I often introduce myself as a recovering libertarian. It is not an entirely serious introduction, but it is not entirely frivolous either.
Why “recovering”? Sad experience teaches that any ideology, even a sound one, like libertarianism, is intoxicating. The appeal of ideology is the appeal of elegance. Just as Newton reduced all motions from the orbits to apples falling to three expressions, every intellectual craves a simple formula to explain the human condition. Libertarianism is based on a single principle that limits the state’s use of force to retaliation against fraud and trespass.
Nearly all the natural moral rules all men carry in their hearts are satisfied by the simple rule that you may do as you like provided you leave your neighbor free to do as he likes. No neighbor may rob, defraud nor attack another.
The intoxication comes with each case that fits neatly to the theory. Natural morality agrees that wars to defend the innocent are permissible, as is killing in self defense. Natural morality agrees that a man should keep his contracts, and so on.
The theory says the state must remain carefully neutral in all cultural and moral questions: the use of intoxicating drugs for recreational use, suicide assisted or no, polygamy, prostitution, gambling, pornography, duels to the death (provided only all participants fully agree!) or, for that matter, copulating with a corpse on the roof of your house in plain view of the neighbors’ children playing in their backyards, and then eating the corpse, all must be legal.
For me, the intoxicating spell ended in three sharp realizations, each one as forceful as a thunderbolt.
The first was when I had sons, and I realized that I could not maintain libertarian neutrality on how to raise my children. I had to teach them right from wrong, virtue from vice, and teach them prudence, justice, courage, and fortitude. Most of all I had to teach that morality is an objective truth. But teaching virtue is not like teaching geometry. Such things can only be taught by example. It has to be part of the mental environment. The culture always teaches the fundamental values of the culture, parents or no, because virtue is a habit.
Every moral lesson I wished to inculcate into my children was contradicted by a thousand examples in modern media. They tried their damnedest to teach my children error, to make their filth seem normal and cool. They were trying to addict them to vice, greed and lust most of all, but also to moral apathy disguised as tolerance, and envy disguised as equality. In states where marijuana has been made legal, it’s being offered in candy and soda pop, in order to lure the young and make customers for life.
I realized that the culture surrounding me was my enemy. Imagine being an antebellum Southern abolitionist trying to raise children to believe that all men were created equal, but with the entire slave-holding society, by a thousand silent examples, teaching the opposite. Even with the best will in the world, it is not possible for a mortal man to shield his children from everything in the culture. Should I live in a cave?
Libertarianism says my neighbors do me no wrong by exposing my children to child pornography, provided only force or fraud is not used. There is no public and objective standard of decency, honesty, prudence, and justice present in the libertarian theory: but a libertarian commonwealth could not stand were its children not trained from infancy to be decent, honest, prudent and just. It is, in short, a self-eliminating theory. It is a theory for bachelors.
Turning to Catholicism
The second thunderbolt fell when I became Catholic. Libertarianism says the state must remain neutral in all questions of morals. It must be amoral. But in practice, an amoral society will not remain neutral. A libertarian Catholic should be willing to leave homosexuals alone to form private civil unions in their own way, as long as we are left alone to practice our faith in our own way – but everyone from wedding photographers to wedding cake bakers who do not wish to participate in desecrating our sacraments will be harassed or forced into compliance.
In other words, the state cannot remain neutral between the Church and the Left because the Left will not allow it. As a practical matter, libertarianism is unilateral disarmament in the culture war.
Going to war
The final thunderbolt fell when the Twin Towers fell. Libertarianism simply cannot be used to decide what is prudent and just to do in war.
Example: A village of farmers are about to be attacked by 40 bandits. The villagers, at the command of the old man leading the village, have hired seven samurai. The terrain says the only defensible spot is the canal. There are three houses on the far side of the canal. Military prudence says those three houses be burned, lest they give concealment and cover to the enemy.
The three houseowners, hearing this, break ranks, throw down their spears, and declare that they will go defend their houses themselves, separately, without helping or being helped by the village. Kambei, leader of the samurai, draws his sword against those three and chases them back into ranks.
Libertarians must call Kambei’s action indefensible. But by any stretch of common sense, his action is laudable, and is not only excused, it is demanded by his mission to save the villagers. Hence, libertarian logic in this wartime case leads to a false conclusion, nay, an utterly false conclusion: not merely untrue, but the exact opposite of truth.
As a father, as a Catholic, as a patriot, I realized that the self-interest crowing libertarian theory by its very nature applies only on sunny days, among adults, in peacetime. It is a peacetime philosophy only, and only among men who adhere to certain basic ideals springing from the Western cultural tradition, that is, men who adhere to Christian cultural norms even if not themselves Christian men.
John C. Wright is a retired attorney and newspaperman who was only once hunted by the police. He is a graduate of St. John College (home of Mortimer Adler’s “Great Books Program“). In 2004 he foreswore his lifelong atheism and joined the Roman Catholic Church. He has published over 10 SF novels, including one nominated for a Nebula award, and was described by Publisher’s Weekly as “this fledgling century’s most important new SF talent.” He currently lives in fairytale-like happiness with his wife, the authoress L. Jagi Lamplighter, and their four children.