Friday, April 3, 2009

What's a "fusionist libertarian"?

Fusionism was a movement to unify libertarians and social conservatives. Like Will Wilkinson, I believe this alliance mainly grew out of opposition to Communism during the Cold War. Libertarians hate communism. Social conservatives hate communism. That shared dislike provided a motive for libertarians and conservatives to work together during the Cold War, and, to some extent, afterwards.

But the "alliance" was a marriage of convenience. Many libertarians watched with dismay as George W. Bush and the Republicans spent money like drunken sailors. With equal dismay, we have watched as social conservatives continue to support the unending, wasteful, and immoral "war on drugs." We have watched as social conservatives support state laws prohibiting consensual sexual activity between adults in the privacy of the home. We have watched; and we have grown tired.

What is a fusionist libertarian, then, at this time? It's too easy to say "a liberaltarian" -- as if a fusionism from the left would work any better than a fusionism from the right. To some degree, the popular left is infected with a stubborn but inconsistent moral relativism that, at the edges, begins to look like nihilism. Conservatives are many things, but they are not nihilists.

We should not be nihilists, either. In this, I agree with conservatives: morality matters. Sometimes, maybe often, morality should guide the law. Libertarians agree with this sentiment -- wholeheartedly, even. They tend to start from a foundation of individual rights. These rights limit what the state can legitimately do. When the state goes beyond these boundaries, when it interferes in the lives of its citizens, it acts wrongly, and it should be opposed.

But here, again, I agree with conservatives: morality matters. Rights are not the whole of morality. Rights, I have come to see, cannot even be at the foundation of morality. Values are important, too. Laws prohibiting employers from discriminating on the basis of race in their hiring practices violate rights, as libertarians commonly understand them. But I support these laws. Why?

The answer is that I don't see rights as a mysterious, freestanding feature of morality, trumping all other considerations by virtue of their vast, but assumed and unexplained, moral weight. Rights -- or at least some rights -- do not stand in opposition to values. Rather, rights -- properly understood -- provide the conditions for the successful pursuit of value. Their shape and scope is determined, to some extent, by values: a state that protected rights perfectly might be very admirable in that respect, but I would not want to live in it until I knew whether the way those rights were understood and enforced in that society were conducive to the living of a good life.

Values and rights go together. Sometimes, they conflict. Protecting the right of the racist employer to hire only white people conflicts with certain values, makes certain genuine values harder to achieve for blacks (and probably others.) To resolve this conflict, judgment is necessary (what Aristotle referred to as phronesis: don't do morality without it!)

My way of resolving the conflict is as follows: the right of the employer should be limited only to the extent necessary to ensure that blacks and other minorities have a fair shot at living a good life. This does not mean that values should obliterate rights; it does mean that rights, as abstract principles, can and should be adjusted, if it is necessary to give long-oppressed people a shot at living a good life in a racist society.

I know this resolution will not satisfy libertarians who like clear, easy answers to moral problems. So be it. Intellectual conservatives know that such answers are almost always wrong. Again, in this, I am more conservative than libertarian.

So what is it that a fusionist libertarian is trying to fuse? The answer is simple: the right and the good. By what principles does he try to fuse these two moral elements? Through phronesis, judgment informed by experience and a healthy dose of humility. Fusionism, understood in this way, brings that humility, as well as a certain amount of charity toward those with different views. Fusionism makes it possible to understand reasonable disagreement: that those with different moral views are not evil or stupid (or not always.)

Rather, they have brought to bear their own experiences and judgments and are trying to navigate through the world as best they can. As such, those with opposing views deserve a certain amount of respect. The principle of charity is not your enemy here.

No comments: