Permissive Government, Not Permissive Morality

A key tenet of modern Libertarianism is the Nonaggression Principle, abbreviated as the NAP. In the words of Walter Block:
[NAP] states, simply, that it shall be legal for anyone to do anything he wants, provided only that he not initiate (or threaten) violence against the person or legitimately owned property of another. That is, in the free society, one has the right to manufacture, buy or sell any good or service at any mutually agreeable terms. Thus, there would be no victimless crime prohibitions [i.e. drug prohibition—ed.], price controls, government regulation of the economy, etc.
Now, I have never been happy with the NAP, for reasons I discuss here and here. But even if we accept the premises of the NAP as valid, many libertarians fundamentally misunderstand it or misapply it, in ways that are profoundly damaging to our society.

The NAP is a theory about the appropriate uses of government power. It states that governments, a class of actors prone to oppression and the excessive use of power, should only use their power to regulate directly aggressive behavior, and not to enforce broader standards of morality no matter how laudible. It is the responsibility of civil society (says the NAP advocate) to enforce codes of morality, withut using coercion. Otherwise, you run into the slippery slope; power-hungry governments will take the opportunity to expand its power at the expense of the people, leading to tyranny.

Some libertarians make the mistake of carrying that argument one step further. They say that since governments should not prohibit certain behaviors such as sexual promiscuity or excessive body-piercing, therefore such behaviors have nothing wrong with them and nobody can make any objection to them whatsoever. After all, who are we to judge? Let people do what they want!

This line of argument is perhaps inevitable given that many libertarians follow the philosophy not out of any deep convictions on the role of government per se, but because they want their own personal tastes (such as drug use) to be legitimated. Therefore, it is not sufficient for a class of behavior to be permissible by law; what they want is for any social stigma attached to it to be removed. (Witness the continued efforts by the homosexual lobby to portray homosexuality as a "normal lifestyle.")

But this argument is flawed. It may be bad policy for governments to prohibit drug use, for a number of reasons (not least because of the power it gives to criminal networks); but that does not mean that drug addiction is a good thing, any more than alcoholism should be tolerated by other people merely because alcohol is legal. Similarly, merely because promiscuous or deviant sexuality may be consensual does not mean that it is without cost, and cannot be opposed on the grounds of morality.

This is one reason out of many, I think, that the Libertarian Party has been relegated to the fringe. It has largely been taken over by activists with a social agenda that transcends the boundries of mere government action or inaction. If libertarians want to have any practical influence over the course of government, they had best start thinking about how to promote moral behavior as a societal goal, without using coercion. Most Americans will not tolerate moral anarchy, and that is what the LP is offering them.

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