The libertarian paradox

Suppose I wanted to wipe society clean of old habits and rituals, and start afresh with a rational approach to freedom.  Instead of our various kowtows to propriety and Christian morality, I’d select a single universal formula, accessible to all rational minds, on which to base individual freedom:  if it does no harm to myself or others, it should be approved.  Not just tolerated, mind you, but considered praiseworthy, a manifestation of my (or your) unique personality.  I should be allowed to speak my mind, be myself – and so should you.

Some moral and legal problems would be immediately solved.  Marriage would become an entirely private affair, to be performed among as many persons of whatever sex as will agree to the condition.  Similarly sex would lose its taboo quality:  if it’s voluntary, it’s a Good Thing.  Television, radio, the news media, all would be untrammeled in their content:  anything goes.  Let the market take its course, and let the buyer beware.

So far, my brave new world, having blown away the cobwebs of custom and superstition, coincides with my expectations.  To the rational mind, freedom comes easy.

But what about children?  Suppose parents, in their lifelong quest to be themselves, find this quest incompatible with the chores and schedules and prosaic existence that offspring bring about?  How can the glorification of personal freedom be reconciled with parenthood?

After some thought, I hit on the solution:  the modern state, with its nearly boundless wealth, will compensate for any parental shortcoming.  Children will be day-cared, and educated, and entertained, and housed if necessary, by the largesse of the government.

A large, powerful government seems to contradict my desire for a freewheeling, individualistic society.  But on reflection, I take heart in the British model, and decide that democracy can handle this seeming contradiction.

But what if one individual’s freedom diminishes another?  If, for example, a preacher’s sermon against homosexuality made individuals of that persuasion feel diminished, unvalued, and therefore less free?  Why, I’d declare that sermon to be a form of hate speech, causing psychological harm, liable to be banned under my universally rational formula.  And if a bystander – let’s call him Mr. Brown – chose to say to a mounted policeman, “Do you know your horse is gay?”, I’d label that hate speech, and approve of the following procedure:

Within minutes, young Mr Brown was surrounded by six officers and a fleet of patrol cars, handcuffed and tossed in the slammer overnight, after which he was fined 80 pounds. A spokesperson for Thames Valley Police told the student newspaper Cherwell that the “homophobic comments” were “not only offensive to the policeman and his horse, but any members of the general public in the area.”

Clearly, there’s a lesson to be learned here.  Freedom and self-expression can’t survive in a climate of hatred.  What if someone spoke favorably of genocide?  What if someone uttered words that could incite hatred against identifiable groups, which in turn could, just possibly, result in a breach of the peace?

And “speech,” of course, today must include the Internet:  what if hatred is spread by the Web?  Finally, it becomes clear to me that certain groups are more vulnerable to popular hatred than others:  Muslims, for example.  Shouldn’t they be protected against this peril?

Everything based on hatred I would ban.

Libertarianism, which is what I call my system, has now reached perfection.  Everyone is free to the limits of his personality, so far as he abstains from doing harm.  Of course, the government must intrude on family life, to ensure the material welfare of children while the parents are busy self-expressing.  The government must also ban hate speech, and hate communications over the Web, and what that means is determined by the government.

A moral judment, after all, must be made:  only the government, not the community, will make it.  In this way, my universally rational formula for freedom becomes a blank check for the intrusion of state power.  Call a horse “gay,” and you get thrown in jail.  Fortunately, I have no sense of irony, and am blind to paradox.

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