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Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The importance of character in a free society: Acton Institute

I don’t like to think of libertarians as being part of the conservative movement as much as I like to think of conservatives being part of the libertarian movement. As former Western Standard columnist and libertarian Karen Selick put it recently, libertarianism is a political philosophy that is agnostic on the question of culture and that can easily accommodate peaceful people who are socially conservative or socially liberal or anywhere in between:

Libertarianism is a political philosophy only. It's not a package deal. It says nothing whatsoever about any of the other branches of philosophy. So, for instance, there are some libertarians who are atheists and others who are religious. The two groups have radically different views on metaphysics and epistemology, but they agree on politics. They agree on what the state should or shouldn't do to its citizens and for its citizens.

Libertarianism is a big tent, and cultural conservatives are welcome.

But while it is widely accepted that fiscal conservatives have a natural home in the libertarian movement, it is often argued passionately – and, I would argue, erroneously --  that social conservatives do not.  In fact, social conservatives are often considered the enemies of freedom, a view espoused by Western Standard blogger Mike Brock here and here. I left several comments on this thread in strong opposition to notion that the libertarian movement has no room for people who value “Freedom, Faith, and Family,” a statement made famous recently by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in defining his vision of conservatism.

Here’s one of my comments on Brock’s post that largely defines my view:

(Isaac Morehouse's recent post adds to this discussion here.)


That the family is a libertarian institution is a matter of definition: it's private, self-regulating, based on the natural authority of parents...authority established, legitimized and enforced by property rights (not property rights in children, but in the home.). Some libertarian-conservatives would add “hierarchical” (patriarchal or matriarchal, it doesn’t matter) to this list with the view that hierarchy is part of the natural order of thing while egalitarianism is the perversion of that order.

Reject family values if you want, Mike, but the family is a libertarian institution. (It’s not a state institution.) We’re talking about two separate things when we talk about values and institutions, of course.

What is required to be a libertarian – at least a natural rights libertarian – is only a commitment to the non-aggression principle. It doesn’t require – and shouldn’t require – the rejection of legitimate authority, established social norms, or self-control.

I believe the best libertarian movement is a culturally conservative one. I, of course, wouldn’t legislate this, only encourage it through whatever social instruments are available to me.

There is a culturally left influence on the libertarian movement that I personally dislike (or at least try to), even though I greatly admire people like my friend Marc Emery.

As for [Ron] Paul, he would ban abortion – that’s correct.

The important questions ultimately raised by Brock’s post – or at least the questions I took away – were this: Must a consistent and lasting libertarian society rest on liberal cultural values like tolerance, diversity and social equality? Do conservative values like self-control, respect for tradition and authority, and a desire for social order tend toward statism more so than liberal values? Which culture – social conservative or social liberal – is more inherently hostile to big government?

The answers to these questions are explored philosophically and empirically by the Acton Institute. Generally speaking, Acton Institute scholars are a socially conservative bunch with the stated goal of “integrating Judeo-Christian truths with free market principles.” (It may be possible to be socially liberal and work toward this stated goal, but I’m not sure now concepts like objective morality could be reconciled.)

All of this brings me to an event notice put out by the Acton Institute for a presentation by libertarian Lawrence Reed on “The Importance of Character in a Free Society” to be held on May 7, 2009 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Here it is:

Ravaged by conflict and corruption, the world is starving for people of character. As much as anything, it is on this matter that the fate of individual liberty has always depended. A free society flourishes when people seek to be models of honor, honesty and propriety at whatever the cost in material wealth, social status or popularity. It descends into barbarism when they abandon what's right in favor of self-gratification at the expense of others; when lying, cheating or stealing are winked at instead of shunned. In this talk, Mr. Reed will discuss the character crisis in America and what we can do about it.

While I tend to believe liberty depends more on institutions then it does on character (institutions shape character, rather than character shaping institutions), the Acton Institute is a remarkable testament to how conservative values and the libertarian idea of political liberty can co-exist. In fact, conservative values and political liberty may even be symbiotic concepts, a theory worth testing in the marketplace of ideas. We just have to get rid of the welfare state first.

So if you find yourself in Michigan on May 7th, stop by the Acton Institute.

Posted by Matthew Johnston

Posted by westernstandard on April 8, 2009 | Permalink


Harper clearly says something really stupid and now his 3 F(ailed) supporters rush to his defence?

What any single people not living at home cannot be now part of the Conservative family too?

Speaking of family vlaues when 70 percent of Albertans are divorced, what family are you now also talking about 1st, 2nd, 3rd?

Thank God the liberals do not have such hypocritical family values to become a Liberal party member..

Posted by: thenonconformer | 2009-04-08 5:19:30 PM

Ron Paul would not ban aboriton. He would overturn Roe v Wade and leave it up the the states to make legislation regarding abortion.

Here is a link to an interview he gave to the View on the matter of abortion: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EL1BOWC3No0

Posted by: yoikes | 2009-04-08 5:46:58 PM

I'm not sure why I wrote that, yoikes. I must have believed it at the time. I think you're right that Paul, notwithstanding his pro-life views, would not prohibit abortion.

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-04-08 6:18:39 PM

I agree that there is much room for fruitful work together between social conservatives and political libertarians. The problem isn't really between social conservatives and those who think "libertarianism is a political philosophy only." It's between social conservatives and those who think libertarianism is a whole world-and-life view, complete with metaphysical and epistemological claims that have to be accepted fully or not at all, and who therefore also employ all sorts of litmus tests to determine ideological purity.

More here on "Moral Duties and Positive Rights."

Posted by: Jordan | 2009-04-08 6:31:20 PM

About Ron Paul:

He did support legislation that would have defined a fetus as a person under the law.

That would have eventually banned abortion everywhere, on equal protection grounds. If fetuses are legal persons, then killing them is legally murder. Full stop.


You and Mike Brock have had this debate before. I'm going to ask a question similar to one I asked in that discussion:

How do you distinguish, if at all, between a social conservative, and a libertarian who happens to largely agree with social conservatives about virtue, value, what makes life worth living, and so on?

Consider Selick's account of libertarianism. If she's right, then if you take up the libertarian view of the role of government, then you are a libertarian. Period.

If there are libertarians who happen to agree with social conservatives about personal morality, that's fine. But such agreement doesn't make social conservatives libertarians. The real question is whether the people who describe themselves as so-cons actually do endorse the libertarian view of government. That's an empirical question, but they often don't.

Another empirical question is the extent to which libertarians-who-agree-with-so-cons-about-morality are willing to legally permit what they see as immorality to flourish. When push comes to shove, are they willing to uphold freedom, even if that freedom is going to be put to immoral (but not rights-violating) ends?

To be honest, I'm not sure I trust them to uphold freedom in such a situation. And the people who call themselves so-cons haven't done much to earn that trust -- not that they need to, because they're not that interested in making common cause with libertarians outside a narrow band of economic issues anyway (and even within that band, there are people like Mike Huckabee!)



Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2009-04-08 7:48:23 PM

"He did support legislation that would have defined a fetus as a person under the law.

That would have eventually banned abortion everywhere, on equal protection grounds. If fetuses are legal persons, then killing them is legally murder. Full stop."

Homicide is still allowable under state law in the case of capital punishment, so I think that abortion would not necessarily be banned.

Posted by: yoikes | 2009-04-08 7:57:00 PM

There's another thing to consider:

While I agree that libertarianism can be defined in a thin way, strictly as a view about politics, there is a question about whether it can be adequately defended without taking up a position on deeper moral issues.

For example, you have to be able to answer the question of why it's so important for the government not to intervene in many areas of life. I actually taught a class about this puzzle tonight:

Many of us believe that, if people made different choices than the choices they tend to make, the world would be a better place (however you define it: environmentalists will have one definition, religious-types another, etc.)

Now that raises a question: if you could force people to make different choices, you could make the world a better place. To be a libertarian, you either have to believe:

(a) It's still wrong to force people to make people certain choices, even if doing so would make the world a better place. Or:

(b) The world would not be a better place if we started to force people to make certain choices.

Now explaining (a) and (b) requires a deeper moral artifice than the thin view of libertarianism provides. And that's fine. But libertarians-who-agree-with-so-cons-about-morality have to explain which option they accept, and they have to do so in a way that's consistent with the deeper morality they claim to endorse.

That's difficult. I'm not even sure it can be done. Social liberals (Ronald Dworkin is the best example here) have an easy way to respond to this issue, because they will often say that, in fact, you can't improve anyone's life or the world by forcing people to make choices they themselves cannot endorse, from their own point of view.

My battery is dying so sorry this is so scattershot.

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2009-04-08 8:01:29 PM


The problem would be if states permitted the killing of one class of people under their laws and not another class, without adequate justification.

