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Yesterday afternoon on Twitter, a conversation developed in response to the legislature’s consideration of a bill which would increase the number of licenses for restaurants to sell alcohol. (Well, as much of a conversation as can be had in 140 character messages.) The two main sides represented in the conversation highlight the wide chasm between proponents of individual liberty and supporters of statism.
Taking his statement at face value, I replied with: “Agreed. So get rid of both.” Given the context of the comment, my reply dealt specifically with the licenses and law enforcement in regards to the sale of alcohol by restaurants. In other words, a free society cannot co-exist with a state-operated licensure apparatus along with the corresponding law enforcement of those restrictions. Consenting adults must, in a free society, be permitted to engage in commerce with whomever they please, under whatever terms, exchanging whatever products, provided that the rights of any third party are not unjustly violated.
Mr. Mero’s dismissive reply was that “A serious discussion about freedom is no place for a libertarian opinion.” Of course, the opposite is true—no serious discussion is complete and worth listening to without libertarian opinion. Put more bluntly, one cannot discuss freedom without referencing and affirming the fundamental ideals of libertarianism.
Still, Mero’s objection should be highlighted and rebutted given its popularity in Utah-brand conservatism which permeates state and local government. The focal point of this argument—that a free society actually requires restrictions such as limitations on the distribution, sale, and consumption of alcohol—was represented in this Twitter discussion by Representative Peterson (who voted for the increase in restaurant licenses) who opined: “Libertarianism fails because men are not angels and liberty is often abused to licentiousness.”
What is this licentiousness to which the Representative refers? While he offered no definition of his own, the assumption I made was that he was referring to the topic at hand—the sale and drinking of booze. Indeed, a common definition of the term denotes a lack of moral restraint, whether with things like drugs or sexual behavior. Thus, the argument alleges that under a libertarian system people would “abuse” their liberty to engage in these acts, and since under a conservative viewpoint this is not tolerable—since “men are not angels,” as James Madison said—the government must be empowered to save people from their own bad decisions.
Licentiousness is a problem, sure. But a societal problem does not, contrary to conservative belief, justify government intervention.
Again, the context of this discussion was the drinking of alcohol. So the societal problem I referred to was the indulgence of this beverage, or by extension, engaging in any act frowned upon by society but which does not actually violate the rights of another individual. Smoking marijuana, sexual promiscuity, polygamy, and even committing suicide are all examples of things that society at large frowns upon, and has therefore implemented government policies to prohibit or otherwise punish. This is wrong.
The folks at KVNU referenced this conversation on their radio program last night, specifically objecting to the tweet just listed. The following 4.5 minute clip is a must-listen, if for nothing else than to be impressed at how many logical fallacies and misrepresentations can be compacted into so short a time.
Several times in this tirade against a flimsy straw man, the radio hosts elevate the “men are not angels” argument to justify who knows what degree of government interventions for, as one of them said, “the public good.” Thus, they advance the same position referenced earlier by other conservatives in the conversation, namely, that individuals must be restrained from engaging in activities which are frowned upon by society and may possibly lead to a violation of another person’s rights (though do not themselves directly create such a violation).
It is incorrect for them to claim that libertarians believe that “there is nothing that justifies government intervention,” for that is patently false and profoundly ignorant. Libertarians recognize that laws must be based on nothing more than “punishing injustice,” as Bastiat wrote. Jefferson put it more succinctly: “But rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others.”
Jefferson went on to explain that he referenced the limits of others’ equal rights for a specific reason. “I do not add ‘within the limits of the law,’” wrote Jefferson, “because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the right of an individual.” In other words, not all laws are legitimate, and many directly violate “rightful liberty.”
Herein lies the distinction between the individual liberty championed by libertarians, and the statism supported by all other political ideologies, including conservatism. Driving the wedge between these differing views even further, one of the radio hosts claimed that society would altogether cease to exist “if you got rid of law and law enforcement.” Addressing such a general statement as this first requires analyzing the moral justification of what law is being discussed. As Bastiat further stated, “We must remember that law is force, and that, consequently, the proper functions of the law cannot lawfully extend beyond the proper functions of force.”
