Search Blog Posts

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Relationship of Politics to Morality

July 31, 2014

​Editorial By Wendy McElroy, Daily Bell​

A manufactured conflict is flashing through libertarianism: self-described "humanitarians" versus insultingly-labeled "brutalists." In a much circulated article entitled "Against Libertarian Brutalism," the libertarian luminary Jeffrey Tucker defines the "humanitarians" (of whom he is one) as people who love liberty because it "allows peaceful human cooperation... creative service... keeps violence at bay... allows for capital formation and prosperity... leads to a world in which people are valued as ends in themselves." In short, "humanitarian libertarians" value liberty because of the sheer beauty of the society it creates. (Note: The article was published in a March issue of FEE but the faux conflict is still active.)

By contrast, "brutal libertarians" are said to find "what's impressive about liberty is that it allows people to assert their individual preferences, to form homogeneous tribes, to work out their biases in action, to ostracize people based on 'politically incorrect' standards, to hate to their heart's content so long as no violence is used... to be openly racist and sexist." In short, "brutal libertarians" value liberty because it allows them to hate and to discriminate.

Unfortunately, the article also defines "brutal libertarians" as being "rooted in the pure theory of the rights of individuals to live their values whatever they may be." In other words, we (I am a brutalist by the preceding definition) believe in living peacefully without imposing our moral values on others; we view the non-aggression principle as the non-aggression principle. Politically-speaking, I adhere to nonviolence and for this I am considered hate-filled.

Tucker offers the example of "a town that is taken over by a fundamentalist sect that excludes all peoples not of the faith, forces women into burka-like clothing, imposes a theocratic legal code, and ostracizes gays and lesbians." And, yet, everyone is there voluntarily. He continues, "The brutalists will... defend such a microtyranny on grounds of decentralization, rights of property, and the right to discriminate and exclude – completely dismissing the larger picture here that, after all, people's core aspirations to live a full and free life are being denied on a daily basis."

Ignore errors such as presuming that decentralization or property ownership are used by libertarians to defend a violation of rights. Forget how difficult (or impossible) it is to find someone who advocates and lives nonviolence because he is hate-filled. Or the strong tendency for such a person to also adopt a moral code of civil behavior toward others. I do not know any voluntaryist who does not also have a strong personal ethics that includes tolerance, if not kindness toward others. But also, they believe their moral sentiments must not be imposed; what cannot be accomplished by peaceful means should not be accomplished at all.

Consider instead how easily the article skips over the "voluntary" aspect of the town. Or how a voluntary town could "force" women into burka-like clothing. Or how the article presumes that accommodating the aspirations of others is the responsibility of strangers.

I've tried to extract something positive from the article's "humanitarian" argument, and there is an interesting question raised, albeit obliquely. The question: What is the relationship between politics and morality?

Politics and Morality

In his article "Myth and Truth About Libertarianism," Murray Rothbard addresses the lie that "[l]ibertarians are libertines: they are hedonists who hanker after 'alternative lifestyles'. His response applies with equal force to the accusation of brutalism. "The fact is that libertarianism is not and does not pretend to be a complete moral or aesthetic theory; it is only a political theory, that is, the important subset of moral theory that deals with the proper role of violence in social life."

One of my favorite authors on the distinction between politics and morality is Adam Smith (1723–1790). Smith is most celebrated as an economist and the author of Wealth of Nations, a central theme of which is a rejection of mercantilism – the crony capitalism of its day. But Smith saw himself primarily as a moral philosopher and much preferred his earlier work The Theory of Moral Sentiments, a central theme of which is that morality rests upon the natural sympathy individuals feel toward each other.

Smith has been cast as a cold-fish economist who argues on the basis of individual and private self-interest. The impression is rendered by short passages that are selectively lifted out of the massive Wealth of Nations. An example is the famous quotation: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages."

Certainly, the positive aspects of self-interest is part of Smith's argument but the overall picture he presents has been badly distorted. Smith argues for the free market primarily on moral grounds. That is, on the basis of the general good (prosperity), justice, freedom, liberty from domination and moral autonomy. These moral benefits accrue especially to the working class and to the poor. Smith examines economics in the explicit context of morality and human progress.
​.. ​