Against “Traditional Morality” Libertarianism

Posted in Uncategorized by a1icey on June 1, 2011

The other day, scrolling through my blackberry, I came across this status update from Michigan Representative Justin Amash:

just voted yes on the Foxx of NC Amendment 7 to H R 1216, which prohibits funds from going to training doctors to perform abortions (except in response to rape, incest, or life of the mother). It also prohibits funds from going to a teaching health center if the center discriminates against an entity or physician for failure to provide, pay for, or refer for an abortion. The amendment passed 234-182.

I have spoken to many different kinds of libertarians in my lifetime, even inadvertent ones. But most can agree that while taxing and spending distorts free markets, spending that is contingent on details and heavily tailored to interest groups distorts free markets far more. Amash is an amazing politician and a model for small government advocates everywhere. The best thing about him (and the reason I subscribe to his Facebook updates) is that he posts a real-time explanation of every vote that he makes on his page, and invites comments. It’s clear from those comments that his constituency is conservative enough not to care when abortion causes his principles to lapse.

My generation is about to inherit the Libertarian cause in a big way. And there are two things that will change – apocalypticism and traditionalism. Apocalypticism, as an aside, is the expectation and hope for societal collapse. When we as Libertarians make our own story of “the end times” we disempower ourselves from participating in current debate. My concern about traditionalism is philosophically intertwined with that. Traditionalism is the idea that there was once a time of peace and happiness where all men only slept with one woman and babies were a-plenty. This is the future we will return to once all the evil is destroyed in the world through social collapse. This is the mythology, and Libertarians are above mythologies.

Libertarians evaluate themselves on the purity of the ethical basis of their thought. I submit that Traditional Morality Libertarians are engaging in an impure libertarianism. They may be motivated by drawing in the Republican or religious right as donors and subscribers. Or, they may just be old, call me ageist but that’s pretty realistic. Traditionalism, or the mythology that once things were better, is a logical fallacy which older people are prone to. For the sake of argument, traditional morality is not anti-immigration (borders were rarely enforced the way they are now), they are not against homosexuals getting marriage licenses (because that’s not the government’s business), and they’re not hateful people. They simply believe that the best version of society is one woman and one man, married before children are born, engaging as a team to build a future for those children.

My father’s middle name is Keith. Why? Because when Europeans first settled in the South, women constantly died in childbirth. Several generations back, a Townes had three wives, because the first two died. The third wife had the maiden name Keith – Mary Keith of Pendleton (from the History of South Carolina, page 189). This was so prevalent at the time that they formed a system for marking who was the child of which wife – the wife’s maiden name became the child’s middle name, even as late as 1877. So much for one man and one woman!

And these are elites. It would be extremely useful to research at what point in American history the poor and illiterate members of society got marriage licenses, or otherwise formed a legal contract. A brief Wikipedia expedition hints that this only became common in the 1920s in order to exclude mixed-race marriages. So the vast majority of people did not have the luxury of the formality of marriage until very recent times. It seems as though we are trying to enforce what was simply a ritual of the elites on all people.

Traditionally elites protected their women from outside men through “traditional morality” to protect the racial purity of the ruling class. For example, in Sparta, the population was split into citizens and non-citizens. Anyone born of a citizen and a non-citizen was a non-citizen. Women expected to produce citizen children were highly restricted and did not leave the home while they were reproductive. In theory, if she left her home, she could be impregnated and produce a child that would appear falsely to be of a citizen father. Coverings emerged as a way of permitting poorer women to move around while still remaining in her husband’s house. More recently, wives of the ruling class have had to be virgins, to ensure the racial purity.

So I am not sure about these “traditional values and morality” that these pseudo-libertarians espouse. The history books are the record of the elite. But almost everyone else has lived in sin for millennia and we have all turned out okay. Instead of abortion for unwed mothers in Sparta, they simply murdered the child. We have many luxuries in modern life – economies of scale, lower childbirth mortality, and reduced household labor. Women outside the home are no longer de facto prostitutes. We also have a much more visible proletariat – they are literate and they vote and they accumulate wealth. I’m not making a “changed circumstances” argument – I am arguing that things are as they have always been. So when the sight of such loose morals fills you with fear, perhaps try to read between the lines of the history books and figure out how the ordinary person lived.


9 Responses

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  1. a1icey said, on June 2, 2011 at 12:17 pm

    Alexander: i dont think that real world solutions can be the result of adhering to any kind of pure ideological values in a strict or unstrict way…

    Alice: Which is why i tackle it from both sides

    Alexander: Just curious, do you think that maybe most politicians adopt an ideology in order to support their values or that their values are a result of their ideology?

    Alexander: Personally I would think the former.

    Alice: i think they adopt both because they inherently lack either.

    Alexander: Thats a really good answer. I very much agree with your conclusion — and while I don’t have a firm position, I would suggest that perhaps noting ‘how the other half live’ and ideological libertarianism aren’t incompatible, neither really support one another nor do either naturally necessitate the other.

    Alice: yes, this is definitely “impure libertarianism” – ie, libertarians talking about a topic in the realm of politics that is not relevant to libertarian philosophy or ethics.

    Alexander: yes, right. So that kind of begs the question, why libertarianism? Or why should ppl live/be allowed to live this way? I suppose that goes back to where you said it’s because they inherently lack either…

    Alice: i am unsure why libertarians feel it necessary to say “i believe in property rights, free expression and free markets, and traditional morals” in their political manifestos. i was hoping one would comment and clarify this for me but no one is taking the bait.

    Alexander: i would assume that the above statement is their way of saying suggesting that based on these beliefs or values, libertarianism is somehow the natural conclusion or culmination of a system of having just those values and beliefs?

    Alice: would that it were so

    Alice: libertarianism is a value and belief system in and of itself, by the way, separate and distinct from “traditional morals” – that’s my premise. i wish there was a logical way for the “traditional morals” could emanate from libertarian ideals. that is another thing i had hoped someone could show me.

    Alice: the alternative is that libertarianism is not their prime source of ethics in which case they should just vote republican and shut up

    Alice: john nice of you to join us but you’re a little off topic

    no, i cut the abortion debate out of the discussion. because the abortion debate comes down to christians who believe that every conception is like christ’s conception and scientists who know that a fetus is not viable before a certain date. and i’m not in a position to tell christians or scientists that they have an impure libertarianism. they legitimately have different conceptions of the universe which has to take precedent over conceptions of philosophy.

    John: Oh, I see. Then yes, off topic, sorry for interrupting.

    Alice: man i wish all these comments were on my blog post not on stupid facebook!

    John: omg u have a blog? linkage?

    Alice: ‎???? the blog post linked to at the top of this line of comments?

    For a politician to get elected, a platform is developed using surveys and focus groups. The idea to to create positions that a vague enough not loose votes from their base, yet able to push buttons to bring in voters who might be on the fence. Think of a venn diagram that intersects as many spheres of different political factions. If you think a politician’s position has anything to do with their own values or being consistent with the values of one of their positions, you will drive yourself nuts. It is all marketing and market share.

    Alice: these aren’t elected officials. these are commentators, academics, etc.

  2. GOLDWATER said, on June 2, 2011 at 4:46 pm

    slowly the world will realize that the natural state of humanity, and its original state, before nations existed, is that of the Libertarian. For man is selfish and concerned with his individual place within the world, and in order to achieve his own goals (assuming he has such, ie we’re excluding laze and insanity) he inherently must contribute to others’, a system of trade, barter, exchange, and, as proven by history, evolution/progress. Libertarian ideology merely states what man naturally is, selfish and concerned with protecting his own. Anyone who denies the final clause of that claim, is, simply put, a liar, fooling no one but himself. There are no selfless people. Even Ghandi achieved fame, a following whom at the least, funded his very existence.

