Libertarianism 18


A posting on issues which arouse passion and disagreement.

I have been listening this morning to the views of the Scottish cardinal on abortion. You might be surprised I agree with him to a large extent. I think abortion is appalling, an abomination.

Next month the ban on smoking in public places comes into force. I have never smoked and hate smoke; I love pubs, but the stink on my clothes and hair the next morning is horrible.

I dislike fox hunting intensely. To me, it arouses a nasty bloodlust and is just wrong.

What unites these issues in my mind, is that I am very strongly against all of them – abortion, fox-hunting, and smoking in pubs. But I don’t believe that, just because I am against them, they should be illegal. I don’t even think if a majority were against them, they should be illegal. This is an attitude that seems to have gone out of fashion – the idea that you don’t have to impose your views on everybody else by force.

Legislating on taste and personal morality is assumed. Authoritarianism is the default setting. The anti-foxhunters and anti-smokers have got the strength to impose their will, the anti-abortionists not, at least in the UK. But why do we have to seek to impose our will by force, not reason?


18 thoughts on “Libertarianism

  • Sabretache

    Craig

    "I dislike fox hunting intensely. To me, it arouses a nasty bloodlust and is just wrong."

    Your libertarian instincts are admirable and your dislike of fox hunting is a solid illustration of just why those instincts should be 'the default political condition'.

    But I think what you really mean is that you dislike what, based on a clearly superficial knowledge and understanding of the matter, you believe to constitute fox hunting. From lifetime personal involvement, I can tell you that your belief is about as accurate as if it were about people who eat meat – for example. 'Bloodlust', simply does not enter into the matter but constant false accusations that it does goes a long way to explaining why hunting people are so bitter.

    I won't bore you with more of this because, as a community grouping and as a serious political issue, hunting is insignificant in the wider scheme of things (just why an insignificant issue should have taken up some 700 hours of parliamentary time resulting in draconian criminal sanctions is a subject worthy of study though); suffice to say that there is hardly a farmhouse in the entire UK where, for infinately complex reasons of GENUINE community, I would not be welcomed for a cup of tea – even a bed for the night with no notice if needed.

    If you ever feel the need to meet some REAL hunting people to judge the REAL extent of their 'bloodlust' I'd be very happy to oblige.

  • Rusalka

    I for one am quite glad the anti abortionists do not have the strength to impose their will, the result for women would be terrible.

  • Randal

    "I am very strongly against all of them ………. But I don't believe that, just because I am against them, they should be illegal. I don't even think if a majority were against them, they should be illegal."

    Shabash, Craig! My views exactly. I am broadly libertarian, with strong conservative tendencies in that I am very sceptical of human competence to comprehend and control anything substantial in the real world, and nationalist in that I believe we should mind our own business most of the time, and other nations should mind theirs.

    Most doctrinaire libertarians deny any role for nationalism because they refuse to accept any significance to nationality. In this I think they are simply in denial of reality.

    I'm not sure I agree with your inclusion of abortion in your list of isues of personal morality, though. As you doubtless are aware, abortion is a controversial issue for libertarians in general, because it is either a personal issue for the women concerned if you deny the humanity of the foetus, or it is murder if you take the view that the foetus is an individual human being. In the first case, it falls into the category you describe above, along with hunting, smoking, etc. In the second, it is a serious moral crime which can legitimately be constrained by external force. This is not really a matter of "personal morality", in the sense you use the term. Actual killing of an innocent person cannot be a matter of personal morality (unless you are willing to extend the same tolerance to, say, Nazis killing Jews because in their "personal morality" it is ok to do so). It is a question of personal opinion on the factual question of whether or not the foetus is human.

    In theory my personal view is the latter – abortion is basically murder. In practice, I tend to accept the pragmatic view that attempts to properly enforce the rights of the foetus often do more harm than good. Even though most abortions represent people imposing the consequences of their own irresponsibility on an innocent third party, it is probably better to let those involved "get away with it", in criminal justice terms, and face whatever higher justice there may be, than to use state prohibition, with all the costs we know such policies invariably carry.

  • Rusalka

    I'm not sure the Catholic church is really in any position to condemn abortion when they seem to object to contraception.

