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The Limits of Libertarian Binaries

Jordan Bloom flags a recent TACcolumn by The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism author Robert P. Murphy that I’d been meaning to respond to.

Murphy argues that government intervention inevitably breeds social conflict. From marriage to health care to education, an intrusive state makes controversies and disagreements that much harder for society to manage:

If it weren’t for the punitive federal income tax, then a major justification for government-sanctioned homosexual marriage would be moot. If the government didn’t arrogate to itself the power to award children to households it deemed fit, then yet another major “practical” consideration would vanish.

To be sure, Murphy admits, “There are no perfect solutions to these controversies, and I am not claiming that the voluntary private sector would make everyone happy.”

Murphy makes a lot of sense here, but let’s look at this from a slightly different angle: not whether social conflict exists, per se, but whether a given public good outweighs the absence of social conflict. Speaking of school prayer and bilingual education, he writes: “The only real solution is to privatize schooling altogether and let families, churches, and secular institutions voluntarily come up with their own curricula and rules for student behavior.” Yes, that would be a “solution.” But what if your notion of how severe the conflicts over prayer and bilingual education is distorted or outsized?

It’s worth noting that one of the earliest priorities of some anti-Federalists after the ratification of the Constitution was for government involvement in education. Historian Sean Wiletnz wrote in The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincolnthat, during the Washington administration, Democratic-Republican societies favored “establishing public libraries and library companies and demanding legislative aid to free public schooling to break down class privileges and cultivate an enlightened free citizenry.”

Of course, the institution of public education became a locus of conflict as the culture grew more secular, teachers unionized, and, more recently, the pressures of the global economy and international competitiveness, plus failing public schools in the urban core of most cities, compelled Washington bureaucrats to impose (probably counterproductive) national standards on local schools.

The point is, sometimes social conflict is posterior to government activity. In his thoughtful piece on gay marriage, Dan McCarthy observed:

Homosexual activity may be as old as civilization, but the idea of a category of person whose sexual identity is primarily defined by same-sex attraction, yet who is otherwise quite like the mainstream of society, is of recent vintage.

The civic or legal function of marriage long preceded this cultural shift. You can’t blame it for trends or developments that it did not produce.

Murphy acknowledges this governmental role, but writes, “Even so, we can imagine an idealized society where all institutions are voluntary associations, and certain authorities recognize marriages conforming to various criteria, with everyone else free to accept or reject those proclamations.”

Sure, we could imagine such a society. But I’m equally sure most conservatives would consider marriage under such circumstances as having undergone as significant a redefinition as it appears to be undergoing right now. Where once families led by legally married men and women were the linchpin of civil society, Murphy’s ideal would render them just one option in a lifestyle marketplace.

Murphy’s libertarian inclination — where there’s conflict, abolish government, rinse, repeat — has a certain appeal. It indeed offers bright “principled dividing lines,” as he calls them. It can also land you into unnecessary trouble. What if the “problems” you’re solving aren’t really problems, but rather instances of manageable low-grade friction? What if it turned out that having no public schools at all turned out to be worse for society than having to worry about how or whether kids prayed in them? Or, as in the case of of the civil-rights legislation of the mid-’60s, what if some social conflicts eventually wane?

Sometimes the world does not lend itself neatly to the binaries of the libertarian worldview.

about the author

Scott Galupo is a freelance writer living in Arlington, Va. In addition to contributing to The American Conservative, he writes for TheWeek.com and reviews live music for The Washington Post. He was formerly a staff writer for The Washington Times and worked on Capitol Hill. He lives with his wife and two children and writes about politics to support his guitar habit.

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