Faith and community are slogans for most politicians, but they are real to most people. They have little place in libertarianism. That’s not completely true — many libertarians have a faith in spontaneous order that borders on mystical; it is almost literally the god in the machine that will bring peace and prosperity to social arrangements if only the state will diminish far enough. But faith in a God who judges the wicked and the just is alien and offensive to most libertarians. This is probably because it implies a conscious external authority. Far better to be ruled by markets and community norms (though not really — more on this below) than by someone who refers to himself as a Lord or a King (and in upper-case, at that).
It is important at this point to distinguish between people who are libertarian and those who appear libertarian because of the Nolan Chart, or because it suits their contrarian temperament, and between those who practice a faith and those who conveniently claim it when it suits them. After all, Bill Maher calls himself a libertarian, while Bill Clinton calls himself a Christian. I’ll limit myself in what follows to those who consciously and accurately reflect in word or deed the applicable creed.
Now most libertarians have a friend who is both a libertarian and a believing Jew or Christian. For some this allows the pretense that libertarianism isn’t nearly exclusively an atheistic following. It is readily apparent, however, that faith has little role to play in either the belief, behavior, or work of influential libertarians, i.e., scholars, politicians (such as they are), activists, and thinkers.
A good libertarian will respond that faith has no role in libertarianism because the essence of this creed is that people should be free to make their own personal decisions in all spheres, so long as they don’t infringe on the corresponding liberty of others. Thus libertarianism has nothing to say about faith any more than it has something to say about what you eat for dinner — it’s your choice. But imagine that virtually all active libertarians were anorexic, and largely disdainful of the eaters. They wouldn’t suggest any laws to keep these people from doing their thing, but they probably wouldn’t come across as very sympathetic either. In other words, there are important costs, borne of this unnecessary fusion of libertarianism and atheism, to the libertarian cause.
The first results from a frequent inability to distinguish between belief and behavior. If a Christian politician calls for vigorous enforcement of anti-pornography laws, for example, the prevailing view among libertarians is that he is not only wrong to infringe on liberty, but also silly for thinking pornography is an evil thing. They would view its prohibition as terrible in itself, not because doing so creates a precedent for prohibiting other forms of commerce and expression. There is a significant difference between these positions.
A thought experiment: imagine that there are two societies with open borders. The first has complete economic and social liberty, but faith and community norms are so strong that nobody produces or desires to use pornography, or narcotics, or even profanity, and virtually everyone attends church on a regular basis. Imagine that the second has less regulation of economic and social activity than the U.S. today, but considerably more than the first society. On the other hand, its members are completely tolerant of free sexual expression, all forms of speech, and drug use. In which society would you choose to live?
My hunch is that most libertarians would prefer the second society. Theirs is not just a political libertarianism (i.e., this is how rights and government should be arranged), but a cultural libertarianism (i.e., people shouldn’t be upset by behaviors that don’t violate the rights of others). Furthermore, a considerable minority of libertarians probably view these so-called vices as positive goods, whereas the rare Christian or Jewish (by faith) libertarian views them as significant negatives that must be tolerated for the sake of liberty.
The libertarian intolerance of intolerance thus leads to the second negative consequence of fusing libertarianism and atheism — it leaves libertarians shy about saying what should guide behavior, and distrustful of those who do. Libertarians are very fond of pointing out that a (if not the) primary directive in a free society is to refrain from violating the rights of others. This is all well and good, but a society will not thrive on non-intervention alone. The libertarian society more than others, in fact, depends on self-discipline, an impulse for charity, and serious attention to moral education of one’s children, among other disciplines.
These are important elements in the libertarian society, but libertarians are profoundly uncomfortable at judging bad behavior as such. That’s for conservatives after all, and hey, aren’t they the ones who get all uptight about porn? Live and let live, that’s our motto, baby.
Libertarians in the area of morality are like corporations in the area of business ethics. Nobody believes them when they talk about the rules that should govern the game, because they are rarely willing to condemn bad behavior that is technically within the rules. Like corporate America, libertarians will begin to have moral authority when they are the first to condemn poor behavior.
The problem, of course, is that libertarians might be hard-pressed to admit that things like divorce, or making pornography, or propping one’s children in front of the idiot box for hours on end, or failing to respect one’s parents, etc., are examples of bad behavior. It is an even greater stretch to expect them to condemn it.
I think this reluctance to pronounce moral opprobrium on bad behavior results from a fear that behaviors labeled as immoral tend to be regulated by the state. The libertarian response to this reality seems to be to pretend that such behaviors really aren’t so bad after all, or at least not nearly so bad as theft by taxation.
If it is true that defining behavior as bad inevitably leads to its regulation, then libertarians are in a quandary, because I think civil, productive, happy society depends on the recognition by a large majority of its population that some behaviors are bad, and their practitioners worthy of ostracism. If the libertarian position is that people cannot be trusted to hold these beliefs without yielding to the temptation to use government to enforce them on others, then it faces two seemingly intractable problems.
The first is that it places itself in the unwinnable situation of needing to convince various pluralities that behaviors like the aforementioned really aren’t so bad, and thus unworthy of government intervention. The second is that in doing so it ends up advocating a society that will ultimately reject its suggested system of government, because a society filled with people who have few community norms beyond those of a college libertarian club is likely to disintegrate to the point that it falls prey to internal or external tyrants. Ayn Rand aside, selfish, godless people do not a good society make.
Note: As you might have noticed in the comments sections, there are several smart people with their own webpages who have responded to this collection of essays. They are worth reading. In a future post I’ll take up some of their challenges.