When it comes to capital punishment, states do claim to have a justification for allowing convicted murderers to be killed.

Clearly, under the 14th Amendment, states cannot make it legal to kill, say, blacks. I'm not sure why the same analysis wouldn't hold for the killing of legal persons who haven't yet been born.

Damn, battery dying.. :-)

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2009-04-08 8:09:10 PM

"How do you distinguish, if at all, between a social conservative, and a libertarian who happens to largely agree with social conservatives about virtue, value, what makes life worth living, and so on?"

Libertarians are people who believe in political liberty.

Social conservatives are people who believe in cultural values like "virtue, value and what makes life worth living, and so on."

While both social conservatives and social liberals often want to see their cultural preferences imposed on the rest of us via the state, there are plently of people, many on this site, who do not.

There is nothing inherently pro-statist about socially conservative values -- and nothing inherently anti-statist about socially liberal values, as has been argued on this site.

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-04-08 8:23:47 PM

"The problem would be if states permitted the killing of one class of people under their laws and not another class, without adequate justification."

The homicide of abortion is justified (poorly or otherwise) to end womb trespassing by the fetus.

As poor as this justification may seem, I prefer this argument to the argument of non-personhood of the fetus. The non-personhood argument does not allow for murder of a pregnant woman to be considered a double homicide.

Posted by: yoikes | 2009-04-08 8:45:39 PM

"To be honest, I'm not sure I trust them to uphold freedom in such a situation."

This gets to the heart of the matter. When it comes to their own liberties, social liberals don't trust social conservatives and social conservatives don't trust social liberals.

You and Mike are both expressing this mistrust.

When somebody says "I really hate potheads," our first reaction as libertarians is to think this person can't be trusted not to support prohibition laws.

Fair enough. But don't hold a double standard.

For example, when somebody says "I really love pot," don't assume they won't support human rights legislation that would prevent landlords from evicting pop smokers.

Social conservatives and social liberals both have their preferences and both are inclined to use the power of the state to ensure those preferencs are safeguarded.

I happen to think social conservative preferences are more liberty-sustaining, but I'm prepared to allow the free market in cultural ideas be the final judge of that.

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-04-08 9:00:17 PM


"There is nothing inherently pro-statist about socially conservative values."

This is true only in the sense that there is nothing pro-statist about most values. For instance, the hedonist takes pleasure to be the source of all value. Is that pro-statist? Well, no. Under the right assumptions, you could be both a hedonist and a libertarian.

The question has to be about the relationship between values and the other parts of morality -- that is, about the relationship between "the good" and "the right."

Cast in those terms, the libertarian has to either believe:

(a) When it comes to the state, the right has to trump the good. The state should never violate rights, even if that means sacrificing a lot of value.


(b) The good cannot be achieved without the right. That is, it's impossible to make the world a better place (with respect to values) by violating peoples' rights.

Social liberals often opt for (b.) Dworkin, for example. He believes a valuable life can only be one lived by its own lights, according to its own standards. Respecting the rights of others is never a matter of sacrificing values; that kind of respect is necessary if there is to be any value in the first place.

If social conservatives would tell me what kind of libertarian they see themselves to be -- the (a) type or the (b) type -- that would assuage some of my worries.

But the people who actually call themselves social conservatives seem to believe something like the following:

1. A good life is one lived according to certain, objective standards.

(I agree with this part.)

2. The state should, in some cases, use its power to ensure or help people live that kind of life. Maybe not all the time, but sometimes, when the stakes are high enough and the costs of intervening in people's lives are low.

(I disagree with this part.)

This explains the conservative resistance on the drug issue. (And any social conservatives reading this, correct me if this isn't an accurate rendition of your view, at least in the abstract.)

The view is that drug users like Marc Emery are living objectively poor lives. Even worse, they're making it easier for others to live poor lives. Thus, the government should step in and stop him from doing such things.

Understood this way, the social conservative position on the drug laws is quite coherent.

What it isn't, in any way, is libertarian.

What am I missing here? Isn't this exactly why libertarians are making no headway with social conservatives on this issue? You've seen the same debates on the Shotgun I have.


Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2009-04-08 9:14:19 PM

Terrence: I agree with Matthew on this issue.

