Oh, dear. I guess it's bound to happen, being a Catholic libertarian, something that's a minority at best, and a heretic at worst (depending on who you listen to). I got challenged in the comments of the last post to define my political beliefs a little better. I tried, but it really does merit its own post.
Here is the question, raised by long-time commenter some guy on the street: "When you say you don't think the state should "legislate morality", what is
the state doing when it "protects the rights of individuals"? That is,
what are these rights if they are not somehow a reflection of true
morality, and how does the state protect them without legislation?"
In other words, when I say "the state should not legislate morality," what, exactly, do I mean?
Briefly, I guess I would say that the sort of things the law should forbid includes anything that infringes on another's rights. If it infringes on another's rights, it should be illegal. If it does not infringe on another's rights, even if it is morally wrong, it should not be controlled by the state.
For example, things that infringe on no one else's rights include the following: neglecting to wear a seatbelt, smoking cigarettes in one's own home, using drugs in one's own home (provided one doesn't then leave home and do irresponsible things, in which case some of those things might infringe another's rights), growing a garden in your front yard, refusing medical treatment, committing sodomy with a consenting partner, suicide. Many of these things are sins. But since they do not physically affect anyone but the person who commits them, they do not infringe on rights. We should definitely try to stop people from doing the things in this list that are wrong. But I don't think it's the government's job, because I think it's the government's job to provide an environment where we can exercise our rights.
Some things that do infringe on others' rights include the following: abortion (because the baby has a right to life), driving irresponsibly (though many libertarians think people should only be punished for this if they actually cause an accident; I'm not sure I agree with that), assault, fraud (for instance, labeling a food as "cheese" when it's really a processed substitute, or selling stock in a company that doesn't exist), and so forth. The government has every right to ban these, because banning them will provide an environment where everyone else can freely exercise their rights.
The one issue I have with libertarianism is that it assumes everyone is an adult, and we all know not everyone is an adult. What about children? So there is a whole grey category of actions that could harm children, which I'm not sure about: circumcision, spanking, denial of medical care to a child, publishing pornography in a public place where children could see it. Parents are, of course, the custodians of their children's rights, but how far can they be trusted to do so? Are there some things they must not be allowed to do to their children? As a Catholic, I believe in the principle of subsidiarity, which means that no higher level of authority (like the government) should interfere in a lower level (like the family) unless necessary ... but when, exactly, is it necessary? I'm still struggling with this.
Of course to form a hard-and-fast rule, one must consider the question, what rights do we have? Does a billboard owner have the right to free speech, or do I have the right to choose what sort of things I want to see? What if 99% of the population doesn't want to see a certain billboard, and 1% wants to put that billboard up on their own property? You see how thorny these things get. I do think the Declaration of Independence is a good yardstick for this sort of thing. We all have the right to life (which comes first and trumps all other rights). And then the right to liberty, which isn't unlimited but suggests we should be able to do what we want, within certain limits. Then the right to the pursuit of happiness, which has been defined by some as the right to property (something the Church insists on) but which could include other rights as well. We also possess natural rights not mentioned, like the right to self-determination, the right to free association, and the right to conscience.
But for the rest, I think wisdom and vigilance are required on all our parts. The Constitution alone isn't enough to rule us; laws are also needed that address specific cases. For instance, I think the right to my own property is important. I should be able plant a garden there, build a house there, or keep chickens there. (My town bans chickens, unfortunately.) But if what I do on my property bleeds over to other properties -- if, for instance, I pollute my 1/4 acre and the chemicals seep into the groundwater and pollute the Shendandoah -- I am infringing on the rights of others, and there's rightly a law against that. But it all has to be taken case-by-case, and you and I might come to different conclusions about where to draw the line. The principle, however, holds ... it's just a matter of defining rights. In any event, I still do believe that anything private individuals do that does not affect others at all should never be legislated.
Right now we're struggling a lot with what people call the "culture wars." There's a fight going on between one view of culture -- a more traditional view, where one man and one woman get married for life and have a bunch of children, no contraception, and no abortion; and a new view that includes as many sexual orientations as there are colors of the rainbow and as many versions of family as there are stars in the sky. Which will win? There's no saying, but I don't think this is primarily a realm for the law.
So many people look to government as the cure for all social ills. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The fact is, to change the culture, we have to use different methods. There's convincing other people, forming supportive groups, strengthening religion, encouraging your point of view via the media (like I do), and even raising children. This last is something I consider far more powerful than political strong-arming. If you get your guys into power, you might get the change you want for four years, but if the culture opposes you they will quickly change the law back. But if you change hearts, you won't need a law.
Right now the situation seems rather dire, and I guess that's why people are turning to the law to solve everything. And yet the law doesn't work any better than the other methods; in fact, it works much worse. It's the same as what happens with spanking. People say, "Oh, but this particular issue/child is so bad that I need to spank." And I answer, "If it's ineffective with small problems, it will be even more ineffective with big ones, and the backlash will be worse!"
The government's job is to provide a safe and free environment for people to associate with one another. Ideas meet and clash, and the government ensures this clash won't turn violent. But it's the referee, not the dictator. To this end, fewer laws seem to be a pretty good thing.
I'm going to have to save my doctrinal justification for all these ideas for the next post!