The Virtues of Libertines



Cato's Jason Kuznicki offers a valuable contribution to the "libertarian morality" discussion that's been meandering around the Internet of late. In a post on his personal blog, Kuznicki says, "but of course I'm a libertine."

Kuznicki is reacting to a strange strain of libertarianism he spies lately, one that advocates fusing libertarianism and social conservatism in a way we haven't seen since the 1960s. As evidence he points to Damon Linker's recent "What if your daughter was a porn star?" piece (which both Scott Shackford and I have written about) and a piece in The Federalist by Rachel Lu, which asserts that "if millennials want liberty, they need virtue too." I would also point you to this post by Pamela Stubbart, who left the libertarian group Young Voices over its promotion of porn star Belle Knox's writing, and the bizarro cult of Stefan Molyneaux

These folks differ from social conservatives in that they don't always advocate using the state to impose their morality unilaterally. But "the sentiment remains the same," Kuznicki writes:

If you don't share our morality, then you're doing freedom wrong, and bad things will happen. 

What makes all that a little hard to swallow is the fact that almost nothing so-cons have wanted—obscenity laws, sodomy laws, tough standards for divorce, stigma around birth control—has panned out for them in the past 50 years. Meanwhile "libertines"—a term Kuznicki uses with tongue firmly in cheek—have been getting exactly what they want on matters of vice. How's that working out for American society?

Pretty well, I'd have to say. Let's imagine some victory conditions: How about massively falling crime rates? Check. Also falling abortion rates? Check. A whole lot less teen pregnancy? Check. Falling divorce rate? Yep, got that one too!

No traditionalist would ever have predicted the present moment. On every single one of these matters, if the numbers had gone the other way, the so-called libertines would be taking every bit of the blame. Perhaps reasonably. But over here in the real world, we have a paradox: It begins to look as if the way to get almost every item on the social conservatives' wish list is to give us libertines what we wanted.

Sure, we may now be a nation of cohabiting, contraception-using, homosexuality-supporting, pot smokers, but we've also become a nation that's infinitely less bigoted and misogynist. If the former makes one a "libertine" (or a "cultural libertarian"), then most of us may be so, but "in another sense none of us are libertines—if by that word we mean foregoing all moral judgement," Kuznicki writes. 

Essentially nobody does ??that??. We give a very false picture of developments since the 1960s if we suggest that it's all been a matter of things disappearing from our moral radar. We have added many new norms as well, and we are clearly better off for having them. Norms against drunk driving, smoking, racism, and sexism are stronger than ever, and those are certainly better than the norm that permits you to disown your son if you find him having gay sex.

Leonard Steinhorn, a professor at American University, makes similar points in his writing on the baby boomer generation. He thinks "boomers deserve far more credit than they're typically given" for what the '60s hath wrought:

In surveys, 71 percent of Greatest Generation whites said that blacks smell different, 36 percent said they wouldn't try on clothes a black had worn, and 94 percent disapproved of interracial marriage. In 1954, only 12 percent said they would allow an atheist to teach college, and in 1957, 80 percent said that an unmarried woman had to be sick, neurotic or immoral. Boomers refused to accept this America, and ever since the '60s they have quietly agitated for change. They did it by transforming society, by changing attitudes, norms, institutions and families, and the result is an America more inclusive, equal, tolerant and free than any time in our history.

And here's what I wrote about libertarian morality at The Dish last week: 

… libertarian-minded folks are plenty capable of placing blame at the feet of people who deserve it. We have no problem expressing moral disapproval of an administration that rains death on innocent people, or of the insane militarization of our police force and the attendant terror it's causing. We cast stones at those who let their own discomfort come before women's safety and those who think any abuse by the state is warranted once someone has committed a crime. These are absolutely moral judgements – you don't have mere differences of opinion on whether it's okay to kill Pakistani children and African-American teenagers.

I ventured into different moral arenas than Kuznicki, and that's the point here: morality can be conceived of in many, many different ways. It's easy to frame libertarians, or American society as a whole, as decliningly moral when you define the parameters of morality. But if we dig past purity in its many manifestations, there's a whole host of ways in which libertarian libertines are making the world a much more safe, just, tolerant, moral, and free place.