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Thread: Libertarianism & Traditionalism

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    Libertarianism & Traditionalism

    An article titled What Libertarianism Isn't explains that the ideas of libertarianism and traditionalism do not have to oppose each other. This is another look at morality within a libertarian society.

    Some excerpts from the article:

    The recent debate barely begins to address these substantial questions, though, and focuses instead on the status of another essential, and far less problematic, feature of conservative thinking: the preservation of traditional morality – particularly traditional sexual morality, with its idealization of marriage and its insistence that sexual activity be confined within the bounds of that institution, but also a general emphasis on dignity and temperance over self-indulgence and dissolute living. The scorn for these values (or at least for those who speak up for them) shown by the likes of Gillespie and Postrel has led Goldberg to denounce what he calls their “cultural libertarianism.”

    The trouble is, there just is nothing particularly “libertarian” about this cultural libertarianism. There is, in particular, nothing in libertarianism that entails that one ought to be in the least bit hostile to or even suspicious of traditional morality or traditional moralists. There is thus no reason whatsoever why libertarians and conservatives ought to be divided over the question of traditional morality.
    There are, to my knowledge, five sorts of argument for libertarianism. They are:

    1. The utilitarian argument, the suggestion that a free market and free society best fulfill the goals – prosperity, alleviation of poverty, technological innovation, and so forth – which libertarians and their opponents share in common. This is the sort of argument free market economists like Milton Friedman put the most stress on.

    2. The natural rights argument, which emphasizes the idea that individuals have inviolable rights to life, liberty, and property that it is morally wrong for anyone, including the state, to violate even for allegedly good reasons (such as taxation for the sake of helping the needy). This approach has been favored by libertarian philosophers from John Locke to Robert Nozick and Murray Rothbard, and also has an intuitive appeal to the “libertarian in the street” who resents the suggestion that the government has any business telling him what to do in his personal life, or with his money or personal property.

    3. The argument from cultural evolution, associated with F.A. Hayek, who held that societies embody cultural traditions which compete with one another in a kind of evolutionary process, the most “fit” traditions – those most conducive to human well-being – being the ones that survive and thrive, driving their rivals into extinction, or at least onto the historical sidelines: hence capitalism’s victory over communism, a culture which respects private property, contract, and the rule of law being superior in cultural evolutionary terms to one which does not.

    4. The contractarian argument, which (greatly to oversimplify) argues in general that all moral claims rest on a (hypothetical) “social contract” between the individuals comprising society, and in particular that a libertarian society is what rational individuals would contract for. This sort of argument is represented by such libertarian theorists as Jan Narveson and James Buchanan.

    5. The argument from liberty, which claims that freedom per se is intrinsically valuable – valuable for its own sake – and that the best political system is therefore the one that maximizes freedom.

    None of these arguments plausibly supports the idea that libertarianism is incompatible with a strongly traditionalist moral outlook.
    For starters, it cuts no ice breathlessly to refer to Hayek’s essay “Why I Am Not a Conservative” and wave it like a talisman against the embrace of the dreaded traditionalists. For (as Goldberg has wearily had to point out again and again) Hayek’s target in that essay was essentially the statist conservatism of the European tradition, not the Whiggish and liberty-oriented conservatism of the Anglo-American tradition; and his attack had more to do with the use of the state to prop up decaying social institutions than with the question of the value of those institutions themselves. More to the point though, is the substance of Hayek’s position, not the label he wanted to give it; and it is a commonplace among Hayek scholars that, no sooner had Hayek rejected the “conservative” label than his thought took a turn in a decidedly conservative direction. (In scouring Holy Writ for proof-texts they can use against their opponents, without regard for context or the niceties of sophisticated exegesis, Gillespie and Postrel thus rather resemble the Fundamentalists they wouldn’t be caught dead in the same political movement with.)

    Hayek’s theory of cultural evolution – spelled out in The Fatal Conceit and elsewhere – was a defense of tradition, rather than an attack upon it, a defense inspired by the father of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, himself. (Hayek took to describing himself late in life as a “Burkean Whig.”) Hayek’s view was that those fundamental moral and cultural institutions which have survived through the centuries are, for the very reason that they have survived, very likely to serve some important social function, so that we ought to be wary of tampering with them even if we do not always know precisely what function they serve. Changes to such institutions are not to be ruled out absolutely, but they are always to be carried out tentatively and carefully, in piecemeal fashion; and the burden of proof is in any case always on the innovator, not on the conservers of tradition. Some changes may indeed turn out to be beneficial, and the society in which they take place will thrive as a result and outdo its competitors; but others may well be harmful and dysfunctional, with the result that the society which abandons the old ways may suffer damaging effects and even, in the worst case, ultimate dissolution or collapse.

    Hayek applied this defense of tradition not only to the institutions of private property and contract which underlie market society, but also to the family and religion, which he as much as Burke considered bulwarks against the power of the state over the individual, and sources of the moral education without which the individual cannot develop the fortitude and self-reliance to resist the lure of state dependency. And he condemned the notion that liberty ought to be conceived of as freedom from moral restraints – as (in Bertrand Russell’s words) “the absence of obstacles to the realization of our desires” – as a naïve and dangerous rationalist fantasy, an instance of what he called “the abuse and decline of reason” in modern intellectual life. (And, we might now be tempted sadly to add, an instance of the abuse and decline of Reason.)

    It is baffling, then, why anyone should think Hayek’s philosophy a club with which to beat off traditionalism. Indeed, where traditional moral scruples are concerned, the Hayekian libertarian ought to regard change with as much caution as he would changes to the institutions of property and contract. Nor is it hard to see why this is so, not just at the level of abstract theory, but at the level of everyday social and political reality. The family, as we’ve said, is one of the main barriers standing between the individual and the state, for it (rather than the state) is the primary focus of a person’s sense of allegiance to something beyond himself, and is also the arena within which a person learns (or should learn) how to become a responsible and self-supporting citizen of the community. When the family is absent in the life of the individual, the state – especially if such other “intermediate institutions” as the church are themselves weakened – tends inevitably to fill the void. Hence the tendency of single mothers, seeking in government assistance a surrogate to absent husbands and fathers, to be among the Democratic Party’s most loyal voters; hence the listlessness and waywardness of so many of the children of those mothers, giving rise to further social problems to which the same party is only too willing to offer state-empowering “solutions”; and hence the self-accelerating cycle of moral decline leading to state intervention leading to dependency and further moral decline which has characterized social life in the Western world since at least the sixties. For such reasons, maintaining the stability and health of the family must be a chief concern of libertarians as much as of conservatives.
    According to this the family and community is what preserves and protects morality and the individual from the state, as compared to the state instituting morality on the individual and the family, with the individual becoming dependent on the state instead of being self-sufficient and responsible.

    Any thoughts on this? I feel this could be an extension of the Morality & The State thread.

    This may also give common ground and a better understanding about those from the libertarian/anarcho-capitalist stance and what they do have in common with those coming from a conservative/traditionalist aspect. You may realize there is more in common than you think.
    "If the natural tendencies of mankind are so bad that it is not safe to permit people to be free, how is it that the tendencies of these organizers are always good? Do not the legislators and their appointed agents also belong to the human race? Or do they believe that they themselves are made of a finer clay than the rest of mankind?" - Frédéric Bastiat, The Law

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    I may deal with this later. Let's just say for now that libertarianism is essentially the heritage of the French Revolution, and the revolutionary government, among other things, decriminalized homosexuality and incest.

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