Thursday, April 9, 2009

So-cons and libertarians: the inalterable divide

I've been participating in this discussion over on The Shotgun.

At issue is the degree to which libertarianism and social conservatism are compatible. At this time, I have two answers: (a) in principle, they're not compatible; (b) in practice, they're probably not compatible, under the most plausible assumptions.

Now, to be clear, I think you can be a libertarian and agree with social conservatives about certain deeper matters of morality. For example, you can think potheads and other drug-users live terrible lives.

However, to take up such a position, your deeper moral view has to meet one of two conditions:

(a) When it comes to the state, the right has to trump the good. The state should never violate rights, even if that means sacrificing a lot of value.

Or:

(b) The good cannot be achieved without the right. That is, it's impossible to make the world a better place (with respect to values) by violating peoples' rights.

These conditions are explained as follows: suppose I think potheads tend to lead objectively poor lives. A libertarian has to agree that potheads should be allowed to smoke pot (assumption.) Now, if I think potheads live poor lives -- and, worse, encourage others to live poor lives -- I might think that the law ought to prohibit people from smoking pot. In fact, a lot of social conservatives do believe this.

In principle, to block the move from "X is a poor way to live" to "The state ought to prohibit people from living that way," you have to accept either (a) or (b.) Either you have to believe that a person's right to smoke pot trumps all, including whatever value would be achieved or protected through an anti-pot law. Or you have to believe that you can't actually promote value through the violation of rights.

It's true that there are many ways to get to libertarianism as a principle of political morality. But for your moral view to lead to that principle, it has to accept either (a) or (b.)

Kantians, Objectivists, some social liberals, Lockeans, etc. all accept one or the other. Social conservatives, on the whole, do not.

Yes, you can invent a straw social conservative who does accept one or the other. But then you've given up the contention that social conservatism is, in general, compatible with libertarianism.

My friend Peter Jaworski seems to agree with me, up to a point. He's argued that while social conservatives might not accept libertarianism in principle, they might endorse it in practice.
The so-con is involved in a dangerous liaison with the state. Empower it to take Emery's pot, and it'll be powerful enough to -- to take an example that would have been absurd just 10 years ago -- force churches to perform weddings that they morally object to, or force doctors to choose between either performing abortions or not being doctors at all.
As I understand it, the argument is that so-cons who accept drug prohibition are making a bad bet. They think that they can use the power of the state to achieve certain values. But they're risking the chance that other groups will use that power against them, to diminish those values.

In order to evaluate the argument, we have to know if the bet is really as bad as it is made out to be. And I don't think it is.

Call the option of forgoing the use of the state to achieve one's values "setting aside the hammer." A person sets aside the hammer when he decides not to use the law to force people to live the way he thinks is best. The claim is that, all things considered, it is rational for social conservatives to set aside the hammer, in order to avoid the risk that the hammer will be used against them.

I'll attack the claim from two directions. First, it is only rational to set aside the hammer if you can guarantee that opposing groups will also set down the hammer. This is true even if everyone would be better off if everyone agreed to set aside the hammer. But if I set down the hammer and my ideological opponent does not, I'm in an even worse position than when we were both groping for the hammer.

Second, it is only rational to set aside the hammer if there is really some risk that my ideological opponents will get the chance to use it against me. That is by no means something we can just assume. It is not the case that every interest group has an equal chance of taking possession of the hammer. Social conservatives happen to have a pretty good handle on it right now. Atheists who wish to ban churches (are there any of those?) do not.

The general problem with this argument is that it makes sense only at the point before the hammer is invented/distributed. If we were inventing society from scratch, we might all agree to set aside the hammer permanently. But once some group has control of the hammer, there is little reason for it to set the thing aside.

While some so-cons may come to see that they're making a bad bet, we shouldn't be surprised if most of them don't. And if we, as libertarians, tell them the bet is a bad one, with no redeeming features, then we're lying.

For the fact remains, it's not necessarily a bad bet. Why should powerful factions agree to give up their power?

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