Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll
Libertarians have more fun--and make more sense.
BY SUSAN LEE
Wednesday, February 12, 2003 12:01 a.m. EST
Sometime this month, Congress will vote on whether to ban cloning, human and therapeutic. Conservatives want a total ban, liberals only want to stop human cloning. What's mostly missing from the debate, however, is the libertarian position. And that's a shame. A little bit of libertarian thought would clear the political sinuses.
Libertarianism is simplicity itself. It proceeds from a single, quite beautiful, concept of the primacy of individual liberty that, in turn, infuses notions of free markets, limited government and the importance of property rights. In terms of public policy, these notions translate into free trade, free immigration, voluntary military service and user fees instead of taxes. Sometimes these policies are argued in a totally unforgiving way so that it's not easy to separate the lunatics from the libertarians. But it's a snap to separate libertarians from conservatives.
For starters, although these two groups do clasp hands on the importance of free markets, not all their fingers touch. To conservatives, the free market takes its force only as an economic construct--and even then, this is often reduced to an automatic complaint against high taxes. To libertarians, on the other hand, the model of a free market functions as a template for all things. Not only does the market operate as a continuous process for sorting through competing ideas as well as goods, it also allows each individual to express himself or herself. The latter is simply a consequence of the market's function in testing individual preferences. That some ideas triumph and others fail is necessary.
But perhaps the single distinguishing feature between conservatives and libertarians is that libertarians are concerned with individual rights and responsibilities over government--or community--rights and responsibilities. Consider how conservatives and libertarians divide over cultural issues or social policy. Libertarians are not comfortable with normative questions. They admit to one moral principle from which all preferences follow; that principle is self-ownership--individuals have the right to control their own bodies, in action and speech, as long as they do not infringe on the same rights for others. The only role for government is to help people defend themselves from force or fraud. Libertarians do not concern themselves with questions of "best behavior" in social or cultural matters.
By contrast, conservatives are comfortable with normative issues. Conservative thought works within a hierarchical structure for behavior that has, at its top, absolute and enduring values. These values are not the result of the agnostic process of the free market; they are ontologically inherent. Because conservatives assume that there is a recognizable standard of excellence, they deal easily with notions of virtue and moral behavior. For example, they argue that the state of marriage between a man and a woman possesses great virtue. And they can go on to distinguish lesser states of virtue in other types of relationships. This process of distinguishing isn't an entirely epistemological argument, however; it is based, in part, on tradition and, in part, on sociology taken from assumptions about "best behavior."
Libertarians believe that marriage between a man and a woman is just one among other equally permissible relationships; they eschew the question of whether there is inherent virtue in each possible state. The only virtue to be inferred is a grand one--that those involved are freely consenting and thus expressing individual preferences in a free market competition among these states. It is no wonder, then, that the cultural debate between conservatives and libertarians takes place over a great divide. Unlike debates over economic policies, there are no liminal issues. Indeed, there cannot be any because the strictness of the divide is a consequence of opposing matrices. Conservative thought proceeds from absolutes, hierarchies and exclusivity. Libertarian thought promotes relativism and inclusiveness--although, admittedly, this tolerance comes from indifference to moral questions, not from a greater inborn talent to live and let live. Conservatives favor tradition and communitarian solutions, and resort to central authority when it serves their purpose. Libertarians value individual creativity and are invariably against central authority.
All this falls to the bottom line in obvious ways. Conservatives are against gay marriage, they are often ambivalent toward immigrants, and patronizing toward women; they view popular culture as mostly decadent and want to censor music, movies, video games and the Internet. They crusade against medical marijuana. For their part, libertarians argue for legalizing drugs; they are in favor of abortion and against the government prohibition of sex practices among consenting adults. They abhor censorship. In the conservative caricature, libertarians believe in sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll--but it is not far from the truth. Unfortunately, these debates are often animated by the fact that conservatives see libertarianism only as the face of what it defends: transgendered persons adopting children, video games of violent sadism and, yes, cloning. Simply put, the shocking and repellent decline of civilization. But for libertarians, these are merely some of the many aspects of a civilization that is advancing through vast and minute experiments. The exercise of freedom trumps the discomforts of novelty.
To push my argument further, libertarian thought, with its fluid cultural matrix, offers a better response to some of the knottiest problems of society. It is, especially when contrasted with the conservative cultural matrix, a postmodern attitude. In fact, it is precisely this postmodernism that enrages conservatives who are uncomfortable with a radical acceptance that, in turn, promotes change and unfamiliarity. Yet no matter how scary (or irritating), libertarian tolerance provides a more efficient mechanism in dealing with those places where economics, politics and culture clash so intimately.
Although libertarians tend toward an annoying optimism, no reasonable observer would venture a prediction on the winner of the conservative-libertarian debate. The outcome depends crucially on where societies ultimately fix the locus of coercion between liberty and authority for politics, and between tolerance and conformity for culture. One can imagine, though, how discouraged F.A. Hayek must have felt in 1944 when he sat down to write "The Road to Serfdom." Now, few doubt that Hayek has won and that the economic argument has been settled in favor of free markets. What remains is the battle over politics and culture. One down, two to go.
Ms. Lee is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board.