Friday, January 07, 2005

Answer to Repeal's Question

Repeal 22, in the comment section of my previous post asks:
Genuinely curious as to what are the "consequences" of libertarian ideology and "how it does not properly maintain order."
Fair enough, as that post did not really clarify what I was trying to get out. Short answer: the consequence is a lack of order.

It may not be so that libertarians themselves reject, out of hand, all tradition. Even Jefferson did not go as far as Rousseau in rejecting all traditional norms. But libertarians do not feel as beholden to established customs as we conservatives. Since humans must feel unconstrained to do as they deem fit and proper, anything which even remotely stultifies the drive for freedom is disdained.

The libertarian philosophy promotes the idea that each person can discover their own unique truth. Others may live their lives unencumbered from traditional notions of right and wrong without the state interfering in their lives. And, again, admittedly there is indeed little that government can do to coerce people to take proper action.

But what can the state do? We can so order the state to promote certain values, but how to promote values, and what values to be promote? These are annoying ambiguous phrases, but they are not meant to be black and white, cut and dry ideas. They cannot be.

As a nation we are grounded on republican principles, meaning that the people dictate - to a limited agree - what the agreed-upon norms shall be. This can produce either a reasonably restrictive society, a permissive society, or something in between. The important function of a republican government is that a minority group has the right to live their lives without oppression, thus a republican government cannot suppress most behavior. And certainly I would not suggest that we leave our morality to be dictated by populist plebiscite. However, can societies restrict behavior that it deems offensive or unruly?

Let's look at the FCC example. Howard Stern gets fined for uttering certain things over the airwaves that most people find crude or, ugh, offensive. I think that most of these fines were ridiculous. Stern ought to have as much freedom as possible to say what he feels over the airwaves. Yet, it does not seem at all unreasonable to suggest that there be certain restrictions. You can't say one of the seven dirty words, for example. Now, as long as the guidlines are clear to all (as they were not in Stern's case), then he has the freedom to broadcast with these limited restrictions on language.

But why can't he go all the way. Why can't he drop the f-bomb on public radio at nine in the morning? Look, I do not think a nine-year old child will be irreparably harmed from hearing Stern say fuck. But what if we allow Stern to say it, and all broadcasters get to say the f-word, or c-word? Suddenly we have moved the boundaries of acceptable behavior to such a point that we no longer have any boundaries.

There are probably better examples. What about UPN broadcasting hard-core porno at nine in the evening? It is not the single airing of the event that would cause harm, but eventually we push the boundaries so far that this becomes not just tolerated, but acceptable. Eventually we keep pushing the norms to such extremes that there are no more standards of any behavior.

I admit that this is not all black-and-white, and there is no doubt a certain level of arbitrariness to the decisons that we make in these regards. Government MUST allow as much free space for people to make their decisions on their own, free of coercion. Society's role is much more prominent, but also that much more ambiguous.

Much of this discussion revolves a great deal of abstraction and quite blurry lines. We can't force people to do x,y, and z, but can we restrict v in order that less people choose to do x, y, and z?

Libertarians argue (for the most part) that there should not even be these minimal restrictions. That is the main source of our disagreement. But if there are no restrictions, then is society completely powerless to establish standards of behavior? Is everything acceptable? In other words, should we accept that self-regarding behavior is just that, and such behavior should be permitted if it does not cause direct harm to others? My answer is no because not all "self-regarding" action is as described, and has an impact further down the line.

Update After writing all that, I just realized I may have of sort of kinda veered from the original question. Sorry about that. It's been a long day/week. I guess, to sum it up as succinctly as possible, that the "lack of order" is phrase is inartful because it seems to signify chaos. It would be an exaggeration to claim that the consequence of libertarianism is chaos, but to me it does harm to eternal standards that guide society.


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