Conservative writer Kay Hymowitz’s critique of libertarianism, published in Commentary and the Wall Street Journal, has attracted a lot of critics of its own, including responses to some of her points by co-conspirator David Bernstein, and yours truly. My main criticism of Hymowitz’s essay was that she falsely conflates libertarians’ opposition to government regulation of personal choices with an indiscriminate embrace of 1960s style lifestyle excesses. Believing that Activity X should not be banned by the state does not entail a belief that X is unobjectionable. Now, Hymowitz has written a response to her critics. The response contains some welcome clarifications and concessions, but also perpetuates some of the shortcomings of the original article.
On the plus side, Hymowitz writes that she “strongly agree[s]” with my statement that the “harmful effects of private choices . . . are best dealt with through the private sector.” She also admits that “libertarians are not libertines” and claims that some of her critics (possibly including me) misinterpreted her views when we portrayed her as equating libertarianism with near-total relativism about personal choices. To my mind, there is at the very least serious tension between Hymowitz’s comments on this score in her new essay, and her claim in her original article that “the libertarian vision of personal morality . . . is not far removed from ‘if it feels good, do it,’ the cri de coeur of the [1960s] Aquarians.” However, I’m willing to accept Hymowitz’s assertion that her views have been misinterpreted.
If Hymowitz really does agree that the “harmful effects of private choices . . . are best dealt with through the private sector,” then there really isn’t much disagreement between her and most libertarians. Why, then, does she continue to attack libertarianism? If I interpret here correctly, it’s because she thinks that “libertarians tend to see all criticism of personal behavior as a threat to liberty” and that “Libertarians believe government shouldn’t say anything about the family[breakdown] problem. And neither should anyone else.”
As I tried to explain in my earlier post, it is simply not true that libertarians “tend to see all criticism of personal behavior as a threat to liberty.” Most serious libertarian writers would agree that such criticism poses little danger so long as it isn’t coupled with advocacy of using government coercion to “solve” the problem.
In practice, of course, much conservative criticism of personal behavior is combined with advocacy of coercive solutions, which helps explain libertarian suspicion of that criticism. Hymowitz attempts to sidestep this issue by saying that “[o]f those who view family breakdown as a major social problem, I don’t know any who argue that we should ban divorce and lock up single mothers.” Perhaps so, but there are plenty of conservatives who advocate such policies as censorship of pornography and “obscene” speech, abolition or restriction of no fault divorce, bans on flag burning, and – worst of all – the War on Drugs, which has led to the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of people for their nonviolent “personal behavior.” Some prominent conservatives, such as Senator Rick Santorum, have argued that “pro-family” morals regulation is the most important conservative public policy objective, a goal to which individual liberty should be subordinated. Conservatives are by no means monolithic in their views on these issues, and it seems that Hymowitz is one of those who opposes such regulations. However, her view is far from being the dominant one in the conservative movement.
As for speaking out about the problem of family breakdown, libertarians not only don’t oppose doing so, but have actually been arguing for forty years that family breakdown is in large part a consequence of harmful government policies, such as the perverse incentives created by the welfare system. There would be little point in this kind of libertarian criticism of the state if we actually believed that family breakdown is a good thing, or even a morally neutral one. Hymowitz herself implicitly admits this when she states that “I actually agree with libertarians that many government policies have greatly harmed the family.” It is perhaps true that many libertarians dislike the idea of having the government speak on these issues. But if the government’s activities in this area really were limited to mere speech (and conservatives embraced such limitations), they would not be a major bone of libertarian-conservative contention.
Hymowitz concludes her response by criticizing what she calls the libertarian “tendency to view individual personal liberty as The Good that should swallow up all others.” In reply, I can only reiterate a point I made in my critique of her original essay: believing that protecting liberty is the highest or even the sole legitimate purpose of government does not require libertarians to conclude that it is the highest good for all institutions. Still less does it commit us to believing that it is a good that “swallows up all others.” To the contrary, libertarians have long contended that liberty actually facilitates the achievement of other important values and does so far more effectively than government coercion.