Do Libertarians Really "Want a World Without Moral Judgments"?


On March 15 in The New York Times, liberal journalist and author Richard Reeves wrote an op-ed about the new plan in New York City to dramatize the many negative effects of teen pregnancy on girls who give birth before graduating high school and outside of a stable two-parent unit. Billboards and other advertisements around the city, for instance, point out that unwed teen mothers are twice as likely to not finish high school as girls who don't give birth before graduating.

With many smart qualifications, Reeves makes a case for shaming regarding teen pregnancy and other behaviors, and he does it from a liberal POV:

A society purged of shame might sound good in theory. But it would be terrible in practice. We need a sense of shame to live well together. For those with liberal instincts, this is necessarily hard. But it is also necessary.

My issue is less with Reeves' views on public shaming per se and more on an aside he makes about libertarians:

Libertarians might want a world without moral judgments, in which teen pregnancy carries no stigma at all. And paternalists might want the state to enshrine judgments in law — perhaps by raising the age of sexual consent or mandating contraception. True liberals, though, believe we can hold one another to moral account without coercion. We must not shy away from shame.

I submit to you that few statements are more wrong than saying "libertarians might want a world without moral judgments." From my vantage point, one of the things to which libertarianism is dedicated is the proliferation of moral judgments by freeing people up to the greatest degree possible to create their own ways of being in the world. To conflate the live and let live ethos at the heart of the classical liberal and libertarian project with an essentially nihilistic dismissal of pluralism and tolerance is a gigantic error. It's like saying that because religious dissenters want to abolish a single state church that they are anti-god.

As the anthropologist Grant McCracken argued in a 1998 Reason story called "The Politics of Plenitude," our world is characterized by a "quickening speciation" of social types and sub-cultures, a liberating reality that is typically mistaken for the end of the world and the end of all morality. McCracken notes that plenitude particularly aggrieves conservatives, because they mistake an urge to escape "a morality" for an attempt to abolish "all morality." He explains:

The right acts as if the many groups thrown off by plenitude harbor an anarchic tendency, that people have become gays, feminists, or Deadheads in order to escape morality. This is not the logic of plenitude. These people have reinvented themselves merely to escape a morality, not all morality. New communities set to work immediately in the creation of new moralities. Chaos does not ensue; convention, even orthodoxy, returns. Liminality is the slingshot that allows new groups to free themselves from the gravitational field of the old moralities they must escape. But liminality is almost never the condition that prevails once this liberation has been accomplished.

courtesy PBS

Reeves is no conservative. He's a devotee of John Stuart Mill and, I rush to add, has said many positive things about Reason over the yearsBut his characterization of libertarians as uninterested in moral judgments proceeds from a very conservative – and very profound – misunderstanding of what I think we are all about. This sort of thinking typically emanates from the right – how many of us have had conversations with conservatives who equate ending drug prohibition with a case not simply for occasional use of currently illegal drugs but for an absolute embrace of never-ending intoxication and stupefaction? – but apparently it harbors a home on the left as well. (Go here to read part of a debate I had with Jonah Goldberg a decade ago on the same basic topic).

Shame is certainly not the first thing that most libertarians I know reach for in high-minded policy discussions or less serious conversations. On the narrow question of reducing teen pregnancy – which has in any case reached historic lows over the past decades – it's far from clear the role the sort of public shaming enivisioned by New York authorities will play compared to, say, frank discussions of the harshly reduced opportunities faced by young mothers. Certainly, it may make certain policymakers and politicians feel good, but that is hardly any ground by which to analyze the efficacy of a given policy (to his credit, Reeves calls for a cost-benefit analysis himself).

But it's time to start swatting away random accusations of libertarians as nihilists simply because we don't sign on to every given moralistic agenda that is proposed or enacted in the name of the greater good. No less a buttoned-down character than Friedrich Hayek once wrote that "to live and work successfully with others requires more than faithfulness to one's concrete aims. It requires an intellectual commitment to a type of order in which, even on issues which to one are fundamental, others are allowed to pursue different ends." The libertarian commitment to true pluralism and tolerance is not easy to maintain, but it remains exactly the sort of gesture that allows for differing moralities to flourish and, one hopes, new and better ways of living to emerge.

Reeves' official website is here.