    I'm pro-choice and to me that means anti coathanger.

    banning abortion won't stop it, those who have money will go abroad while those without will have to go to the backstreets and risk infection and death.

    What woman does with her own body is her own business, its her womb.

    not for some white male Catholic cardinal to pass judgment on.

  • Craig

    I'm not a Catholic or anti-contraception, Rusalka. Nor am I pro-coathanger, which is one reason that I do not think abortion should be illegal, or difficult. But do I believe it is right? No.

  • Randal

    Sabretache

    I would share Craig's position on hunting for sport – although I personally disapprove, it is a matter of personal morality that ought not to be the subject of legal prohibition.

    I would even concede that some of my disapproval is probably based upon squeamish sentimentality, and lack of familiarity due to a city upbringing.

    "just why an insignificant issue should have taken up some 700 hours of parliamentary time resulting in draconian criminal sanctions is a subject worthy of study though"

    I've no doubt you are very well aware of the profoundly nasty class hatred issues that provide the political motivating force behind the anti-hunting movement.

  • johnf

    As a non-smoking practicising Catholic and semi-retired poacher, just let me say I agree with everything on this thread.

    People telling other people what to do or think rankles with me, and Nu Labor is filled with such people at the moment. More so than the right. And I speak as a libertarian socialist.

  • timbird

    With respect, I don't think this argument makes any sense. The law ought to prevent the abuse of power over the weak by the strong; objecting to this on the grounds that people ought to be able to make their own choices is a perfect argument for the legalisation of rape and gang warfare, which I presume you wouldn't advocate. But in that case why legalise abortion, if you think it's a moral wrong equivalent to murder? If it's because people should be able to decide for themselves, why should they not be able to decide for themselves whether they want to go out and, say, lynch homosexuals?

    The pragmatic argument – that backstreet abortions would proliferate and cause more harm – carries more weight, but if you decided to treat each case as equivalent to murder in law, then standards of enforcement would presumably become much more stringent, thus closing off that avenue.

    I'm not anti-abortion myself, but I do think your argument here lacks consistency.

  • Craig

    Tim,

    Plainly it would not make any sense if everyone agreed that a foetus was a human being and abortion was murder. But not everyone does agree that, and it is at least as nuch a matter of theology or personal belief as of science. That is why a libertarian attitude is appropriate.

  • Crossdale

    As a libertarian socialist I am in broad agreement (and I especially like the way you put the issue of abortion). However I think your portrayal of the smoking debate is a little unfair.

    I used to work in a local pub in Grimsby – being an area of high unemployment it was the only job I could realistically get. Working in the smokey environment for 10 hours a day gave me a horrible cough, a bad throat and eventually a reason to leave. Rather than imposing one's views on others, the smoking debate is about smokers rights to impose their smoking on others – the negative effects of which have been carefully and well documented.

    This does not, I don't think, make the argument conclusive either way – but I think the framing of the issue is too often misrepresented. You can be a libertarian and support a ban or no ban on perfectly consistent grounds.

  • johnf

    HOW NOT TO RUN A FOREIGN POLICY

    For those interested in the subject of what happens when ideologues with enormous parliamentiary majorities and psychotic press secretaries/political gurus decide to overrule all the pragmatists and professional experts in their governments and go gungho for their own improvised foreign policies – something I'm sure NO subscribers to this blog are at all interested in – here's a heads-up for a radio drama I've written about Neville Chamberlain's foreign policy and those pesky pragmatists and moralists in the Foreign Office and on the backbenches and in the Labour Party who were foolhardy enough to try and oppose him.

    It is a farce – because sometimes farce is the only way one can deal with the most disturbing emotions – but deals with the immense practical and psychological difficulties of successfully opposing Chamberlain in the run-up to the Second World War. It covers the Italian Crisis and the resignation of Anthony Eden, being the first part of a trilogy also covering Munich and the Norway Debate of May 1940 when Chamberlain was finally overthrown, to be broadcast on the 70th anniversary of each of these events.

