Joe Carter has recently written an interesting essay called Virtue Ethics and Broken Windows: Why I am not a Libertarian. He gets a lot of sympathy from me early on — as you might imagine — by emphasizing his belief in original sin and insisting that any political philosophy he signs on to needs to recognize the deep flaws in the human character.
So far so good. But then he writes: “the problem with libertarianism, like objectivism and liberalism, [is] that it require[s] accepting a romanticized view of human nature,” and to this I would reply: Not necessarily. It is true that many libertarians hold what we might call the moral man and immoral society view of things: that persons acting individually and independently tend to be good while the Collective tends towards tyranny. But it’s common among libertarians to hold this view in a relative rather than an absolute sense, believing that persons acting individually and independently are less immoral, or are capable of doing less damage to themselves and others, than the Collective.
So the real question here is not “Do you believe in original sin?” or, to put it less sectarianly, “Do you believe that human beings are naturally prone to doing the Bad Thing?” Rather, we should ask “What is more likely to mitigate the effects of our propensity to the Bad Thing, a condition of maximal liberty for individuals or a condition of maximal social order?” And of course either answer is a default orientation, not an absolutist stance: as Carter acknowledges, libertarians believe in the rule of law. So the real political decisions have to focus on cases, which, when they’re all added up, describe the scope of the rule of law.
All that to say that you can have a very low opinion of human nature and still be a libertarian; you just have to believe that our inevitable corruption has less dire consequences when personal freedom is maximized than when the rule of law has a far greater scope. And I would argue that the history of the past hundred years or so offers some evidence for this point of view.
Similarly, I don’t think Carter is right when he says that libertarianism “is rooted in an ethic of utilitarianism rather than virtue ethics.” I think it would be better to say that libertarianism doesn’t see the government as the primary custodian of virtue, at least not of most virtues. The model that George Will used to call “statecraft as soulcraft” makes libertarians cringe, not because they don’t believe in soulcraft or think that the cultivation of virtues is vital, but because they don’t trust the government to be a sound arbiter of what virtue is or to implement it in citizens. It is true that the Founders used that kind of language, but they lived in a much more ideologically unanimous society, with a narrower range of differences in citizens’ models of virtue. Our society is, I fear, too diverse in its moralities for that. I’d rather the soulcraft be left to families and communities, insofar as they’re willing to take up that essential task, and I’d like the government to enable that soulcraft simply through its role in preserving our freedoms.