  3. a1icey said, on June 2, 2011 at 4:53 pm

    there is a difference between the abolition of the modern state to create a more ethical society and the “return to nature” myth. i think you are better off with the former, not the latter.

  4. Timothy Faust said, on June 2, 2011 at 5:15 pm

    i feel we ought to aspire to be something more than the cro-magnon, gdubs. “man is selfish and THAT’S THE WAY IT IS” is just another way of saying “fuck you, got mine.”

    also, amash’s use of facebook and communications technology is admirable. if only he weren’t a fucking nakbah denier.

  5. John Collins said, on June 2, 2011 at 7:02 pm

    I see no reason to aspire to go against our own instincts. “Fuck you, got mine”, as it were, is the attitude which facilitates the survival of humanity. To the extent the elites of the world can “aspire to more”, their benevolence is paid for through the security they are provided by the proletariat, who serve in the military, while their children attend college. And as a recent speech at Columbia by Anthony Maschek shows, that benevolence does not extend to the people who pay the price for it.

    It is extremely easy to say that we should be “something more”, when you already “got yours”. The consistent reaction of ordinary people when millionaire, ivy league politicians tell them they need to learn to do without, is “fuck you, pay me”(the 1980 presidential election is a perfect example of this in practice). It has always been this way, and it will always be this way, when the ruling class chooses to do charity work with the tax money of the working class.

    • a1icey said, on June 3, 2011 at 6:28 am

      John you sound like an anarcho-capitalist already 🙂

  6. Curt Doolittle said, on June 2, 2011 at 7:04 pm

    Alice: Priceless. Quotable. Accurate. Insightful:

    “My generation is about to inherit the Libertarian cause in a big way. And there are two things that will change – apocalypticism and traditionalism. Apocalypticism, as an aside, is the expectation and hope for societal collapse. When we as Libertarians make our own story of “the end times” we disempower ourselves from participating in current debate. My concern about traditionalism is philosophically intertwined with that. Traditionalism is the idea that there was once a time of peace and happiness where all men only slept with one woman and babies were a-plenty. This is the future we will return to once all the evil is destroyed in the world through social collapse. This is the mythology, and Libertarians are above mythologies.”

  7. Jared Adler said, on June 3, 2011 at 3:42 am

    Hey Alice,

    I have a rather long answer because I think your argument is very relevant to the apparent impossibility of a social libertarian to succeed in early primary states. I agree with most of what you said, but want to make a couple points about Amash’s position that aren’t exactly original but (I think) are worth mentioning. I think Amash handles this quite well, which is why I will mostly defend him.

    First, you seem to have been inspired to write this article based on Amash’s decision on a yes/no vote, which isn’t a realistic basis by which to measure his ideology (as I’m sure you know). In HR1216, the libertarian principle of reducing the size of government is honored with a “yes” vote. Voting “no” because the cuts in the resolution are too targeted requires a philosophical explanation that – let’s be honest – no constituent base will take the time to understand. Congressmen don’t get the luxury of having an accepted avenue to release concurring opinions for everything that they vote on (MSNBC is not going to look at Amash’s reasons for his votes via facebook before they grill him for hurting poor mothers).

    Second, in the spirit of a political career, Amash may have greater objectives than appealing to his current district. It is a smart, practical move to vote in favor of socially conservative resolutions that are not restrictively incompatible with libertarian ideology. To look at HR1216 more simply, it still a) cuts spending and b) does not impose governmental restrictions on personal choice. This appeases two basic libertarian principles. Now, on the other hand, looking simply at HR1216 a second time, it advocates populistic judeo-christian values by disallowing the spending of tax dollars on morally controversial medical practices. If Amash has any desire to jump to the senate or elsewhere up the political ladder, these double-edged votes can be very helpful to appeal to a larger conservative base through Foxnews and talk radio (as you briefly referenced). For HR1216, neither “Yes” nor “No” can fully satisfy your (and maybe Amash’s) libertarian ideals, but a “Yes” was the better political move.

