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.

New Study: Gay marriage in Holland may have reduced marriage rates among … liberals?

For decades, conservative opponents of same-sex marriage have been making a brazen claim. Extending marriage rights to gay couples, they say, will weaken the marriage institution.

In the near-absence of reliable data, their arguments have relied almost entirely on hypothesis. However, a new study, published earlier this year in the social science journal Demography, could offer same-sex marriage opponents some of the first empirical evidence in support of their theories. If the study’s findings are correct, same-sex marriage in the Netherlands decreased the opposite-sex marriage rate in all but the most conservative groups.

The Theory

It’s not unanimous, but growing majorities in developed nations are now on board with the idea that same-sex marriage is a good thing. As of 2013, around 80% of Scandinavians, 63% of Canadians and 55% of Britons support same-sex marriage, according to a global Ipsos survey. Recently, the tide of public opinion has even turned in the United States, where a recent poll has support as high as 59%.

For supporters, it’s not difficult to see why the public has come around. The philosophical and moral case for same-sex marriage is compelling, as this conservative will admit. Defenses can be made in the name of freedom (why should we force people who love each other not to marry?), equality (traditional marriage laws turn gays into second class citizens) and the public good (who would be harmed by gay couples marrying?).

Opponents of same-sex marriage have been caught flat-footed, perhaps even dumbfounded, as marriage laws move past them in ways that would have been inconceivable just thirty years ago. They are often unable to explain exactly why they oppose same-sex marriage but aver that it remains bad policy at best, and morally wrong at worst. The phenomenon of “moral dumbfounding”, or an inability to explain one’s moral intuitions, is not unique to same-sex marriage opponents. The most common example: most Westerners (but not all) rightly oppose contracepted sex between siblings but are unable to articulate why they do. Getting stumped, then, does not make a person wrong, but it does mean that they will need to dig deeper to justify their beliefs.

Some advocates for the traditional definition of matrimony say they have done just that, catching a subtler vision of the marriage institution and promoting a corollary new case against same-sex marriage laws. Sherif Girgis, PhD candidate in philosophy and principal co-author of the 2012 book What is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense along with Robert P. George and Ryan T. Anderson, argues that there are two public visions of marriage. The “conjugal view” sees marriage as oriented toward procreation. The “revisionist view” calls marriage a union oriented toward love and commitment, with procreation and childrearing an elective option. (See here for a lengthier explanation.)

Girgis argues that only the former view explains why marriage should be a public institution, because it enforces norms that arise from sexual reproduction. The latter view, then, would make marriage functionally indistinguishable from non-marital romantic unions. He contends that in order to coherently support same-sex marriage, advocates have had to adopt for themselves and promote to the public the revisionist view. This, he thinks, constitutes a removal from the public square of the only institution geared toward procreation. The implication is that the old (to some, outdated) norms that historically sprung up around procreation, as well as the motive to marry, will fade along with the old view, more than they have already done.

Despite Girgis’ and his coauthors’ new defense of the traditional marriage definition and a small renaissance of secular opposition to same-sex marriage, many conservatives seem to have given up fighting in the face of a near-monolithic public consensus. And while Girgis’ reasoning is not unsound, there has been little hard evidence to support his broader conclusion that same-sex marriage laws would harm marriage itself.

What everyone, on both sides of the issue, should admit is that the same-sex marriage debate has taken place in an empirical vacuum. For better or worse, the conversation has been about same-sex marriage the moral question, not same-sex marriage the public policy. While no empirical study can or should settle the question on its own, everyone interested should take careful consideration of the data that do exist.

The new study

The paper in question, “The Effect of Same-Sex Marriage Laws on Different-Sex Marriage: Evidence From the Netherlands“, by Mircea Trandafir, was published in February of this year in the journal Demography. The author attempted to find the effect on the marriage rate of a 1998 domestic partnership law and 2001 same-sex marriage law in the Netherlands. Its conclusions have mostly escaped attention—partly because of a vague abstract.

The paper contains two statistical analyses. The first is a regression on aggregate (country-level) data that compares the Netherlands to a control group of OECD countries over a number of years, while the second is a time series analysis of individual-level data. In the abstract, the author writes that according to the first model, “neither law had significant effects on either the overall or different-sex marriage rate”. This is true at the 5% level, but it’s worth noting (in the context of the entire paper) that the effect of the same-sex marriage law on the marriage rate was significant at the 10% level—implying that there is only a 1 in 10 chance that Dutch marriage rates in the absence of the same-sex marriage law would have fallen as much as they did in reality. The overall trend from 1988 until 2005 is described in the paper:

As expected, the actual rates are relatively close to the synthetic marriage rate [control group rate] between 1988 and 1997, the period used to construct the synthetic control. After the introduction of registered partnership, the three rates are all higher than the synthetic marriage rate, but they all fall below the synthetic rate at some point after 2001, the year in which same-sex marriage was legalized.

