The virtuous seed of freedom

This is in response to the Evangelical Outpost’s Virtue Ethics and Broken Windows: Why I am not a libertarian.

Like other “ism’s”, libertarianism is difficult to define. Essentially, libertarians believe that each person “owns” his own life and property, and has the right to make his own decisions about how he shall live, providing he respects the rights of others to do the same. Cato Institute vice-president David Boaz adds that the basic political issue of libertarianism is the relationship of the individual to the state.

The primary flaw in libertarianism is that it is rooted in an ethic of utilitarianism rather than virtue ethics. Without a person developing the corresponding moral character necessary for self-restraint, his liberty is bound to result in the harm of others. In fact, freedom without virtue is corrosive and will destroy everything within its range. The Founding Fathers understood this connection between liberty and a virtuous citizenry when they founded our republic.

This is absolutely true. However, we have two choices. To abandon the primacy of the individual and accept the modern conservative notion that the state is justified in wielding its power to modify individual conceptions of morality and behavior, or to seek to remove this utilitarian flaw. There is without question a connection between liberty and a virtuous citizenry, however, virtue consists of far more than simply obeying a law under fear of state violence. I submit that a virtuous citizenry may be more easily achieved by example, social pressure and a refusal to permit the state to protect and sustain unvirtuous behavior than by the oft-failed attempt to wield state power in support of virtue.

Libertarians, however, are not hedonists. They do believe that the rule of law is essential to government, though instead of rooting it in natural law theory they rely on “spontaneously developed legal rules.” (I find it rather surprising that a theory that relies on such concepts “natural rights” and “natural harmony” has so little use for “natural law.”)

My answer to the utilitarian flaw rests on precisely this point. Christian libertarianism, or Natural Freedom, if you will, is open to the precepts of natural law theory. Indeed, the notion of Natural Freedom stems from the Divine creation of free will, and suggests that since God refrains from using his omnipotence to enforce virtue, the human polity should do likewise and refrain from using its power to the greatest extent possible.

Boaz also contends that individuals should not be subject to the state’s “arbitrary commands.” (The fact that he doesn’t explain the difference between rules that are “spontaneously developed” and those that are “arbitrary” is simply one of numerous problems with his viewpoint.) By placing an overemphasis on individual liberty without an equal accent on individual virtue, the libertarian unwittingly erodes the foundation of order on which his political theory stands.

This point, quite obviously, cannot be made against a Christian libertarianism based on Natural Freedom. Individual liberty depends on public virtue, which in return depends on individual virtue that cannot be imposed by external forces.

Order is a necessary precondition of liberty and must be maintained from the lowest level of government (the individual conscience) to the highest (the state). The individual conscience is the most basic level of government and it is regulated by virtues. Liberty, in this view, is not an end unto itself but a means by which eudaimonia (happiness or human flourishing) can most effectively be pursued. Liberty is a necessary component of virtue ethics, but it cannot be a substitute. Since it is based on the utilitarian principle that puts liberty, rather than eudaimonia as the chief end of man, libertarianism undermines order and becomes a self-defeating philosophy.

Again, inapplicable. I admit that virtue is the chief end of man, and without it liberty will not survive long in either the individual or the society.

It is either cultivated from within, through self-disciple, or is forced upon an individual from forces outside themselves (i.e., by the laws or mores of the community) if they lack the requisite character. Once established, this order has to be maintained to be effective. In the absence of order there is no peace, no justice, and certainly no “natural harmony.”

History is rife with examples of failure to impose virtue using state power, with most devolving ultimately into tyranny. Even the most powerful totalitarian states have found themselves impotent in the face of individual will. (This, in fact, is the foundation for my theory of socialist crisis.)

Therefore before we can address the relationship between “the individual and the state” we must first establish the relationship between individual liberty and order maintenance. Take, for example, the “victimless crimes” of prostitution, vagrancy, or public drunkenness. Theoretically, libertarians should support the “decriminalization” of all these acts since they do not necessarily harm other people or their property. But how long could a community last if such liberty is granted free reign?

There is no such thing as public drunkenness where there is no public ownership. Vagrancy can only be trespassing where there is nothing but private property. In a society with an actual right of free association, such behaviors would not be permitted to take place wherever the majority of individuals did not approve of it. There are numerous historical examples of unsavory characters finding it impossible to make a living where their presence was not desired; the fact that such ostracism is now defined as illegal discrimination only shows that the State is a two-edged sword, more foe to liberty than friend. As anyone with an experience of Japan knows, ostracism can be a more powerful societal weapon than law. Decriminalization does not necessarily imply societal acceptance nor granting such “liberty” free rein.

In a similar fashion, the breakdown of community standards does not break down all at once. Rather each “broken window” of virtuous behavior (recreational use of drugs, for example) leads to more “window-breaking” until the community lacks the “virtue” necessary to govern itself and requires a higher level (the state) to step in.

If the window-breaker finds himself unable to survive in the community, he will not break many windows. Broken Window theory does not apply. However, this illustrates why eradicating the right of free association is paramount for the would-be tyrant. If it is in effect, there will likely not be enough chaos out of which he can justify his particular brand of order.

Libertarians, of course, are primarily from the middle to upper classes of society. They are not affected by such behavior precisely because the police maintain a level of order and discipline within their communities. If, however, they had to live with such activity on a day-to-day basis, they would likely revise what was considered “arbitrary” and what is considered “spontaneous.”

This reveals the inherently backward-thinking of the conservative position. Middle and upper class society is not unaffected by such behavior because the police maintain order and discipline, it is unaffected because such behavior does not take place primarily due to the virtue and behavioral expectations of the individuals who live in such communities.

I once committed an act of petty vandalism, spray-painting a street sign. I was never caught, nor was the remorse I felt afterwards based on any guilt for breaking the law. As an upper-middle class boy with upper-middle class aesthetics, I was disturbed by the ugly appearance of the vandalized sign. Finally, one night, I went out with paint thinner and did my best to remove the paint. I was quite relieved when, a few months later, the sign was replaced.

The War on Drugs demonstrates how the conservative impulse to use the power of the state to impose virtue lapses insensibly into tyranny. And it is this tyranny of imposed virtue that accounts for the similarity between liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, as they use precisely the same method of state power in pursuit of different definitions of virtue.

Christian libertarianism is not a halfway point of social liberalism and economic conservativism. It is, rather, the most natural and logical philosophy of individual freedom and individual virtue, and one, I believe, that is the most consistent with the Constitutional vision of human liberty set forth by the American Founding Fathers.