    "How Not to Run a Foreign Policy" is being broadcast this Monday – the 4th of June – on BBC Radio 4 at 2.15 pm, BST. For those abroad it will be available at the time on the BBC site – press radio, then Radio 4, then the live feed – or a few hours later it will be available on line for a week at:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/arts/afternoon_play.s

    Press the Monday strand.

    Sincerely, John Fletcher.

  • Colin

    This is a fascinating trio of world scale problems used here. Abortion, smoking, and fox hunting. I am a Brit and have lived in North America for 30 years (my problem).

    What happened to Government being concerned about basic law and order, human rights, privacy, freedom and the likes. When i emigrated, I thought I was a conservative, but American conservatives are against abortion, yet in favour of gun ownership. Without stating my own positions, it seems to me that politics is too adept at picking on matters that support more votes. Fox Hunting engages the few, and co-incidentally they may be rich, so are perfect targets. Gun ownership also supports the majority (54% +/-).

    Surely there are more important matters for Government, such as health care, police, intelligence gathering etc.

    Anyhow, thoughtful post, and fascinating comments.

  • Randal

    Timbird:

    "The pragmatic argument – that backstreet abortions would proliferate and cause more harm – carries more weight, but if you decided to treat each case as equivalent to murder in law, then standards of enforcement would presumably become much more stringent, thus closing off that avenue."

    I think the issue here concerns the difference between morality and law. For me, the former has priority, and the latter is merely a means to an end.

    Some wrongful acts, I believe, can legitimately be constrained by external force such as state power (law) – I would probably accept the stock libertarian formulation of the non-aggression principle as the best practical guide to them, for all its inherent problems concerning definitions of harm and of aggression. Whether and to what extent we formulate our laws to bring the brute force of the state to bear on those acts is then a merely utilitarian question.

    The acts in question remain wrong, of course, regardless of whether or not we use the law to suppress them.

    In the case of abortion, prohibition gives rise to a lot of problems that do not arise in the case of other forms of murder, plus it must be conceded, as Craig does above, that the very question of whether or not it should properly be defined as murder at all is very far from generally agreed. For both those reasons, I would come down on the side of not using prohibitionist law.

    "objecting to this on the grounds that people ought to be able to make their own choices is a perfect argument for the legalisation of rape and gang warfare"

    Rape and gang warfare fall into the category discussed above, of acts which can legitimately be controlled by force. Other cases – smoking (and, in fact, all drugs use and abuse), hunting, consensual sodomy in its various forms, etc – are questions of personal morality for which it is simply not legitimate to use law (ie force) to constrain personal choice at all. Of course, this does not mean they are not wrong – quite the contrary – merely that even if we disapprove of them, we cannot use force to control them.

    The above, I think, is broadly the libertarian position. I hope it makes sense as I've set it out here.

  • Randal

    "I used to work in a local pub in Grimsby – being an area of high unemployment it was the only job I could realistically get. Working in the smokey environment for 10 hours a day gave me a horrible cough, a bad throat and eventually a reason to leave. Rather than imposing one's views on others, the smoking debate is about smokers rights to impose their smoking on others – the negative effects of which have been carefully and well documented.

    This does not, I don't think, make the argument conclusive either way – but I think the framing of the issue is too often misrepresented. You can be a libertarian and support a ban or no ban on perfectly consistent grounds."

    You cannot support a state ban on smoking on private property (even where the public has access) on libertarian grounds, in my opinion.

    It is up to the owner to decide whether to allow smoking on his property or not, and then up to potential customers to decide whether to frequent the place, and potential employees to decide whether to work there or not.

    In public land, or government property, the issue is much more complicated, of course.

  • Randal

    HOW NOT TO RUN A FOREIGN POLICY

    Thanks for the "heads-up", John. I enjoyed listening to the piece – I have only superficial knowledge of the internal British government machinations of the period, so I found it particularly interesting.

  • Aveyard

    I think that the reason why it's no longer popular is that it doesn't really get you very far. So, you don't enforce morals on other people? But obviously stuff like don't kill or rape? But then what about wife-beating? Then what about child-beating? Then what about abortion? Then what about animals? Then what about the environment? It doesn't seem to get anywhere unless you have a clear dividing line between private and public, and such a line would be a moral theory in itself.

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