In my recent post How Not to Have Clean Hands, I criticized libertarians who pretend that they take no ethical position about what to do. Someone unfamiliar with what I’ve previously written about libertarianism might mistakenly conclude that I think all libertarians are like that. Since I don’t, I thought it might be good to replay a few thoughts which I posted to this blog several years ago.
Is it possible to be a libertarian and still believe in natural law?
It all depends on what you mean by libertarianism. There are two kinds of libertarianism, corresponding to two different understandings of what liberty is and why we need it.
One kind of libertarianism holds that we need a rich palette of definite liberties so that we can perform our duties and obtain what is good for human beings. For example, it maintains that because parents have a duty to educate their children, they also have a right to do so, and because human well-being depends on finding the truth about God, every person has a natural right to seek it. This kind of libertarianism is perfectly compatible with natural law. In fact, it’s based on it.
The other kind holds that we need indefinite liberties so that we can escape our duties and obtain what we merely happen to want. For example, it maintains that we have a right to behave however we please in sexual matters, even to the detriment of families and children, and that if unwanted children are conceived, we have a right to kill them. This kind of libertarianism is radically incompatible with natural law.
The name “fusionism” is sometimes used for an alliance between social conservatives and libertarians of the former kind, based on shared belief in natural law, shared respect for the proper functions of government, and shared mistrust of government which exceeds these functions. I take it that this is where you stand. So do I.
The challenge to fusionism is that today, the great majority of people who call themselves libertarians are libertarians of the latter kind, who may speak against all-powerful government, but who paradoxically end up embracing it.
The most common reason for this embrace is that when they say they are libertarians, they mean that they are libertarian in sexual morality. But they have to be statists, so that when the dreadful social consequences of libertarian sexual morality come rolling around, someone else is forced to pick up the tab.
Consider for example the popularity of the Obamacare contraceptive mandate among certain groups (by the way, although the mandate has recently been weakened, it has not been abolished):
“I believe in liberty! How dare you tell me how to run my personal life! What do you mean, you aren’t telling me how to run my personal life? You refuse to pay for my abortions and contraceptives, don’t you? In the name of being able to do as I please, I demand that you do as I please!'
J. Budziszewski is a Professor in the Departments of Government and Philosophy, University of Texas at Austin. This article has been republished with permission from his blog, The Underground Thomist. See also his new book on virtue ethics