Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Ivory Cubicle | Why I'm Not A Libertarian (Part 2)

(For part one, click here!)

Imagine a perfect society. Let’s start with Eden, suppose that the fall did not occur, and that mankind proceeded to be “fruitful and multiply” in glorious perfection. Man spreads out across the perfect world and realizes that he would like to be able to travel large distances in shorter periods of time (to visit his perfect great-great-great-……..great grandpa Adam, for example). So he invents the perfect car. It looks a bit like a Lamborghini Murciélago, is black with red highlights, has a 6-speed manual transmission and can go 0-60 mph in approximately 2.8 seconds.

But upon inventing this perfect car, man realizes that he needs a perfect road to drive it on. Furthermore, he realizes that there will be other people driving on this road, likely heading opposite directions and barely avoiding collisions (which are, of course, not fatal but do have the annoying inconvenience of causing one’s self to arrive at a sudden stop with a massively crumpled bumper). And then there’s the intersections! Everyone, in an unfallen condition, will of course think first and foremost about charity and courtesy when approaching an intersection, they’ll stop to let someone else pass, wave the other person on, roll down the window and let out a call of “no really, you go first, don’t worry about it,” resulting in a massively backlogged intersection of very pleasant and happy people.

So man, in his perfect form, comes together, appoints a perfect man in charge of perfect traffic laws, installs perfect stoplights, and standardizes a perfect “right side of the road” driving rule (or left side, in England). Thus, government is born.

 Government: Necessary Evil, or Positive Good?

This goes back to a question posed in last week’s post- is government a necessary evil or a positive good? Now libertarians may argue that “we don’t need government, that can be accomplished by the voluntary association of free individuals!” That is true, but only in a perfect, unfallen world. So let’s bring it back to the real world, full of fallen, corrupt, self-serving individuals. In a sinful context, you frequently get a power clash of free individuals attempting to skew regulatory policies in their favor to satisfy their best interests. Often the competing influences don’t balance each other out to serve the public good.

Let’s go for a more potent example from our own history. In early 20th century America, there was a practice of injecting a highly toxic formaldehyde into beef to preserve shelf life for the long train trip from Chicago to the east coast market, causing severe illness and death among the consumers. The practice still pops up occasionally in southeast Asian countries. Shall we allow for a “voluntary association of free individuals” to deal with the problem? This would require that the source is able to be checked back to the beef (and as recent Indonesian and Vietnamese examples have shown, the meat is usually disseminated among legitimately produced foodstuffs), that a boycott is able to form, and that each of the citizens takes an active role in combatting the problem. In short, it would require a massive independent watchdog organization, with no enforcement power, to pull off a massive PR campaign and organize a significant enough boycott to shut down obviously unethical practices. Is it workable in the formaldehyde situation? Possibly, but considering the historical tendency of the American people to unquestionably consume highly toxic materials (such as Twinkies), I’m skeptical that it would get much farther.

But is government really any better at solving the problem? I mean, we hear all the time of corrupt politicians accepting loads of money from special interests and lobbyists. Therein is the crux of my argument. Conservatism strongly emphasizes the importance of a virtuous statesman in government. According to British political philosopher Edmund Burke, the role of the nobility (the government) is to model virtue, to establish standards of propriety, to embody the social mores (mores- “the whole moral and intellectual state of a people” –Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America). The statesman has a role as leader and culture shaper.

In the American context, the role of the government has been modified slightly. Instead of having a government by aristocracy, we now have a government of laws. So instead of the political leaders embodying virtue, as in Burke’s society (though virtuous statesman are still vital to American politics), the laws themselves embody virtue. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “to violate the law is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the character of his own, and his children’s liberty.”

What does this mean? It means that the lawmaker carefully weighs the balance between social mores and personal liberty and legislates morality. It means that the law declares that it is wrong to lace someone’s food with toxins, it is wrong to force children to work in life-threatening conditions, it is wrong to use and abuse highly addictive life destroying substances such as methamphetamines and cocaine, it is wrong to be publicly intoxicated or use marijuana, and it is prohibited by law. And here’s the key- it is important to do so whether universal enforcement is possible or not. In a culture of submission to law, as was envisioned by the founders, it goes a long way to cultivating a virtuous populace.

Now admittedly, we’ve come a long ways from the “virtuous statesman” ideal that the founding fathers advocated. The biggest reason is that we have lost the concept of a virtuous citizen. Yet, as conservatives, we are called to conserve what we have left, and make small improvements for the better when possible. We attempt to ensure that government is as much of a positive force for good in preserving or social mores as possible.

By Nick Barden


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