Libertarian Morality

by Elizabeth Nolan Brown


Dismissing the naysayers, Damon Linker argues that the Libertarian moment has indeed arrived … sort of:

America clearly is becoming more libertarian — it’s just that the transformation is happening in morality and culture, not in economic, tax, and regulatory policy. The swift and broad-based triumph of the movement for gay marriage and the rapid rise in acceptance of marijuana legalization are the most obvious examples. But the source of these changes is deeper than the policies themselves — and may lead to other changes down the road.

Linker asserts that the prevailing cultural attitude in America right now is one of radical non-judgment: 

Consider the phenomenon of Miriam Weeks (Belle Knox), the Duke University undergrad who’s become a breakout celebrity (and something of a libertarian folk hero) for proudly admitting that she works as a porn actress to pay for her education. Pornography is obviously nothing new. But what is new — aside from its easy and costless availability online in effectively infinite quantities and varieties — is the claim that we shouldn’t judge Weeks’ decision to earn a living by having sex for money and in public, which is often the subtext behind discussion of her job choice. At least when the discussion isn’t explicitly framed to make her look like a saint for “empowering women and sex workers.”

In our libertarian paradise, moral judgments are perfectly acceptable, as long as they praise and never blame.

I take issue with that last quip – libertarian-minded folks are plenty capable of placing blame at the feet of people who deserve it. We have no problem expressing moral disapproval of an administration that rains death on innocent people, or of the insane militarization of our police force and the attendant terror it’s causing. We cast stones at those who let their own discomfort come before women’s safety and those who think any abuse by the state is warranted once someone has committed a crime. These are absolutely moral judgements – you don’t have mere differences of opinion on whether it’s okay to kill Pakistani children and African-American teenagers. We just don’t tend to be big on blaming people for failing to live up to some arbitrarily constructed sexual-morality code.

That’s not to say libertarians are all polyamorous pro-porn potheads (not that there’s anything wrong with that). In some places out west, self-proclaimed libertarians often look much more like Mormons than libertines. The only libertarian line in the sand on things like these involves government force, and it’s perfectly possible to be horrified at prostitution, gay strip clubs, and marijuana edibles and still not want them banned or regulated onerously. That is not an anti-libertarian position.

I understand the kind of cultural libertarianism Linker is writing about is oft predicated on the opposite – people’s personal desire not to be judged for their behavior becomes a rallying cry for less stigma generally. But I also submit that stigma reduction isn’t only the feel-good ra-ra bullshit some purport it to be. I, too, cringe at talk of how porn “empowers” women (what empowers women depends on the woman; individual women may feel empowered by sex work, just as individual women may feel empowered by mastering French, but neither present a net gain or loss for feminism). But I do believe that a “woman’s decision to earn a living by having sex” should be allowed, without abuse or jail time or insane regulations. And if you want people to stop treating sex workers’ lives as expendable and start supporting policies that treat sex work like any other kind of work, then reducing stigma goes a long way.

(Image via Flickr)

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