You count as a libertarian if you think the size and scope of government should be very, very small (a general prohibition on the initiation of force is a good general policy here). That a lot of socially conservative people don't call themselves that is reflective, I think, of two things:

1. Ignorance about libertarianism (for an absolutely carnage-filled train-wreck of an example, see this very public display of embarrassing ignorance), and;

2. an implicit ranking of what's more important to the particular person. I think so-cons want emphasis placed on their social & cultural convictions (family, tradition, faith). The specific role of the state (and, therefore, political philosophy and convictions) is of secondary importance.

One possible, and plausible, third reason is;

3. The distinction between politics and culture slips between our fingers so often, and people like Stephen Harper (intentionally?) muddle it up and talk as though there isn't a distinction to be made.

As for your second point about justification:

You count as a cheese lover just in case you love cheese, but the fact of your loving cheese does not serve as justification for loving cheese. For that, you need a normative story. Similarly, wanting the state to only prohibit initiation of aggression makes you a libertarian, but we need a story for what might justify this conviction. But there are many stories -- natural rights, utilitarian, consequentialist, natural law, Kantian, etc. etc. -- that will lead to libertarianism depending on the details and, at least in some cases, empirical facts.

A social conservative might think, for example, that a state big enough to support and promote a traditional family, and Judeo-Christian values, is big enough to undermine and tear apart the traditional family and Judeo-Christian values. Some are going to think that the best thing would be for "their" guys to get in power, but others are going to find common cause with the libertarian and think, "better fight to keep the state small!"

In fact, I think so-cons should be libertarians given recent history. The state is no friend of the traditional family, is no friend of homeschoolers, is no friend to Christians, is no friend to traditional values in general. So-cons in bed with the government are in bed with their enemy.

Posted by: P.M. Jaworski | 2009-04-08 9:27:39 PM


There is a huge different between "I really hate potheads" and "I really like pot."

If I say, "I really like vanilla ice cream," I take myself to be doing nothing more than expressing a preference -- my own -- for vanilla ice cream.

"I really hate potheads" might indeed be a similar expression of preference. A preference for not living near potheads, for example.

But social conservatives don't hate potheads the way I hate bananas (and I do. A lot.) They hate potheads for certain reasons, because they make certain judgments about the kind of lives potheads lead (warranted or not.)

That's a huge difference. As far as I know, Emery doesn't hate the people who choose not to smoke pot. He likes pot because of its impact on his life. He recognizes that pot isn't for everyone (at least I hope he recognizes this; regardless, everyone I've known who smokes pot does.)

But if "I hate potheads" is a judgment in the way I described, it has certain implications. If I hate potheads because I think they're living bad lives, lives unworthy of human beings, that almost has to make some difference to my position about whether pot smoking should be tolerated or not.

I say "almost has to" because there is no logical connection between "Potheads live bad lives" and "The state ought to prohibit people from smoking pot." There isn't a logical connection, but there is a psychological one.

I'm not saying libertarians can't hate potheads for the same reasons social conservatives do. But I trust a libertarian who hates potheads because he rejects the idea that the state has any business helping people live good lives.

If you start from a different position, as social conservatives seem to (set out in (1) in my previous comment), then I'm really not going to trust that you'll leave the potheads alone.

So I'm not sure I see the inconsistency you point out. It isn't just that social conservatives hate potheads. It's that (a) they think potheads are living bad lives, encouraging others to do the same and (b) they often seem to think that the state should help people live good lives.

Those things, taken together, justify quite a bit of suspicion, at least in my opinion. But even (a) alone justifies some.

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2009-04-08 9:28:45 PM


I agree that you can get to libertarianism along many different roads. However, I'm trying to set out conditions a moral view must satisfy if it is going to be able to support libertarianism coherently.

Anyone can say "Potheads live poor lives, but we shouldn't ban pot." And good for people who do. But that's not enough to get people like me (and Mike Brock, probably) to trust social conservatives. Why shouldn't we ban pot, if you think potheads live poor lives?

Obviously, there are many views that could satisfy one condition or the other. For example, kantianism explains why the right should be prior to the good.

My position is that social conservatives haven't explained how it is that their deep view of morality satisfies one of those conditions.

Those conditions were:

(a) When it comes to the state, the right has to trump the good. The state should never violate rights, even if that means sacrificing a lot of value.


(b) The good cannot be achieved without the right. That is, it's impossible to make the world a better place (with respect to values) by violating peoples' rights.

Maybe these conditions are inadequate. Still, think about it: while you can get to libertarianism in many ways, there are easier ways to get to it than others. And every moral view will have to decide if and when rights can be sacrificed to promote what it takes to be valuable.

Or, to put it another way, to count as libertarian-compatible, every moral view claiming that potheads live poor lives is going to have to explain why it would still be wrong to take pot away from Marc Emery.

Kantian morality, as I understand it, endorses (a.) So do natural rights libertarians. That's how they explain why it would be wrong to take Marc's pot from him. Some social liberals endorse (b.) They would say that taking Marc's pot would not actually make him a better person, because being a good person means living a life according to one's own lights. Etc.

My point was that I haven't (yet) encountered a self-described social conservative who accepts either (a) or (b.) That's why they think it would be legitimate for the state to take away Marc's pot.

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2009-04-08 9:52:09 PM

Change "pot" to "pot culture" for a more like on like example then, Terrence.

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-04-08 9:54:16 PM


I see what you're driving at, and I think my initial comment still answers the question, except obliquely.

The so-con is not going to oppose the state in principle, unless they accept either your a) or your b). However, in practice they might.

That was the point of my last paragraph: The so-con is involved in a dangerous liaison with the state. Empower it to take Emery's pot, and it'll be powerful enough to -- to take an example that would have been absurd just 10 years ago -- force churches to perform weddings that they morally object to, or force doctors to choose between either performing abortions or not being doctors at all.

The state is not a precision instrument, it is a blunt hammer. And you have such limited control over it; each of us count as just one in 30,000,000. Better fight to keep the hammer out of everyones hands, rather than fight to occasionally wield it.

But I agree with the sentiment. I find that I am deeply impressed and, in fact, moved by the so-con who respects me enough to try and persuade me, rather than bypass me and get the police to knock on my door to ensure that I'm going to church and not doing anything faggoty. This is because the temptation to want to grab the hammer, especially when the tide of cultural opinion is on your side, must be overwhelming. (I feel the same way about the cultural liberal who doesn't reach for the hammer as well).

Posted by: P.M. Jaworski | 2009-04-08 10:18:52 PM


I know what you're getting at: it's the road to serfdom idea. If the state has the power to do X, soon it will do Y, then Z, then...

I'm going to use Shane Matthews as a model here. Shane, if you're reading this, I mean no offense, but you're an articulate defender of the idea that the state should keep pot out of the hands of Emery and others like him. So you're a good model to use.

The social conservative says: you can't make pot legal. That will lead to bad outcomes. Besides, pot was criminalized for certain reasons, and those reasons still apply.

You say: look, if you give the government the power to criminalize pot, you're giving it the power to shut down churches.

The so-con replies: No, I'm not. There's no logical connection between criminalizing pot and shutting down churches. In fact, there are critical differences between the two. For one, most Canadians don't care about pot, but they do care about freedom of religion. That freedom is even in the constitution. Public opinion, in this regard, is a barrier on the road to serfdom.

You say:
But each of us is only one person out of 30,000,000! If the state is oppressing Emery, how can you guarantee that it won't turn around and oppress you?

The so-con replies:
Silly libertarian! While I'm only one individual, I'm part of a well-organized interest group with huge membership. Politicians can't afford to piss us off. In contrast, Emery and his ilk have limited popular appeal, and less money. If it comes down to a battle over the hammer of the state, my side will win every time.

[NB: If you disagree about Emery's appeal, substitute some other despised minority.]

Besides, it's a good thing if my side wins. We know what it means to live a good life. You're not calling our moral views wrong, are you?

You say:
No, I'm not. I'm agnostic about deeper moral issues. But don't you see that we'd all be better off if we agreed to put down the hammer?

He responds:
Maybe, but I doubt it. If my side puts down the hammer, people like Emery will use their freedom to encourage others to live bad lives. And since "the tide of cultural opinion" is on my side -- and has been on my side for a while -- it just doesn't seem very rational to make such an agreement. Can you guarantee that the other (evil) interest groups will do the same?

Well, no...

So how do you respond at that point, Jaws? I've seen this discussion play out a hundred times. So have you. While a so-con might agree to put down the hammer, why would it be rational for so-cons as a whole to put it down?

I think what's going on here is that the libertarian is approaching the whole discussion from an ex ante point of view. The libertarian is saying, basically, that if we were starting society from scratch, we would leave the hammer out of it.

But the so-con already has the hammer. Or, at least, somebody -- some interest group -- has it. And you're trying to explain why it would be rational to give it up. But "why give it up" explanation will be different from the "why include it in the first place" explanation.

