I hate to pick a bone with the immensely talented and courageous Ben Shapiro, but as a conservative I think it’s important to point up where his libertarian creed diverges from traditional conservative views, and in fact from classical liberal views as well.
In a recent article defending (quite rightly) the freedom of politicians and other public figures to hold and express views on controversial matters such as sin, Shapiro makes some striking claims which really get to the heart of the difference between the libertarian take on the world and the conservative (and to a lesser extent the classical liberal) one. Here I want to dig a little into what those differences are, and why the conservative view is more cogent than the libertarian alternative.
Shapiro sets out, beautifully succinctly (as always), the libertarian view on the distinction between, on the one hand, rights, which government protects, and on the other, the good, which he contends only Leftists think falls under the remit of the state. To Leftists government is the ‘great instrument of the good’ whereas for those on the Right it is a ‘mere protector of rights’. People on the Right believe that ‘people have a right to do the wrong thing’ and that ‘there is a right for people to commit sin that has no externalities in a free society’. Thus he asserts that ‘a government dedicated to stamping out sin rather than preventing violation of rights is called tyranny’ and that what a person thinks about sin ‘has nothing to do with what he thinks about public policy’.
This is all seductively neat and tidy, and you can see why many people are attracted to it as a political creed. But it’s just a bit too neat and tidy, and when you press on it in certain places it begins to creak and crack. To any conservative the shortcomings become obvious when you realise that Shapiro sees no contradiction between his political beliefs and support for same-sex marriage, which he cites as an example of the ‘rights of gays and lesbians.’ But no conservative who really understands what marriage is can believe in a right to same-sex marriage, for marriage is a pre-political institution which the state recognises, it does not create.
Conservatives, like libertarians, support respect for privacy, including in many sexual matters. But unlike libertarians, conservatives do not do so because they think they have discovered some special private space which affects no one else, which they know is a mirage. They support it despite the fact that doing so affects others in lots of inconvenient ways, because the individual is sacred and is entitled, at some cost, to a decent measure of privacy. But this doesn’t extend to extreme Leftist innovations like same-sex marriage, not least because the whole point of marriage is that it is public.
The problem with the libertarian position is that it tries to separate rights from what human beings are and what is good for them, and so loses sight of where rights come from in the first place. Classical liberals such as John Locke and the US Founding Fathers understood our pre-political rights to be natural rights, the entitlements God gives us in our natural state prior to any formulation of positive law by the state. They especially included the right to life, liberty and property, with a special place for freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of contract. The state is obliged to recognise these rights, but, like the family and the church, it does not create them, for they arose before it and place limitations on its scope for formulating positive law.
How do we know an authentic right from a bogus right? What makes the difference between a mere wish and a bona fide claim on the conduct of our fellow citizens and on the sovereign power? This is where modern libertarianism, scarcely less than Leftist liberalism, falls down, because it has lost sight of the grounds of rights, and thus why same-sex marriage (for instance) cannot be a natural right of human beings. Genuine rights are rights grounded in the nature of human beings – our fundamental capacities of free and rational decision, our basic needs of life and sustenance, and our social requirements of cooperation and reproduction. They are not based on the false idea of a private space that affects no one else, or on the absurd vision of an individual liberated from his or her biology, as many modern liberals would have it. They are not based on feelings or sentiments or a therapeutic commitment to subjective happiness. They are founded solely in facts about the basic structure of the human condition.
So do Christian conservatives believe that government should legislate against sin? Well, considering that sin includes murder, theft and fraud, the answer to that is obviously yes. Is this tyranny? No – tyranny is when a government rules in its own interests rather than the interests of the people. But does it respect rights? Yes, because, as per the classical liberal tradition, the rights of human beings are our natural rights, the rights that God gives us in our pre-political condition, and God wills that government be just and respect them. Does this exclude government pursuing the good of society more broadly? No, our natural God-given rights are part of the good of society, which also includes the general welfare. Moreover, respect for rights furthers the general welfare, as per Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’.
Shapiro asserts that people on the Right have no wish to ‘mobilize government in order to impose God’s will’, and that ‘the only people on the political spectrum interested in using government as a proxy for imposing heaven from above live on the Left.’ Well, I’m afraid that this conservative on the Right is very interested in government doing God’s will, and in seeing it frame laws which help to make society a little more like heaven, or at least a little less like hell. By suppressing murder, violence, theft and fraud, for instance. And also by upholding the pattern of the family given by God for the flourishing of his children. Would it be oppressive to attempt to ‘stamp out’ sin completely? You bet, and no religious believer who understands the natural freedom God wills for his creatures should wish for a government that aimed at that. Furthermore, this doesn’t just apply to private sexual behaviour, but also (and even more so) to the very modern ‘sins’ of speaking out against the shibboleths of equality, diversity and political correctness, and pointing out unwelcome facts that offend fashionable agendas.
But remember this: all sin is harmful, to individuals and their relationships, families and communities, as all of us depend on one another, invest in one another and care for one another. Yes freedom is critical, and of course privacy is important, if only to safeguard that sacred personal space in which we all are most authentically ourselves, naked before our Creator. All this can be affirmed by both the conservative and the classical liberal, who know what people have rights to and why. The libertarian on the other hand, brandishing their false idea of ‘things which affect no one else’, with ‘no externalities’, is left without any place to stand to resist devastating Leftist innovations, like same-sex marriage, that threaten the whole foundation on which respect for rights rests because they uncouple it from its foundation in the created order.
No less than the left-liberal, the right-libertarian signs up to a worldview that replaces human nature with an abstract fiction. Not, as with the Left, the disembodied individual emancipated from his or her biology, but, for the Right, the independent individual abstracted from all relationships of dependence or care. Both are equally dangerous to the development of healthy human politics and culture, and both should be avoided by Christians whether Right or Left.
(Image credit: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons)