April 08, 2005
In response to my post about the Republican "Tent," a blogger named Dignan directed my attention to his very thoughtful post on the subject. Dignan believes that libertarians (which he prefers to call "classical liberals") are in the same tent as conservative Christians and need each other. He makes the following very cogent points:
I agree with Dignan, and this was my reaction to the post at the time:
Excellent piece. I think if people would stop shouting and scolding, they might be able to remember what they have in common -- and what brought them together in the first place.
Dignan mentions the drug issue as causing problems for libertarians. I don't think it's nearly as bad as sexuality, because it's just not as personal. That's because a disagreement over criminalization of substances comes down more to economic and public policy arguments, and there isn't much disagreement over the moral one. For example, I think heroin should be legal, but that does not mean I advocate using heroin, or that I think it's good. And even if I were a heroin user, that would be considered by both sides to be an unfortunate personal problem, but it's just not as emotionally driven. Rush Limbaugh took a lot of flak for his drug use, but if he'd been busted for soliciting sex we'd have never heard the end of it. That's because sexuality is seen as the essence of morality, whereas drug use, though bad for you, is more analogous to junk food or cigarettes.
Parenthetically, one of the problems I have with people on both sides of the sexual morality debate is that I can't see a whole lot of logical difference between sexual tastes per se, and tastes in food. If gluttony is hedonism, OK, but so what? Love is another matter, and while it is one thing to condemn "sexual hedonism," I start to get a little hot under the collar when people see love as that. (My emotional detachment about sexual issues has been both a blessing and a curse, for reasons beyond the scope of this essay.)
LEGAL ASIDE: This debate is further complicated by the distinction between malum prohibitum and malum in se. Not long ago, certain types of sex were both malum prohibitum and malum in se, while drug use was neither. I don't see either as malum in se, (and I see drug laws as a classic example of malum prohibitum) although the modern trend may be otherwise.
The debate between libertarians and moral conservatives is frequently seen as involving the role of the state. Certainly there is disagreement there. But is the debate over the role of the state really the driving emotional force? I wonder. In the case of Rush Limbaugh, the debate was more over alleged "hypocrisy" and quasi moralistic outrage. Libertarians completely opposed to all drug laws were demanding prison time for the guy. (I was not one of them, by the way....) And had the scandal involved sex, many of the champions of sexual freedom (while they wouldn't have called for jail time) would nonetheless have howled, screamed, and gloated in triumph. As if the fact that a champion of morality had an "immoral" side renders all his moral arguments bogus.
Is it hypocrisy for a heroin addict to be against heroin? For the life of me, I can't see why it would be, any more than it would be for a fat person to be in favor of healthier eating.
I think what fuels this fire is not the debate over laws and the proper role of the state, but scolding. Many libertarians have an aversion to scolding, while many moral conservatives seem to have a need (perhaps grounded in religious views) to scold. So, when one of the scolders is unfortunate enough to get caught with his pants down, it is the libertarians' turn to do the scolding, and they can't wait to get "even."
I admit, I don't like being morally scolded. Even less do I like hearing other people scolded. But what really fries me is to be scolded in turn for the moral failings of people I have never met, and to be told I am either like them, or somehow responsible for them. This, I think, goes to the core of the disagreement between libertarians and social conservatives. I think what saved Bill Clinton from impeachment was not that he was being scolded (for the majority of Americans thought he deserved a sound scolding), but that they were being scolded and blamed for the conduct of their president. It is intolerable to be blamed for situations beyond your control.
Ditto Columbine, 9/11, and countless other things. We are all said to be guilty. Libertarians tend to hate collective guilt, while it often seems the moral conservatives' stock in trade to impose it. This collective guilt is often referred to as a "climate" for which others (typically liberals and libertarians) are responsible. I do wish moral conservatives would not lump libertarians in with liberals in this respect, and I wish they would remember a key distinction: liberals do not believe the focus should be on individual guilt, while libertarians do.
Let's take a typical crime. If some thug shoots up a convenience store, libertarians will see him as having sole responsibility, while 60s-style liberals will see him as a victim. Oddly, the view of moral conservatives is a mixed bag, for while they want the criminal punished, they nonetheless see him as a product of his culture -- and while this shouldn't allow him to escape punishment, they tend to see a "climate" as sharing at least partially responsibility for the criminal behavior.
What is often forgotten is that there's no real policy disagreement between libertarians and moral conservatives here. Both agree that the criminal should be severely punished. So what's the point of arguing over climates and collective responsibility?
Might it be that moral conservatives are more in touch with people's emotional needs? Let's face it, when some horrific crime occurs, the dry, mechanistic approach of simply blaming the criminal is emotionally unsatisfying. People are outraged! And when they are outraged, they need more. Blaming the criminal is not "more." The liberal approach of blaming "society" and the moral conservative approach of blaming "cultural rot" are infinitely more appealing, because people feel involved personally in something which would otherwise be devoid of meaning. (Might that be why the subject of "retributive justice" has been recently the subject of discussion by libertarians? People need an outlet, and one of the shortcomings of libertarianism is that it offers no emotional release. Politically, that sucks. Voters are emotional.)
In any case, libertarians and moral conservatives have now created a climate which is taking on a life of its own. They're scolding each other. It is emotional.
A bit out of character for libertarians, who like to think of themselves as the thoughtful ones in the equation.
Emotions are very powerful, and I'm afraid I've greatly oversimplified things, and left a lot out. I barely touched on the human need for vengeance -- even blood. This may make the libertarian approach seem deadly dull and emotionally unsatisfying. Are there lessons in history? (Even the more "enlightened" rulers of ancient Rome found that no matter how they tried, they couldn't wean the public from its appetite for bloody gladiatorial events.) Beyond that, is there a human need to be scolded? I'm not just talking about the genuine religious variety; I've long thought environmentalists behaved like angry Puritan preachers, and that their "converts" enjoyed a good scolding over human greed and evil.
And to the extent that any of these things (whether emotional or otherwise) are matters of human tastes, well, there's an old Latin saying.....
posted by Eric on 04.08.05 at 09:17 AM
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