Carney Goes Full Conservative

Gary Chartier praises “experiments in living,” saying “[o]ur communities and societies need… to welcome” them. Chartier then argues that “the libertarian movement can and should both constitute a set of such experiments itself and, at the same time, model for the wider society what a fruitful ecology of social innovation might actually look like.”

Here’s something for Chartier and all libertarians to consider: Humans have been living in countless different ways for millennia, and so we’ve had millions of experiments. The results from these experiments haven’t always been collected in a meticulous manner, but mankind has been observing the outcomes, formulating conclusions, and prescribing best practices from all of this.

This body of knowledge has a name: tradition.

If libertarians are to expand their scope as Chartier suggests and move from theories of government to approaches to life, they ought to at least be empirical about it. Raising children in nuclear families in strong communities has been something of a norm in the West for a reason—because it maximizes human happiness.

High work satisfaction, marriage, high social trust, and weekly worship are four factors sociologists have found highly correlated with happiness, Charles Murray argues in his 2012 book Coming Apart. “People who are high on all four measures have a remarkably similar probability of reporting they are very happy,” regardless of education or income, Murray writes.

We undermine the norms that bring about these behaviors if we publicly celebrate certain behaviors, such as open marriages, promiscuity, abuse of alcohol, and use of heavy drugs. Libertarianism makes a good argument for why the state shouldn’t block these behaviors, but libertarians probably have more incentive to promote traditional western morality than anyone else.

Civil society, family, and religion are the best bulwarks against state intrusion. Erode the norms connecting love, sex, marriage, and childbearing, and you get more abandoned children, more poverty, and more sexual abuse. Broken families correlate with crime, drug abuse, poverty, and other social maladies. These maladies lead in short order to more nanny statism and more welfare statism.

Election 2016 gives us a great (by which I mean terrible) demonstration of how the crumbling of traditional norms gives us statism.

“I alone can fix it,” Donald Trump promises. Nobody believes this who has seen communities, families, and faith fix problems. Where religious observance and traditional families are strong—such as in Utah and Dutch regions of Michigan and Wisconsin—Trumpism has been weak. Where disability, divorce, and drug use are higher, Trump did better.

Liberty is a fragile thing. There’s plenty of reason to think it flourishes only in certain cultural conditions. Liberty has had its strongest run in the United States, a country built on Christian social norms. Legislating those norms is often unwise. Working to undermine them culturally is also folly.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Prof. Gary Chartier praises the libertarian movement as a refuge for the eccentric, and for diverse experiments in living. From John Stuart Mill’s invention of that phrase down to the present day, libertarians have aimed to be the change they wish to see in the world — and quite often that means living an out-of-the-mainstream life. Chartier relates the tensions of modern-day libertarian activism to the familiar debate about “thick” versus “thin” libertarianism, in which the latter looks only at political freedom, while the former takes relatively more seriously the chains of social convention.

Response Essays

  • Daniel Bier welcomes a culture of freedom, but he warns that one key aspect of freedom is the ability to form associations based on shared norms, values, and procedures. Without the ability to form such associations, the social value of experiments in living will be much diminished, if it may even be said to exist at all. A radically uninhibited society will be unable to capture this value. Bier closes with a passage from Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia in which Nozick praises the ability to form, dissolve, join, and leave communities that may have radically different values. This, the framework for utopia, may be called tolerant, but it does not impose a universal permissiveness.

  • Matt Welch looks at just what makes a political movement want to police its boundaries. He finds nothing wrong with telegenic, “normal”-seeming libertarians making the case as persuasively as possible before a national audience. But he also suggests that the history of weirdness in the libertarian movement… isn’t so weird at all, not when we consider how weird America itself actually is. All the American misfits out there may soon find that there’s a big tent that’s been ready and waiting for them. As old intra-libertarian infighting recedes in importance, a coalition of the squares and the freaks may take its place.

  • Timothy P. Carney asks whether traditional lifestyles are also welcome in the libertarian tent — or is it only the “alternative” ones? Carney distinguishes between cultural pluralism, which crafts policy so that people may craft their own rules for life, and cultural liberalism, which would impose liberal values on everyone, including those who desire to practice personally conservative ways of life. Libertarianism is at a crossroads, he argues; it now must choose between these two paradigms. Embracing cultural liberalism will alienate conservatives and may significantly shrink the never terribly large libertarian tent.