Are We All Libertarians Now?

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No matter who wins the Democratic presidential primary, vice will be on the ballot in 2020.

Almost all Democratic candidates have embraced legalizing marijuana, and one has even expressed support for legalizing prostitution.

These developments are remarkable, but the candidates backing them are not exactly breaking ground. The real surprise is that they’re pandering.

Over the past 20 years, support for legalizing marijuana has doubled, from roughly 30 percent to 60 percent. Support was at a mere 12 percent in 1969 when Gallup first began asking Americans about it.

Attitudes on moral issues have also relaxed greatly. Not 10 years ago, Democrats were ambivalent at best about gay marriage. That chapter is now closed.

If Democrats were once careful when talking about pot, the days of “I didn’t inhale” are long gone. Public opinion on marijuana has shifted to the point that legalization now seems inevitable.

One doesn’t have to appeal to a slippery slope “fallacy” to see a widespread apathy taking hold. A Gallup morals survey found gradual, broad approval for having a baby outside of marriage, gambling, and divorce. (While society has taken a sharp turn against marriage, some monogamous attitudes remain resilient: marital infidelity is still widely frowned upon.)

Perhaps these changes were bound to happen. But is it progress?

A Left-Libertarian Convergence
It is hard not to see in these trends the ascendance of an attitude of indifference, which strangely enough, has been embraced by left and right alike in the form of a philosophy of moral libertarianism.

Perhaps it would be stating the obvious to say that Democrats have embraced libertarianism, at least when it comes to drugs, sex, and other moral questions. It would be simpler to observe instead that libertarianism has always leaned left.

Libertarians have long come to the aid of left-wing causes, from open borders to same-sex marriage. They have also generally been one step behind the left on social change, fighting for the same developments but expressing them in the language of small government and non-interference.

It seems hardly surprising, then, that leftists who support legalizing marijuana or prostitution express their reasoning in libertarian terms. Libertarians have generally defined their morals in contractual language: Anything that is voluntary and consensual is “harmless” and therefore permissible. Buyer and vendor of some vice both want something from each other, and as long as there is no “harm” done, then the state should mind its own business.

Saturated With Ecstatic Individualism
But this reasoning can justify atrocities. In the case of abortion, a voluntary transaction occurs between mother and doctor that overrides the rights of the child, which they say is not actually human, has no rights, and cannot suffer any real harm.

While hardly conservative, this philosophy has long had prominence of place in the wider tent of conservatism among libertarians. A few social conservative critics, such as Tucker Carlson, have singled out libertarianism in describing moral decline. Their line of critique is familiar, simple, and eminently reasonable: small government and “voluntary transactions” are not the end-all be-all. Morality cannot be defined by personal choice alone. Drugs and other opiates numb the population and make people easier to control.

There is nothing illogical about these arguments; they are simply unfashionable. Conservatism has been unfashionable in all times, and that has never been more true than now, as the mindset of moral libertarianism has come to dominate mainstream culture. Mass culture is saturated with ecstatic individualism, encouraged by social media, mass entertainment and the ruling left-wing ideology of the day, with its obsession with individual “rights” over what is simply right.

Perhaps it was inevitable, after the erosion of Christian culture, that society would come to embrace narcissistic individualism. An emphasis on virtue is difficult to justify when personal choice defines morality. The mere idea of “community” seems like a phantasm when people are just individuals in a moral “market” seeking their personal gain, rather than humans bound by obligation, place, and heritage.

The Limits of Choice
Some would claim this gospel of personal choice as the true American destiny. After all, isn’t America all about freedom? Why not live and let live?

But personal choice alone can’t govern society. The social ties that bind people together come with obligations that often require personal sacrifice, whether for the sake of family or the larger community. There might be no discrete harm done to the individuals in a transaction when John and prostitute meet, or when a child is born out of wedlock, but it is nevertheless bad for society to embrace attitudes inhospitable to the formation of strong families.

Those in favor of these changes speak of harm done to individuals, rather than to the community, because they don’t recognize the community or the virtues needed to sustain it. Instead, they see society as an aggregate of individuals with certain rights, abstracted from social ties and obligations.

The fruits of this attitude shift are already apparent in widespread family and community breakdown, which will worsen with time as ruler and ruled alike agree to yield to the appetitive part of human nature. A consensus—one could even call it a contract—is emerging between the ruling class and those in their charge that nothing should be expected of society or the individuals that comprise it.

Liberty and License Revisited
This mindset is difficult to shake off without some underlying social fabric to give society a reason to say “no.” To oppose legalizing prostitution requires shame, an increasingly scarce moral resource in a time when late-term abortion has been embraced by a major political party. The only thing that could counteract these changes—religion—is increasingly suspect, beleaguered, and attacked for preaching “retrograde” ideas.

A side-effect of letting people be whoever they want to be—whether they imagine themselves to be another gender, or whatever—is that they can also choose to not be anything, to not pay anything back to society, to retreat from their neighbors. While this mentality might not be good for society, it is advantageous for ambitious politicians who pander to the crowd with bread and circuses.

Greedy politicians have understood for centuries that a degraded and distracted public is easier to rule. They understand the appeal of this philosophy of indifference, and so have struck a bargain with the public to give up on having moral standards. Perhaps it is patronizing to suggest that society have standards, but it’s also difficult to sustain a civilization that is hostile to the formation of strong families and communities.

Society’s moral attitudes have relaxed significantly, but is it progress? Democrats embracing a vice agenda don’t care. We are all libertarians now.

Photo Credit: WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto via Getty Images

About Matthew Boose

Matthew Boose is a Mt. Vernon fellow of the Center for American Greatness and a staff writer and weekly columnist at the Conservative Institute. His writing has also appeared in the Daily Caller. Follow him on Twitter @matt_boose. ‏

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