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Libertarians and morality

26 May 2010

On my other blog I recently wrote about a couple of political quizzes (see Notes from underground: Taking your political temperature redux) which purport to show where you stand politically. One of them, Political Compass, seemed pretty good, while the other, Political Spectrum, seemed pretty bad.

I commented there on a couple of questions in the Political Spectrum quiz on morality, law and government. One of them was:

A person’s morality is of the most personal nature; therefore government should have no involvement in moral questions or promote moral behaviors.

The question seemed designed to test how “libertarian” one was, but I found the question rather disturbing since it implied that the government should not be concerned with corruption, civil servants taking bribes etc. because these are “personal” matters.

One commentator said that the compilers of the quiz were probably thinking of sexual morality, and that got me thinking a bit more about it. If so, it would imply that the compilers of the quiz thought that corruption in the civil service is not merely a personal matter that the government should not interfere in, but that it is not a moral issue at all, and that morality is only concerned with sexual issues. Otherwise, if the compilers of the quiz had only sexual morality in mind, why didn’t they say so?

As a self-described liberal, I believe in the liberal principle that “the government governs best that governs least”. The difference between liberals and libertarians, it seems to me, is that libertarians believe rather in the anarchist principle that “no government is good government”, and that they also tend to mistake liberty for licence.

The quiz, however, as I noted in my other post, seems biased not only towards libertarianism, but also towards antinomianism.

I have a certain amount of sympathy of anarchism, but not the “right” anarchism of the self-described libertarians, but rather towards anarcho-syndicalism. I mention this so that anyone who reads what follows can be aware of my biases.

My response to the comment that the compilers of the quiz had only sexual morality in mind was to recall that we had, and as far as I know still have, a “Moral Regeneration” movement, which is government sponsored, and indeed our president, whose sexual morality seems to disturb even some of his most enthusiastic supporters, was at one time its patron. I believe it arose from concern that civil servants who took bribes did not seem to have any moral qualms about it, so I think anyone who thinks that “morality” refers only to sexual morality probably lacks a moral compass too.

The history of the Moral Regeneration movement does, at one level, seem to support the contention that the government should have no involvement in promoting moral behaviour. But I am not sure of the corollary implied by the quiz question — that the government should take no disciplinary action against civil servants who take bribes, because morality is a “personal” matter. And that, of course, was the president’s argument to justify his reluctance to disclose the gifts he had been given, as required by parliamentary rules.

But of course, in the libertarian scheme of things, there would be no government, and therefore no civil servants to take bribes, so the question falls away. Instead of democratic rule by elected governments who are at least theoretically accountable to the public, we would have the arbitrary rule of unelected corporations, ruled by the principle of unaccountable, unbridled laissez-faire capitalist greed.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 26 May 2010 4:10 pm

    I think for me, it’s not so much a matter of promoting morality — after all, you can’t force someone to be moral who simply doesn’t want to — but to protect people from the consequences of others’ immorality.

    Also, I’m not a libertarian. While I like their views on a social issues normally, I find their economic views rather troubling and unworkable.

  2. Alexander Patico permalink
    29 May 2010 3:52 pm

    You stated (quite rightly) that there is a liberal principle “that government governs best that governs least.” I must acknowledge, though, that in the context of the U.S.A. (the North American one, not the Southern Africa one) not only is the term “liberal” fallen into such disrepute that it is scarcely used nowadays (adherents say “progressive,” while their most ardent detractors use terms such as “communist,” “left-wing” or just “evil”), but the principle itself has taken some hard shocks to the system. You would have a hard time convincing the American man-on-the-street that such an axiom was ever associated with liberalism. (I am afraid that this is based on not a little actual empirical evidence, as spending is an addiction that many public officials seem to have an easy time acquiring and a very difficult time casting off.)

    I might draw the distinction between liberal and libertarian using somewhat different lines than what you have given. A principled, thoughtful libertarian (there are a few scattered about) emphasizes the individual as the primary locus of rights and responsibilities, whereas governments (and, by extension, all social compacts and collectivities) are something quite different and are to do only those things that individuals cannot possibly do. A liberal (with a requisite nod to Christian roots and influences) tends to look at a large grouping of people as a collection of individuals, which therefore is due active care and compassion because of the human beings of which it is comprised. “Social good,” then, is seen as springing from the worth of individual, but something that nonetheless must be dealt with in slightly different ways from the protection or support of individuals. Concepts that are peculiar to multiples come into play, such as “equity,” “discrimination” or “balancing of interests.” If I only help my neighbor, I don’t necessarily need to think about equity, but if I am leading a neighborhood association, I must.

    Morality is a difficult concept for many to handle. It seems personal and private in one sense, but certainly comes into play in very public offenses, such as embezzlement of public funds, rendering services to someone differentially because of their proffered bribes, or giving preferential treatment to friends and relatives. The same person who says “one cannot legislate morality” will, on another occasion, say, “using my tax dollars to help his brother-in-law is immoral — throw the book at him!” without seeing any contradiction between the two statements.

    It seems to me that “private” morality on the part of public officials (e.g. Clinton’s indiscretions while in the White House) can be properly factored into a political equation — not as statutory offenses in every case, but simply as a part of what voters consider when taking a man’s measure. While some people can compartmentalize their lives to an amazing degree, I don’t think I be silly or unjustifiably severe if I rejected as my mayoral choice the person who flirted shamelessly with women not his wife or who cheated at cards when playing with his children (assuming that the candidates were in other respects quite equivalent to one another).

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