Thursday, September 4, 2008

Legal Moralism

One sure measure of your committment to libertarian principles can be found in your stance on legal moralism. In earlier blogs I suggested that libertarians argue that government interference in one's right to exercise personal liberty must be limited by the harm principle; that is, harm to a person or a person's property. Defenders of legal moralism argue that governments also have an unfettered right to enforce harmless immoralities. Unfortunately, all governments use the coercive power of government to prevent individuals from engaging in various harmless activities that are considered to be immoral. For example, in Saudi Arabia it is both immoral and illegal for women to appear in public without a veil. (In fact, in many Muslim countries virtually every act that is immoral is also illegal.) Based on libertarian principles, it would be impossible to justify monitoring and enforcing this law because wearing a veil is obviously a harmless self-regarding act. Muslim men might be offended by seeing an unveiled woman in public, but being offended and being harmed are far from identical. On the other hand, libertarians would also argue that if the citizens of Saudi Arabia wish to live in a theocracy with a legal code steeped in legal moralism, it's their business. If Saudi Arabia suddenly decided to adopt a libertarian form of government, they could still monitor and enforce the veil as a matter of morality. Moreover, the veil would be perfectly acceptable as long as women freely consent to wearing it as a precondition for remaining within the Muslim faith. Muslims, however, could excommunicate violaters. But, as it stands, if you do not want to wear your veil in public in Saudi Arabia, you could be fined, inprisoned, or punished physically. If you want to go veilless in public your only recourse would be to emigrate to another country. Now Saudi Arabia does not have a monopoly on legal moralism. We have more than our fair share. Take for example our laws against polygamy, breast feeding in public, laws that forbid purchasing alcohol on Sunday, and most recently laws that forbid gay marriage (worthy of a future blog?). In these cases there is no reasonable connection with the harm principle. They are simply laws that enforce morality according to one specific religious tradition. Unfortunately, once we abandon the harm principle as a bulwark against the unfettered growth of legality, personal liberty and morality can be quickly eroded. Fortunately, most governments cannot afford to monitor and enforce legal moralism with any degree of efficiency: black markets take over. However, oil-rich Saudi Arabia is very efficient at monitoring and enforcing its vast criminal code steeped in legal moralism. I think most libertarians agree that we must try to maintain a clear line of demarcation between morality and legality. Once we allow government to control harmless immorality, we are well on our way to the ROAD TO SERFDOM. If you think I'm irrationally concerned with the contagion of legal moralism check out

Freedom's Philosopher

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