terminally ill. It is the apparently self-evident answer to the rhetorical question: “Why should we prevent someone putting him/herself out of misery?”

For those who reject the rhetorical answer, it is probably not squeamishness about death that motivates their opposition to euthanasia. (I will not distinguish between euthanasia and assisted suicide for the purposes of this article.) Euthanasia was less popular in the past, at a time when far more people were familiar with death. Doctors, who witness death more often than most of us, are known to be less supportive of legalization. In fact, only a fifth of Canadian doctors report a willingness to assist in suicide.

The concern of euthanasia’s opponents is also probably not for making every effort to keep a person alive—palliative workers understand, for example, that it is best not to force dying patients to eat when they resist, having arrived naturally at the point of death. There is a more subtle explanation for the aversion to assisted killing that I will return to in a moment.

On the question of the death of terminal patients, more philosophic types might reason away the distinction between allowing (temporarily preventable) natural death and euthanasia, by appealing to some kind of utilitarianism. If the patient dies, they say, it makes no moral difference whether you caused it or allowed it to be caused by something else.

This idea is not unreasonable, in a theoretical world of utility-maximizing agents, but it is not terribly useful to us—humans are not known to act that way in life-or-death circumstances, because there is more meaning attached to death than the materially apparent.

A cancer patient on the verge of death may be equally extinguished by the physical toll of the disease or by a lethal drug, but the moral difference to the individual who pulls the trigger, so to speak, is profound. Grief in these situations is unavoidable, but how many parents would want to live knowing they had chosen the moment of their child’s death? No longer could the parent comfortably attribute to the death any transcendent significance—it was not an act of God or nature, but of human discretion.

Of the $200 billion Canadians spend on health care each year, nearly half is spent on the elderly. This is something like $3,000 for every Canadian—a large part of our gross national income. It would be easy to find justifications not to spend so much money on the aged if we did not believe that health and life were sacred; if we began consciously attaching quantitative values to lives.

I doubt that Canadians would ever begin withholding care in this way, but I am not certain that we would be able indefinitely to avoid slipping a little farther down the slope, in the same way that the Netherlands has gradually expanded the class of people who may end their lives (it now includes anyone over 12 whose situation is sufficiently “hopeless”). By allowing intentional, consensual killing in select circumstances, we would inevitably find individuals in those circumstances who would feel as if they ought to be killed, or perhaps as if others wanted them to die.

It is not difficult to imagine a sick, elderly hospice patient noticing the fatigue of his caregivers and beginning to wonder whether they would rather he died. We cannot write off as ridiculous the idea that under a new death policy, medical workers would be more likely to bring up the possibility of euthanasia, or that ambivalent patients would more often be agreeable to being killed.

If for no other reason, let us maintain our current laws for the sake of the emotional security of those who are in the majority of the very ill who do not want to die. If we must err, it may be better to err by prolonging a hundred or so lives a year, than by risking the trauma of killing some who would otherwise have been fine with living. This is not to mention the fright it would spare the elderly, or anyone else, who might (reasonably or otherwise) begin to think that a euthanizing culture does not value their lives as highly as they do.

Life remains something sacred (having transcendent value) to us. Implicit in the social norms and laws that surround death is the assumption that a human life is nearly infinite in value—“No matter what,” our law seems to signal to us, “your life will always be secured by our society and government. Even if you become temporarily hostile to your own existence we will make sure, to the extent possible, that your life does not end. We cannot risk losing a valuable life for the sake of any benefit or in the face of any particular cost.”

This sense of sanctity is why we spend billions to save the infirm and disabled, and why we proscribe euthanasia and suicide. We may find that undoing this sacredness will lead to moral disorder.

“Why should we prevent someone putting him/herself out of misery?” The question is far too easy to answer (in isolation) to be of good use to us. The reader can consider how he/she would answer the question if it were posed by his/her suicidal child, parent, or friend.

This article first appeared in the Prince Arthur Herald on October 8, 2013.

The New Effort to Modernize Porn Laws

British Prime Minister David Cameron announced an opt-in porn policy for the UK recently.

British Prime Minister David Cameron announced an opt-in porn policy for the UK recently.

