Friday, 4 September 2009

Libertarianism and moral degeneration

In his article on welfare reform in the Sunday Times, Michael Portillo refers frequently to Charles Murray. He describes him as a ‘conservative polemicist’ - though Wikipedia describes Murray as a libertarian, and Murray seems happy with that, since one of his books is entitled What it Means to be a Libertarian: A personal interpretation.

One line from Portillo’s article jumped out at me. He writes that Murray “was pessimistic that a democratic society could take measures tough enough to halt our moral degeneration.” Moral degeneration, in other words, is a political issue, and one that concerns some libertarians. This will come as a surprise to those who confuse libertarianism and libertinism (see, e.g. this post by Cranmer), and who seem to believe that libertarianism is inextricably linked to moral degeneration.

But what is this moral degeneration that Messers Portillo and Murray are talking about? It’s basically the fact that a large number of people are happy to live off the efforts of others, and believe that they are entitled to do so. And that has long bothered me too. One of the main reasons why I parted company with the left back in the 1980s was my own feeling that the welfare state had created an unhealthy entitlement mentality. And for this reason, I came to the shocking conclusion that those who defend the welfare state, as it exists in modern Britain, do not have the moral high ground.

So is there a libertarian view on halting moral degeneration? Some would say that we cannot legislate morality, and hence policy making should take no account of moral degeneration. I think that is naive: government policy does affect the behaviour of citizens. Charles Murray clearly agrees, and apparently believes that living in a libertarian society will eliminate - or at least discourage - some forms of undesirable behaviour. And the way our fellow citizens behave is a matter of public interest.

I don’t believe that government should be in the business of social engineering. But I do believe that those who govern should be concerned about the character, attitudes, and behaviour that are found in society, and should try to think about the way that their policies will affect these things. Public policy is, of course, only one factor that affects the behaviour of people in a society. But it seems to me that if one wishes to encourage responsible behaviour, the best course of action is to let people have personal freedom, and keep state intervention in their lives to a minimum, so that they can see that they are responsible for their own actions.

For that reason, while I don’t pretend that libertarianism is a panacea, I suspect that a libertarian approach is probably at least as effective as any other political programme at halting moral degeneration.


Greg said...

A friend once questioned me why I supported drug legalization. He said, "I guess you believe drug use will become less common if it is legalized"? My response was that I had no delusions of that happening, I was for legalization because it is morally correct.

I think this holds true for many (not all) aspects of freedom. We cannot expect perfection, but as you say it should prove at least as effective as any other political program.

Young Mr. Brown said...

Interestingly enough, when I changed my mind and decided that I supported the legalisation of drugs, it had nothing to do with any supposed reduction in crime or drug usage.

It was on the principle that laws banning drug use were not strictly necessary.

JonnyN said...

This post gives me a perfect opportunity for my favourite Edmund Burke quote (which is similar to your observation above, but in the opposite direction):

"men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains on their own appetites. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there is without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters."

Combining both observations we have that a free society needs personal morality and personal morality needs a free society.

(by personal morality I mean light touch morality: shame and tut tutting rather than bludgeoning your fellow caveman to death because he looked at your caribou.)