Kay Hymowitz, Libertarianism, and Lifestyle Excesses:

Like David Bernstein, I welcome some of the things conservative pundit Kay Hymowitz says in her Wall Street Journal essay on libertarianism, and of course I too appreciate her praise of the VC. At the same time, there are some significant shortcomings in her analysis. David has identified one of them: her treatment of the libertarian position on civil rights.

I want to focus on her embrace of the common fallacy that libertarianism requires endorsement of any and all private lifestyles, no matter how foolish or self-destructive. This very common criticism (especially by social conservatives) conflates that which libertarians believe should be legal with that which we hold to be prudent and right. There are lots of foolish and even immoral behaviors that libertarians believe should be legal. It does not follow that we believe that doing those things is a good idea. Hymowitz, unfortunately conflates the two:

[I]t is difficult to separate the reasons for our abiding social disarray from the trends that Messrs. [Brian] Doherty and [Brink] Lindsey praise and for which libertarians bear a measure of responsibility. Despite Mr. Lindsey’s protestations to the contrary, libertarianism has supported, always implicitly and often with an enthusiastic hurrah, the “Aquarian” excesses that he now decries. Many of the movement’s devotees were deeply involved in the radicalism of the 1960s.

Nor should this come as a surprise. After all, the libertarian vision of personal morality–described by Mr. Doherty as “People ought to be free to do whatever the hell they want, mostly, as long as they aren’t hurting anyone else”–is not far removed from “if it feels good, do it,” the cri de coeur of the Aquarians. To be sure, part of the libertarian entanglement with the radicalism of the 1960s stemmed from the movement’s opposition to both the Vietnam War and the draft, which Milton Friedman likened to slavery. But libertarians were also drawn to the left’s revolutionary social posture.

To reiterate a simple but oft-misunderstood point: that which should be legal is not coextensive with that which is desirable or right. Libertarians believe that racist and communist speech should be legal; that does not mean that libertarianism implies support for such speech. The same is true of excessive drug use, cheating on your spouse, and so on. “People ought to be free to do whatever the hell they want, mostly, so long as they aren’t hurting anyone else” is not “the libertarian vision of personal morality.” It is the libertarian vision of the limits we should place on the power of government.

Prohibition by the state is not the only way to combat immoral or self-destructive private behavior, and nearly always not the best way. Indeed, a large part of the libertarian case against government “morals” regulation is precisely the the argument that the state is less likely to do a good job in this area than private institutions such as families, religious organizations, and social norms. The superiority of private sector social norms and traditions over state regulation was one of the central themes of F.A. Hayek’s work, which Hymowitz praises in her essay. And Hayek was perhaps the most influential libertarian scholar of the twentieth century.

There is a kernel of truth in Hymowitz’s argument in so far as libertarians are far less willing than conservatives to condemn private behavior merely because it goes against tradition (especially a tradition imposed and maintained by government coercion). This, to my mind, is a strength of libertarianism rather than a weakness; all too many longstanding traditions vociferously defended by the social conservatives of the day have turned out to be morally bankrupt or worse. 1960s’ conservatives’ defense of the tradition of racial segregation (discussed in David’s post) is a major case in point. Be that as it may, refusal to condemn private behavior merely because it violates tradition is a far cry from “if it feels good, do it.”

Similarly misguided is Hymowitz’s claim that libertarianism was “complicit, too, in the vociferous attack during the 1960s on the bourgeois family.” From Adam Smith to F.A. Hayek and beyond, prominent libertarian scholars have emphasized the importance of families, and the consequent need to protect them against government intrusion. Part of Hymowitz’s argument here simply relies on the broader fallacy of conflating legality with morality already discussed above. The rest consists of a discussion of Ayn Rand’s distaste for family ties. Rand had a deeply dysfunctional personal life, which may in part account for her attitude. But that attitude had everything to do with Rand’s personal shortcomings and little if any connection to libertarianism as such.

Lastly, some of Hymowitz’s claims about individual libertarian thinkers are seriously off base. For example, it is simply not true that Murray Rothbard “became a fan of Che Guevara and the Black Panther leader H. Rap Brown” because of libertarianism’s embrace of social liberalism. Like other communist regimes, Che Guevara’s Cuba was highly repressive of alternative lifestyles, imprisoning homosexuals and generally enforcing sexual puritanism. Rothbard’s support for Che had nothing to do with social liberalism (which he probably knew to be the opposite of communist policy), and everything to do with his foreign policy isolationism, which often led him to take an overly indulgent view of America’s foreign enemies. That isolationism has long been a major bone of internal contention among libertarians, as Hymowitz recognizes. Far from embracing lifestyle excesses, Rothbard was actually very critical of the use of mind-altering drugs – a point noted in Brian Doherty’s book, which Hymowitz reviews in her essay.

There is a serious debate between libertarians and social conservatives over the degree to which we should defer to tradition, and the extent to which government power should be used to punish irresponsible private behavior. Conservatives have some good points to make in that argument, and libertarians should attend to them. Unfortunately, the debate is not advanced by recycling dubious claims that libertarianism requires indiscriminate endorsement of any and all self-destructive lifestyles.