According to this first, aggregate-level analysis, while there is not enough statistical power to conclude with certainty, it appears that marriage rates rose slightly as a result of the 1998 domestic partnership law but were depressed by the 2001 same-sex marriage law.

The second regression of the paper is perhaps more valuable—it uses individual-level data, which allows for greater analytic nuance. In the abstract, the author concluded: “The effects of the two laws are heterogeneous, with presumably more-liberal individuals (as defined by their residence or ethnicity) marrying less after passage of both laws and potentially more-conservative individuals marrying more after passage of each law.”

This finding is true, but represents only a part of the main results of the analysis—furthermore, important context is left out. “Potentially more-conservative individuals”, as defined by the author, represent less than 10% of the Dutch population, while “more liberal individuals” make up more than 80%.

Trandafir also claimed in his abstract that the results of the individual-level analysis “confirm the findings in the aggregate analysis”. It’s unclear what he means by this, since the individual level-analysis did not estimate the overall effect of the laws (only by gender), and only measured the overall marriage rate (as opposed to the different-sex marriage rate).

Trandafir made the decision not to perform a regression for men and women combined, because women tend to marry at a younger age than men. The findings of his analysis are that the same-sex marriage law had essentially zero effect on the male first marriage rate overall, but a statistically significant negative effect on the female first marriage rate (i.e. the age-specific rate of first marriages in a person’s lifetime).

But the story becomes more interesting. In the conservative Dutch Bible Belt, which represents around 4% of the Dutch population, the regional effect of the law was to strongly increase the marriage rate for both men and women. The same goes for the 3% of Dutch who are Turkish or Moroccan. But for the vast majority of the population—that is to say, for native Dutch and especially for residents of the four largest cities—the effect of marriage laws was significantly negative for both men and women.

The Dutch royal family in April 2013

The Dutch royal family in April 2013

The regression is not directly interpretable quantitatively because of the complexity of the model; but for comparison, the effect on marriage rates of the law for women in the four largest cities, for example, was three times greater than the effect of actually living in the four largest cities. This suggests that the adjusted effect is large, since the marriage rate in the four largest cities is around 20% lower than in Holland overall (this is not to suggest that the law had a negative 60% effect, because the raw statistics are not controlled for demographic variables). The effect on the marriage rate for native Dutch men was a rate twice that of the year-to-year downward trend.

Somehow, it appears that the demographic groups most supportive of same-sex marriage—urbanites and native Dutch—are precisely the groups whose marriage rates declined in connection with the law. On the other hand, the conservative subcultures who were likely to oppose the 2001 law–Bible Belt residents, Turks and Moroccans–seem to have experienced a marriage rate renaissance as a result of it. Somewhere, Sherif Girgis is wide-eyed; his theory that the revisionist view of marriage undermines marriage seems to fit the data almost uncannily.

But the fact that makes these findings even more shocking is a bias in the data that causes the negative effect of the law to be underestimated, as the author admits: “identifying the spouse of all individuals is virtually impossible, and I am unable to distinguish between same-sex marriages and different-sex marriages. This induces a small upward bias in the estimate of the different-sex marriage rate after 2001.”

In other words, the gay marriage law did not just reduce the opposite-sex marriage rate, but the marriage rate overall. More explicitly, since we know that no same-sex marriages occurred prior to 2001, this means that, apart from the small conservative minority, the same-sex marriage law was associated with a drop in opposite-sex marriages that was larger than the rise in same-sex marriages.

The implications of these findings are stark. If this study is correct–and for the robustness of the methodology, it seems unlikely to be far off–then it is appropriate to suggest that same-sex marriage had the effect of decreasing the mainstream marriage rate among heterosexuals in the Netherlands, possibly by changing the way marriage was perceived.

There is a more hopeful story for advocates of civil unions, or marriages-in-all-but-name. In both the aggregate and individual analyses, domestic partnership laws had a neutral or small positive impact on the marriage rate, suggesting that it is not gay unions that have the potential to disrupt marriage culture, but the redefinition of marriage itself.


Caveats are in order after such claims. First, cultural differences between the Netherlands and other countries mean that the results cannot necessarily be extrapolated. Indeed, in a 2009 state by state analysis in the US, the authors found that a state’s gay union policy had no significant effect on marriage rates (it should be noted that the study did not separate civil unions from same-sex marriage).