Two weeks ago British Prime Minister David Cameron made an unexpected announcement. Beginning shortly, he said, online pornography in the United Kingdom would be an opt-in service. Internet providers would be instructed to block lewd content by default. While Cameron’s rationale that the filtering would slow down child pornography is probably mistaken (offenders could simply opt in), he is correct in noting that internet porn is something unique in its destructive power. Compared to older sorts of smut, it is infinitely accessible and endlessly novel. It was almost impossible to be a porn addict a hundred years ago. Now there are millions of families affected by porn use. This is a radical shift in social habits, and it only makes sense that public policy should be re-examined in its light.

Cameron’s proposed policy on its face is not earth-shaking—it will still be legal to access pornography. But there has been an outcry among porn users who want it to be more than legal. On social news site Reddit, amidst the cries of tyranny, there was a chillingly common sentiment by commenters: “does this mean my wife (or parents, or family) will have to know if I want to opt in?” Cameron became the internet’s new villain. The swift, hostile reaction to the policy across the new media reveals the real implication of the policy for British indulgers: porn use will no longer be in secret.

There is a point to be made about the moral nature of the pornographic vice, which I will come to shortly. The more direct question for Britain at the moment is regarding the freedom of porn users and creators. It is true that Cameron’s policy is a form of censorship, and that it restricts in some degree the liberty of the individual. To the civil libertarian, this sort of mandate is anathema—to the fundamentalist, there is scarcely a good reason to make decisions on behalf of the individual. But while liberty is essential to a healthy society, there are other virtues worth considering.

Pornography, while a private indulgence, is not limited in its effects only to the user. In economics, when the negative effects of an activity spill over to uninvolved third parties, the cost they bear is called an externality. Think of the neighbor of a polluting plant. The problem with externalities is that the third party never agreed to the cost, and has no means of forcing the polluter to pay up. The result is over-pollution. The responsible approach of a modern society to an externality, when the parties do not resolve the issue themselves, is to accept a collective regulation. This is why governments restrict pollution and tax tobacco use, correcting externalities in ways that the voluntary market cannot ordinarily do. In a manner very similar to that of economic externalities, porn use tends to create moral externalities—social costs that fall on others, never automatically priced into the market of individual behavior, so to speak. The effect is exaggerated because the family members of the porn user are often not aware of the behavior.

What does porn do to families? There has been little quantitative study on the question. Of the research that has been done, including metastudies, there is a balance of evidence suggesting that porn use among males leads to increased aggression, less aversion to rape and a disconnection of sex from affection. In addition, there is stunning anecdotal data from divorce lawyers that internet pornography is a factor in around half of divorces. In the absence of a clear scientific consensus, however, it might be as useful to ask as a matter of imagination whether the spouses of porn users are normally aware of their partner’s porn use. If they are not aware, would they like to be aware? Does the fact of the secrecy imply that they would not approve of their partner’s porn use? Why would they not approve? What would it mean to a woman to know her husband spent most nights indulging in pornography?

I am admittedly unable to give definitive answers to any of these questions. However, I can offer my best guesses, and the honest reader will admit their plausibility. Porn is largely a secret vice, indulged in with infrequent exception for only selfish reasons. It is hidden because it would be emotionally scarring to loved ones if it were revealed. Despite its secrecy its effects on the user bleed into regular life. Porn use is often addictive, and the inability of men (and most of the hours spent watching porn are spent by men) to stop weakens sexual and emotional relationships, including marriage. So the question of how to approach porn laws must consider the family as well as the individual.

It is probably the case that Cameron is in over his head when it comes to the technical methods that will be needed to enforce his law. The internet is notoriously difficult to control. It may turn out that, in the effort to avoid blocking clean content, the filters will miss some of the offensive material on the internet. However, this is a small problem. The success of the system will not be that it prevents people from watching the stuff, as they can always opt in. The success of the system will be that in order to watch porn freely without going to the trouble of bypassing filters, users will have to admit to the other members of their household that they want to watch it. This is a check on behavior far healthier than a government ban. It will enable parents and spouses to be aware of what is going on in their own house. It is a modern response to a modern problem. This is no grave threat to liberty. It is in fact a victory—for familial transparency, honesty, and certainly decency.

This article first appeared in the Prince Arthur Herald on August 6, 2013.