Marxists liked to condemn market liberalism. They called the lack of centralized control of the market economic anarchism. The socialists of the soul, our modern day conservatives, condemn social liberalism. The lack of centralized state control of morality, they argue, will lead to license.
But what is it that prevents liberty from turning into license?
First, social liberalism is merely liberalism applied to social issues and liberalism never argued that anyone is free to do anything, anywhere, anytime they please. Liberalism has also had important provisions, often ignored by conservative critics. Liberalism says that the freedom of each man is restricted by the equal liberty, or equal rights, of others. Herbert Spencer said that the “liberty of each, limited by the like liberty of all, is the rule in conformity with which society must be organized.”
But what does it mean? Thomas Jefferson wanted: "A wise and frugal government which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouths of labor the bread it has earned—this is the sum of good government."
The first limit to liberty is the rights of others. No one may injure another. No one may justly deprive another of their rights to their life, liberty or property.
So, immediately the great transgressions of human morality are automatically outlawed in a liberty based system. There is no right to steal another's property, to use him in any way without his consent, to control his lives or harm his person. In liberal circles these are what are routinely called crimes. In 1875 Lysander Spooner explained it this way: “Vices are those acts by which a man harms himself or his property. Crimes are those acts by which one man harms the person or property of another.”
Spooner outlined the liberal principle: “Unless this clear distinction between vices and crimes be made and recognized by the laws, there can be on earth no such thing as individual right, liberty, or property, and the corresponding and coequal rights of another man to the control of his own person and property.”
Socialists of the soul are not actually worried about crimes per se. They may attack and accuse social liberals of advocating a system of complete immorality, but they really know that’s just so much hot air. They know classical liberals do not advocate a society where “anything goes.” They are fully informed that social liberals advocate protecting the life, liberty and property of all people from criminal transgression.
What concerns them are those matters which, in Spooner’s dichotomy, fall into categories of private vices, as opposed to criminal transgressions. They want more than to protect individuals from one another. They feel that they are called to protect each individual from his own shortcomings or vices even if they have no way of defining a vice and often resort to mere religious dogma to ground their thesis.
But is social liberalism devoid of any mechanism that prevents liberty from turning into license? At first it would appear so because the social liberal does not feel the state should step in to prevent “sins” or “vices.” But, in fact, the socially liberal system has other mechanisms that act as feedback loops preventing liberty from turning into license.
Remember, in a free society property rights determine who may do what in specific places. Many vices are particularly condemned because they infringe on the wider society in a way that people can’t avoid them. A prostitute displaying herself on a public street corner can be offensive to many people including people who have no desire to ban prostitution.
Conservative authors James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling argued that crime got out of hand because of classical liberalism. They claimed: “[F]irst, a broad societal ideology holds certain individual rights as absolute and virtually divorced from responsibility and obligation. This ideology gave rise to the idea that all forms of non-violent deviance should be tolerated in the interest of liberty—a belief that order maintenance confronts directly. Second, the reigning criminal justice strategy is consistent with this libertarian ideology.”
But, all the examples that Wilson and Keeling presented to prove their thesis are in fact examples of the lack of property rights. They were failures of socialized property not failures of a liberal system. Streetwalkers are using streets that are “owned” by everyone. And property rights advocates have long said that when everyone owns something it gets misused, abused and overused.
A huge amount of social morality problems get solved when property rights are applied. If you wish to be a prostitute, that’s fine. Just don’t do it on my front steps. Don’t use my property. The extension of property rights to “commons” areas resolves a large amount of the problems. If a business area in town is actually owned by the local businessmen who operate there chances are good they would not allow streetwalkers on their sidewalks. There is a reason you don’t see hookers inside shopping malls: private property.
Secondly, nothing in a liberal society prevents individual social sanctions being brought against the “immoral,” however that may be defined. Each person is free to associate, or not associate, as they see fit. If someone is offended by the immoral lifestyle of another person they do not have to deal with that person. They are free to stay as far away as possible from the immoral provided that they respect that person’s equal liberty. Such rights, however, do not belong to the state, to state contractors, or to non-competitive entities that enjoy monopolistic privileges because of the use of state power.
Social sanction can be a powerful means of preventing license in a free society. Of course the “immoral” would be free to disassociate from the moral as well. If enough people felt strongly about something, their shunning of immoral people may persuade many to change their behaviour. This is the whole idea behind “boycotts.” Frequently in South Africa black consumers boycotted white owned businesses to show their displeasure about being treated badly.
No individual has the right to trade with another person without his or her consent. And they have the right to withhold that onset. In addition, they are at liberty to persuade others that they should act similarly. Consumers may withhold their patronage from “immoral” businesses. What that’s done it’s called a “boycott.”
