Liberty is an important condition that allows for the growth of individual responsibility and virtue (indeed, it is difficult to talk about true virtue without liberty). And virtue is an important guardrail in a free society where admittedly the liberty to be virtuous also provides the space to do great harm to one’s self and to others. Individual irresponsibility leading to problems for self and society provides an entry point for political entrepreneurs (“statemakers” to coin a term) to move the state to interfere with our freedom. Thus the misuse of freedom by individuals leads to calls for greater and greater state action (often by Yandle’s “baptists” or by those who wish to placate these baptists) and many are eager to support such calls (either because they too are baptists or they are “bootleggers” who will benefit from the restrictions).
Fortunately, there are many free men and women who when given the chance to choose, choose the right. Here is an artistic rendering of the idea from Shaftesbury:
The Online Library of Liberty notes the following about this illustration:
One might conclude from this image that men are free to choose between vice and virtue, harmony and cooperation or disharmony and violence, whereas animals (such as bees, ants, birds, etc) cooperate with their kind naturally. Shaftesbury however is confident that when mankind is left free to choose then s/he will and does choose virtue over vice, with the result being cooperation, harmony, and prosperity.
My worry, though, is that Shaftesbury and many other libertarians are too confident that enough men and women will relatively reflexively choose virtue over vice. Or perhaps better put, my worry is that there is at least a small percentage of men and women who won’t and that this will provide enough grist for the mill of the “baptists” and “statemakers” who will then grind out both the freedom and true virtue of many of the rest of us. Their creation will grow and erode the preconditions for virtue and many of the incentives for exercising our muscles of individual responsibility (which will then grow flabby from underuse). This will only reinforce the leviathan and those who support it. Hence the need for other guardrails in a still free society – scolds, shaming, education, and holding up examplars of virtue (sorta like Plutarch does, though often using men who provide the wrong example!) rather than celebrating lives of vice.
We are all fallen, imperfect beings and such guardrails help. Or we can have the Bloombergs of the world to “save” us. I’m not sure that freedom and a relativistic attitude towards all behaviors is going to work to keep the Bloombergs at bay, even if we admit our humility about knowing what types of behaviors and lifestyles are the “right” ones. Thus I’d like to see libertarians take more seriously the dangers of, for example, drug use rather than just celebrating the freedom to use drugs, the costs of sexual liberation as much as the need for politicians to stay out of the bedroom, and so forth! Yes, to paraphrase Nock, the state is frequently our enemy. But we are often our own as well when it is so easy for free choices to go wrong and for these behaviors to meet less resistance when no one speaks up about them.
With so many ways in which freedom can be eroded and destroyed, it is a wonder there is any left.
HT: Frank Meyer, Albert Jay Nock, Aristotle, Bruce Yandle