This is not to say you can't be a libertarian who agrees with so-cons about deeper moral issues. But for libertarians to trust so-cons, the so-cons have to be willing to give up the hammer despite the fact that it is not, at this time, totally rational for them to do so.

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2009-04-09 1:51:48 PM

The details don't concern me that much, Terrence. I'm only arguing for the *possibility* of a socially conservative libertarian, and expressing my belief about the empirical facts and about which slopes are slippery.

We can have the empirical debate when we have stats, facts, and figures in front of us, as well as sufficient historical info.

The agreement to avoid the hammer seems like a reasonable compromise, at least under certain conditions. And, as I've said before, the pot culture will win, very soon. And the bargaining positions will shift. Soon. I think the free speech debate is a perfect example of many so-cons coming to re-discover and agree with the libertarian position on speech. And there are many other cases like this.

Posted by: P.M. Jaworski | 2009-04-09 2:25:55 PM

The trouble with libertarianism is that it's too utopian. Like communism and socialism, it places too much faith in the altruistic character of mankind, and it will fail for the same reason. The laissez-faire capitalist model is best because it is the only one that considers people for what they are, rather than what someone wishes they would be.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-04-09 2:47:00 PM

P.S. And PM, the pot culture will win in the next twenty years or not at all. According to several reports, younger generations are using less and less of it. Only the baby boomers, who not coincidentally happen to currently hold the reins of power, are propping it up, as evinced by the disproportionate share of pot users on this board that are fifty or sixty or over.

Once the boomers and their never-ending quest for self-indulgence leave the scene, there will be far less incentive to legalize and a system far less likely to see the need. Abortion and indiscriminate sex, also boomer trademarks, are down as well. The boomers were not the wave of the future, but rather a lurid carny sideshow whose day is almost done.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-04-09 2:53:56 PM

P.S.S. It really is monotonous how so many of the discussions on this board, whatever the initial topics, turn to the subject of legalized pot.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-04-09 2:54:45 PM

So which is it? Are libertarians too naive because they think people are altruistic, or because we think people are selfish?

Why do the objections to libertarianism always change depending on context?

Posted by: P.M. Jaworski | 2009-04-09 2:54:50 PM

Shane Matthews wrote: "The laissez-faire capitalist model is best because it is the only one that considers people for what they are, rather than what someone wishes they would be."

But this is libertarianism, Shane.

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-04-09 2:55:00 PM

Libertarians are naive because they think that only governments are selfish.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-04-09 2:55:53 PM

Apparently, the hyperlinks didn't work. Here you go:


Posted by: P.M. Jaworski | 2009-04-09 2:55:54 PM


It's probably my fault that the discussion turned in that direction. It was just a useful example. I know social conservatives disagree with libertarians in other respects. But after seeing many discussions about the drug issue, I think I might be getting a handle on the opposing positions.

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2009-04-09 3:00:17 PM

WAY too many philosophers on this site are using the terms 'good' and 'bad', or 'better' and 'worse', as though in an intrinsic, absolute sense. They need to re-read their Thrasymachus, Hobbes, Hume, and G.E. Moore. And then get back to me with a definition of these terms.

There ain't no such beast as a 'good' property that is inherent in nature. Things are only intrinsically good or bad for an experiencing subject - i.e. to you or to me. You can string as many such subjective values together as you wish, and you will never get beyond nonsense upon stilts in political philosophy. (If there were any genuinely universal, intersubjective values, the conditions of justice with respect to them would not obtain: since we would all agree on those values, there would be no conflict for principles of justice to resolve.)

What we need is a method of resolving conflicts when your values and mine conflict or compete. The only objective way to do so is the libertarian way: let everyone agree to disagree in peace - or else kill off or incarcerate those who refuse to seek their values in peace.

By the way, Lorne Gunter is an example of a social conservative who is a libertarian.

Posted by: Grant Brown | 2009-04-09 11:55:22 PM

"By the way, Lorne Gunter is an example of a social conservative who is a libertarian."

Yes he is. He may also be the best columnist on Canada.

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-04-10 12:30:37 AM

"Libertarians are naive because they think that only governments are selfish."

Not true. People are selfish, so don't give them political power.

You sound like a libertarian, Shane.

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-04-10 12:32:37 AM

Grant: One additional possibility is that we do, in fact, intersubjectively agree on values, but disagree on their relative rankings. Difference in rankings results in significant conflict.

Posted by: P.M. Jaworski | 2009-04-10 12:55:59 AM

I don’t like to think of libertarians as being part of the conservative movement as much as I like to think of conservatives being part of the libertarian movement.

Posted by Western Standard on April 8, 2009 | Permalink

I have tried, but I just can't get behind making the assertion that conservatism is part of the libertarian movement or that libertarianism is part of the conservative movement.

Being conservative means working towards some goals that expand the state, though they are different goals than "liberals" (using the American meaning) or socialists, they still would expand the responsibliities of the state beyond what any libertarian would grant it. If conservatives were only working towards libertarian-compatible goals, they'd simply be libertarians.

Libertarians and (some) conservatives want to move towards smaller government and they ought to work together towards that goal and not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Regardless, heading in the same direction doesn't make you part of the same political movement.

Posted by: Janet | 2009-04-10 10:32:39 AM


You're going to have a hard time convincing me that the social conservatives who disapprove of Emery aren't doing so because they think he's living an objectively bad life and encouraging others to do the same.

Same goes for the so-cons who supported or who support anti-sodomy laws. And many other examples.

The so-con recognizes that Emery likes smoking pot. They just think he's wrong to do so: that he's valuing what is without value, etc.

I admit I'm probably filling in the details of an argument that, for most so-cons, is rather inchoate, but I'm trying to do it charitably, in a way that makes sense of the positions I see so-cons take up on various issues.

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2009-04-10 11:27:28 AM

But this is libertarianism, Shane. - Meaning?

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-04-10 11:38:54 AM

Grant, philosophy has nothing to do with sound governance and good public policy. Philosophy deals with the abstract; governments deal with realpolitik. Philosophies, like governments, are human constructs. If one won't do, then another must. There is no obligation, metaphysical or spiritual or otherwise, to force social norms and governance to conform to an artificial construct like philosophy—especially when so many philosophers are certifiably nuts.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-04-10 11:43:58 AM

No, Janet. Being conservative means you believe that the existing structures, values, and policies of society should be retained and that changes should be made only when necessary. Classical liberals are open to change, and embrace it even; conservatives are hostile to it. By this definition the baby boomers, Québecers especially, are as extremely conservative in the classical sense today as they were liberal in the classical sense in 1968.

The idea that conservative = Right and liberal = Left is a modern idea deriving from the respective roles played by each side in the mid-20th century.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-04-10 11:47:20 AM

Shane: "Classical liberals are open to change, and embrace it even; conservatives are hostile to it."

Check out Friedrich Hayek.

Posted by: P.M. Jaworski | 2009-04-10 11:54:16 AM

Actually, Terrence, the fact that Emery is living a bad life and encouraging others to do the same is the VERY reason "so-cons" like myself oppose him and are happy to see him answer for his crimes. He broke the law flagrantly and openly, daring someone to prosecute him. The fact that he is now running like a frightened jackrabbit because someone finally took him up on the offer shows that he was bluffing all along.

Emery is not prepared to face prison for his beliefs. But it helped his reputation to make others believe that he was, which was why he cultivated that belief. His bluff has been called; he stands revealed as the unprincipled and narcissistic baby boomer that he is.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-04-10 11:55:03 AM


Sorry, I was probably unclear. I was agreeing with you: that the reason you and other conservatives oppose Emery is because he's leading a bad life and encouraging others to do the same.

I'm glad I was not misrepresenting your position. What I've been trying to do is show that, for better or worse, it's not a position that's compatible with libertarianism.

In other words, I'm not trying to say that you're wrong, just that we shouldn't expect you to embrace libertarianism any time soon :-)

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2009-04-10 12:26:26 PM

Well overall this is a pretty good debate, even though it is beginning to degenerate into "pot arguments."

As a Libertarian I am all for freedom of choice on "everything." If some moron wants to hide in his closet and smoke crack until he dies in convulsions...more power to him. But if that same moron wants to come into my house and steal things or hurt my family...then I refer you to property rights and the right to self and property defense without retreat.

All crimes fall into one of two categories: force and fraud. For this we need a reliable "justice" system that has teeth. And I just don't give a damn if people want to use drugs; they're idiots anyway. And the whole problem would sort itself out very quickly if we dropped prohibition and reinstated rights to self defense. We wouldn't need the government to get involved at all. And they really don't like that.

Posted by: JC | 2009-04-10 1:54:05 PM

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