Market boycotts tend to be more rational than state coercion. For instance, in recent months anti-gay religious extremists have demanded boycotts of various private businesses because they don’t discriminate against, or support discrimination against, gay people. They demanded a boycott of JC Penny for hiring Ellen DeGeneres, who is gay. JC Penny told them to take a hike and sales were unaffected. Calls to boycott Toys R Us, for selling an Archie comic with a gay character only resulted in the comic selling out in the next couple of days, giving Toys R Us increased profits. A boycott of Starbucks, for supporting marriage equality rights, generated a paltry few thousand signatures endorsing it, while a competing petition applauding Starbucks had a couple of hundred thousand plus signatures.
When the fundamentalist Anita Bryant was leading her anti-gay crusade many gays and others retaliated. Bryant was the spokesman for Florida orange juice, so people who felt her campaign was narrow and bigoted refused to buy Florida orange juice. And the fundamentalist brigade, when offended by a television show, frequently demands boycotts of the sponsors of the shows that offend them. The reason social conservatives, today, are so supportive of state laws to enforce their moral agenda is because they are losing in civil society and the marketplace. General civil society doesn’t hold their values and markets are ignoring them. The one place they have power is within one of the political parties so they seek legislation to give them what civil society and the market place denies them.
There is another factor that must be considered, which prevents liberty from descending into license. That is nature itself. Life is a series of feedback loops.
The perpetual gambler, most particularly the bad gambler, can’t gamble forever. He runs out of money. The alcoholic ruins his health. The promiscuous risk disease and even death.
A vice is a vice because it is damaging to the person who practices it. Nature, not individual opinion, is the true arbitrator of genuine vice. In other words there are consequences to vices.
Immorality at its root is that which violates the laws of nature. Arsenic is not a poison because some people believe it is, or because others argue that some religious authority has so deemed it. Arsenic is a poison because it kills those who ingest it. The effect of the poison is what makes it a poison. The results of a vice are what make it a vice.
Now, conservative socialists might lament that the world has seen the rise of immorality. Of course they have been saying that since time began, so this isn’t surprising. In their mind the world is always on the verge of total collapse. It’s a trait they share with their fellow apocalyptics—the Greens.
But, they are not entirely wrong. There has been an increase in some activities which can rationally be called immoral or vices. Now, if the feedback loops I spoke of exist then why has this been so?
The main reason is that natural feedback loops have been short-circuited. The man who indulges in passions that harms his health seeks out socialized medicine. The state bears the cost of his vices for him. Or more precisely they impose the cost of his vices on those people who do not practice them.
Bad choices, meaning choices that lead to bad things for those making them, have stopped leading to bad results because government has stepped in and prevented this from happening. Instead of recognising that some human suffering is the result of free choice, the State calls the people “victims” when they are not.
This is not to say there is never a right time for charity to alleviate suffering caused by such choices. And when privately offered such charity may be appropriate, but this is not the place to outline under what circumstances such charity may be beneficial. But, when the state has a policy of alleviating all such cases, then the perpetrators of vice know, in advance, that they will not pay the full price for their decisions. Subsidizing such decisions makes them more likely.
A large amount of the breakdown of the family—though by no means all of it—is the result of the state subsidising dysfunctional lifestyles. People, who if they were left to live according to the values they pursue would be in severe difficulty, find that the state props them up making their vices possible.
Now please note that I’ve not even attempted to outline what I think might, or might not be, a vice. I neglected to do so intentionally. I think we can discover what is a vice by looking at the consequences. Some things may be inherently sinful and others may merely be the result of over indulgence. But, I don’t think the state should try to determine such things. Reality itself will sort them out fairly quickly. There is no need to have government trying to regulate vice.
In fact, the worst vice in human history is the lust for power over others. And the record clearly shows that giving this sort of power to people leads to great injustices and horrors.
Thomas Jefferson said: "rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add 'within the limits of the law,' because law is often but the tyrant's will, and always so when it violates the right of an individual." Rightful liberty respects the life, liberty or property of others.”
Rightful liberty may, for some, tempt them to license. But within license there are the seeds that punish the libertine and restrain his actions. And, what nature itself does not immediately control, the voluntary sanctions of others may.
It is true that some things, which we may believe to be a vice might slip through the cracks. But perhaps, the widespread presence of what you deem a vice, which seems to continue without negative consequences, is actually not a vice after all. And, if there are negative consequences for the indulger then the feed-back loops are in operation.
However, the totalitarian temptation within government is too strong to allow it to be unleashed over such issues.