    Third, to move away from arguments of pragmatism, I believe a major force behind libertarian ideology is moral freedom, not an embrace or acceptance of amoral society, broken tradition, false perceptions of moral purity in euro/american history, or anything down that route. Your definition of traditionalism and your arguments that it is inaccurate are certainly true (abeit biased toward the west), but that does not mean that the “mythological” ideal is less pure or less libertarian as a result. An orthodox christian libertarian such as Amash will certainly agree that christians have been living in sin for millenia; hell, any christian should make that admittance. (And I’d bet that many would agree that traditionalism is an inspirational ideal, but not a realistic point of arrival). However, his libertarian inspiration may come from Amash’s desire to achieve moral purity through a freedom from exterior influences.

    In this case, as it often does, it spans the social and economic spectrum of libertarian thought: Amash probably doesn’t want his tax dollars to make it less financially difficult for his family to sin (in his own definition of sin). It is not the role of government to create an indirect moral incentive through financial legislation, of course. As for libertarianism, there is nothing impure about this stance: he simply prioritized social libertarian reform ahead of perfect financial reform (i.e. waiting for/writing a resolution to cut medical spending more broadly). They cannot always be reformed in harmony. He has not (and probably will not) advocated or supported governmental regulations that protect his traditions. Freedom of choice has not been altered.

    Finally, I want say that I don’t believe that selling libertarianism by advocating a return to judeo-christian traditions is a violation of libertarian principles. (1) Mainstream american culture embraces these traditional ideals, whether they follow them or not. (2) Mainstream americans would also agree that THEY should make the decisions on which traditions they would like to embrace, NOT the government. The caveat is that mainstream americans do not realize that this position is very libertarian, because they imagine that everyone who agrees with (2) has the same definition of traditions in (1). If a politician sells libertarianism by advocating the “traditional american family,” this gap is bridged without requiring much consideration of the long tail of american culture. Freeing the gays, non-christians, and “heathens” is not the focus of the argument anymore, but as is expected through libertarian principles, everyone gets their freedom. P.S. I’ve tested this logic on my mother, who is politically a Sarah Palin in every way, and it checks out ok.

    Social libertarianism is very compatible with protestant, C.S. Lewis-esque christianity, the concept of “free will,” and the judaic “god is my judge” philosophy from Daniel. The roots of christianity (and a major OT theme as well) are in small autonomic communities that support each other in spite of an oppressive regime. The social conservatives that often run the GOP are making an ancient mistake akin to the Holy Roman Empire, but appealing to what motivates them to be politically active without compromising basic libertarian principles is hardly pseudo-libertarian.

    • a1icey said, on June 3, 2011 at 6:27 am

      Ah, thank you very much for this response, this is what i was looking for.

      Regarding Amash, that was one example but he has made other votes particularly on the abortion issue that are not ethically justifiable under libertarian principles. Abortion is an incredibly complicated issue (see the compiled comment above). But the correct vote in this situation, where the bill does not cut or increase spending but just redirects it, is abstaining. I don’t know if you can abstain from voting in the House (i think it is a default no) but it would have been a better choice.

      The crux of your argument is this: “Amash probably doesn’t want his tax dollars to make it less financially difficult for his family to sin” – this is probably on a very superficial level a justification for his vote on the bill. But it actually encapsulates all taxation and all spending, because if you believe that natural undistorted morality is best (a libertarian view) all of that is distortive. Like, taxing you on your income from working might reduce your incentive to work, even if you run a small business and do great things.

      So I will translate it to mean: traditional values are a misnomer, they believe the natural effect of removing regulation is that people will be free to make better ethical decisions, and it’s not a “return” but a sort of clearing the way.

      This argument satisfies me better than any other. And you say you tested it on your mother. I will also test it the next time I meet a traditional values libertarian. Maybe my dad. He’s all over the place with his views, though.

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