However, Girgis’ theory might well explain this particular discrepancy. American religious conservatives are not the tiny minority they are in Holland. In the Netherlands, there has long been massive majority support for same-sex marriage, which may help explain the significant effects found in the Trandafir paper. It could be the case that the more people support same-sex marriage, the greater downward effect the law has on marriage rates–a troubling policy conundrum.

The larger caveat: it bears reiteration that these findings do not themselves justify a particular position on same-sex marriage. There is much more to be said, and at the end of the day, public policy is not only an empirical question; it is a social, philosophical and moral one as well. However, science, philosophy and morality are often found to intersect in the same place once the dust kicked up in a whirlwind of controversy has settled. Time will tell what conclusion future generations will draw. When it comes to culture wars, history has been known to vindicate both winners and losers.

Photo credit: “King of the Netherlands” by Tom Jutte, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Pursuing a Heavenly Kingdom

The royal seal of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom.

The royal seal of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom.

In 1853, revolutionaries led by the peasant Hong Xiuquan captured the city of Nanjing, in the Chinese province of Jiangsu. The seizure of this major city followed a string of unlikely conquests made by the group, who called their new empire the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace. From 1851 until 1864, this “Taiping” (Great Peace) movement took control of a region of China inhabited by 30 million people. In the massive wars they waged against the ruling Qing dynasty, more than 20 million people died.

Stripped of its context, the Taiping movement is baffling. How did a handful of peasants from southern China manage to drum up a movement that would challenge the Qing Empire and change the face of China, when other rebellions for decades had failed?

The answer lies with the founder of the new movement. In 1837, Hong Xiuquan had a series of visions. In these visions he was a royal in a heavenly kingdom, being carried toward a palace. Before he entered, he was laid in a bed, his heart was removed and a new, pure heart was put in its place. He was brought to meet a wise old man with a long beard; Hong realized this was his true father. His heavenly father lamented the corruption and wickedness he saw in the world (China). Feeling despair, Hong begged permission to descend from heaven to rid the world of demons. He was sent down to earth with his wise elder brother.

Hong began to tell his friends and neighbors about his vision. One of them suggested that he read a pamphlet he had been given a few years earlier. In the 1820s, Protestant missionaries from the United States and Britain had begun to translate Bibles and to pass out tracts to the Chinese in the port cities where they were allowed. One of these pamphlets had fallen into Hong’s hands, although he had not read it at the time of his visions. The tract spoke of a Heavenly Father who had sent his son, Jesus, down from heaven into the world to redeem it. It spoke of commandments to shun idols and to worship the one true God.

To Hong this changed the world. He realized the meaning of his visions: he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ. The one true God had given him the charge to rid China of idols and demons. Hong was baptized and set out preaching, destroying idols, and prophesying. Eventually he would raise an army that would set out to topple the blaspheming emperor in order to establish the kingdom of heaven on earth, ushering in a reign of great peace, free from the troubles that plagued 19th century China.

It was only recently that I heard of the Taiping Rebellion, this strange intersection of Christianity and Chinese civilization. The story was particularly interesting to me–as a Mormon I do not find it surprising that a visionary 19th century prophet could change the course of history.

The Taiping Rebellion is an example of the unique power of religion. The transcendent reaches beyond humanity and for that reason has a tendency to change humanity. It does not take much study to see movements of theology beneath the history of civilizations. As many modern secularists point out, religion inspired many of the famous and destructive wars of the past. However, it was also the force for abolition in the 19th century, the sponsor of science in the Islamic Golden Age and in the form of Confucianism and Taoism, the protector of harmonious family values throughout Chinese history. Even Taiping Christianity, though clearly destructive, declared the equality of women, freed slaves, abolished foot-binding and proscribed alcohol and other drugs.

We can be sure that religion will be the motive for good and evil deeds in the future. As to what determines which effect a religious movement will have on the world, I cannot fairly comment, although I have ideas. What is certain is that religion is not going away, and certainly not for the reasons the new atheists would suggest. It is more than a set of metaphysical beliefs, or a list of moral imperatives, or a social group. It is the heritage of humanity, a response to the transcendent and a spring of peace in the soul. It will likely be the means of healing some of the current challenges of the modern world; the decoupling of marriage and family, new addictions in a world of instant gratification, and the alienation that seems to follow fundamentalist individualism. Because of religion there continues to be great cause for hope for a society that is more virtuous, for the kind of heavenly kingdom imagined by Hong Xiuquan.