If the law entails punishment for murder, fraud, rape, robbery, vandalism, or other clear violations of one’s life, liberty, or property, then libertarians absolutely support actions to “punish injustice” and seek retribution for that aggressive act. Defensive acts in response to another’s aggression are a proper function of force, and are therefore a proper function of the law.
But if the law is a mandate which prevents a business owner from selling a beverage to a consenting adult who wishes to purchase and consume it, then libertarians rightly recognize that that law has no legitimate justification, and is thus not worthy of support. Imposing a fine upon or incarcerating a person who engaged in this consensual, peaceful act is not a proper function of force, and therefore is not a proper function of the law.
The radio host was wrong—society would not implode were such “laws” to be done away with. To the contrary, true society—the voluntary interchange of ideas, exchange of goods, and respect for life, liberty, and property—would flourish.
In other words, the state itself is the greatest threat to society. Legitimate laws and a system to uphold justice are necessary and completely acceptable under a libertarian system, but the vast majority of mandates enforced by the state have nothing to do with justice. They are merely the “tyrant’s will,” as Jefferson referenced—in this case, the tyrant is the voting majority.
One of the few things that the radio hosts correctly stated is that libertarians believe that “government is not a legitimate ordering influence in society.” The state is not a child’s mother, nor an adult’s nanny. Democratic government does not legitimately exist to impose the social preferences of the majority upon the dissenting minority. This is not justice, but control. It is not “order,” but managed chaos.
The only legitimate ordering influences in society are those which operate through voluntary association and persuasion. Families, churches, social groups, and other mediating institutions are the proper and moral mechanism for pushing back against societal problems such as licentiousness.
Government may legitimately “restrain crime, but never control conscience; should punish guilt, but never suppress the freedom of the soul.” Accordingly, libertarians do not believe that no laws should exist, nor that enforcement mechanisms are not needed to punish injustice. Indeed, laws and the enforcement thereof are supremely important! What matters, then, is understanding what true laws are and may be using the fundamental formula noted above by Bastiat. Law may only exist where force is justified.
Licensure and the punishment of licentiousness fall outside that narrow scope. They operate on the imposition of the majority’s preferences, but without any legitimate delegation of authority. They rely not upon the consent of the governed, but the consent of the governed who happen to agree. Since neighbors cannot morally dictate to one another what each may drink, they cannot empower the government to do it for them.
As a practicing Mormon, I abstain from “licentious” things and encourage others to do the same. I don’t drink anything alcoholic, ingest drugs, engage in sex outside of marriage, or participate in other immoral or licentious acts. But my adherence to this moral code—one which I’d like society as a whole to likewise adopt—would not justify my supporting government policies which promote, implement, and enforce it upon others.
While licentious acts may be an influence in violent acts, they are not themselves direct contributing factors any more than anger, jealousy, a lack of sleep, or losing one’s job can be blamed for an act of aggression. We do not outlaw matches because they are used by arsonists to damage property. Similarly, alcohol cannot legitimately be regulated simply because some people drink it in excess and in their intoxicated stupor commit a violent act.
But this is all irrelevant to those who uphold such ill-gotten government power. Statists are not concerned about the legitimacy of the licensure and laws they like. They do not care to discuss the underlying immorality of the policies they promote. Instead, they cite the status quo and popular opinion as their support, derisively decreeing that those who disagree “don’t live in the real world,” as was claimed on the radio program last night.
Men are not angels, it is true. But neither are those who claim power over the un-angelic masses. Thus, it is imperative that all authority be stripped from the state which cannot be directly traced back to a legitimate, delegated authority possessed by each individual.
To the horror of conservatives, that includes licenses and laws against licentiousness.
Should that day ever come, I make this promise: society will not cease to exist.