Monday, November 25, 2013

Good Government: Two Degrees of Morality

This post is quite a bit heavier and more serious than others that I've written.

You've been warned.


I consider myself a conservative libertarian:

I, like John Adams, am in favor of "a moral and religious people" and believe that "no government, armed with power, [is] capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and religion."   

I believe that there are two degrees of morality:  basic, or legal, morality that is narrower in scope and legally enforceable; and higher or individual morality, which is broader in scope and not legally enforceable, but which is no less important to society.  Basic, or legal, morals provide the philosophical and practical under-girding to the development and implementation of legitimate government.  Higher, or individual, morals are the morals to which John Adams refers and they include the aforementioned basic morals. 

I believe--prevailing wisdom notwithstanding--that morals and morality are eternal, given to us by God through revelation to govern both individual human behavior and human interaction, and that by conforming our lives to those morals we will be happier and more prosperous as a people and as individuals. 

I believe that it is a God-given, higher moral obligation to care for the sick and the needy and that it is therefore not the duty of governments, but of individuals, churches, and private organizations to promote the adoption of this and other higher eternal morals and moral obligations, and the duty of individuals to choose to base their behavior and interactions with others on these, rather than simply on basic morals.

My political philosophy rests on the assumption that rights, like morals, are eternal in nature, given by God to man that man may act for himself; that each day, life is filled with endless choices for man to make; and that the responsibility to accept the consequences of choice is incumbent upon man in exercising his freedom to choose (his agency).

I hold as most basic the individual's right to live--that is, his right to not be killed by another person or group of people.  A few rights are corollary to this (adapted from F.A. Harper's Liberty Defined) and they provide the moral foundation of law:
  1. If an individual has the right to live--the right to not be killed--he has the right to use his life to produce and keep whatever he can for any period of time without infringing upon the same right of others.  This is the right to private property.
    1. Inherent in this is the right of an individual to protect himself and his property from encroachment by another individual or group of individuals.  This is the right to bear arms.
  2. If an individual has the right to private property, he has the right to give or exchange his property--be it goods, services, land, etc.--with another individual on mutually agreeable terms, without infringing upon the same right of others, and free from the interference of any third party or group of third parties.  This is the right to commerce, or the right to a free market.
Next to life itself, the right to private property is man's most important right.  Infringement of this right by an individual is theft and is both legally and morally reprehensible.  It is no different if this same action is carried out by governments, the legitimate, moral powers of which are derived "from the consent of the governed", given that they are not self-existent entities, but are rather made up of individuals.  Frédéric Bastiat, in his seminal work The Law, states,
The mission of law is not to oppress persons and plunder them of their property, even though the law may be acting in a philanthropic spirit.  Its mission is to protect property...
See whether the law takes from some persons that which belongs to them, to give to others what does not belong to them.  See whether the law performs, for the profit of one citizen, and, to the injury of others, an act that this citizen cannot perform without committing a crime.  Abolish this law without delay...
The law can only produce one state, says Bastiat: "[p]artial plunder, universal plunder, absence of plunder, amongst these we have to make our choice..."  With this in mind, Bastiat maintains that the only truly just and moral system is one in which there is the complete absence of wealth-redistribution (which is held to be legally immoral, as it violates the basic moral right to property):
This is the principle of justice, peace, order, stability, conciliation, and of good sense...
And, in all sincerity, can anything more be required at the hands of the law?  Can the law, whose necessary sanction is force, be reasonably employed upon anything beyond securing to every one his right?  I defy anyone to remove it from this circle without perverting it, and consequently turning force against right.
In protecting an individual's rights to life and property, the law fosters the greatest degree of individual freedom; their natural rights thus equally protected in law, all men are free to pursue happiness according to their wisdom, conscience, and ability. 

Though moral, of course, equality before the law--indistinguishable from equality of opportunity before the law--does not guarantee equality of results.  To quote F.A. Hayek,
From the fact that people are very different it follows that, if we treat them equally, the result must be inequality in their actual position, and that the only way to place them in an equal position would be to treat them differently. Equality before the law and material equality are therefore not only different but are in conflict with each other; and we can achieve either the one or the other, but not both at the same time.
I maintain that any attempt to use the law to give illegitimate advantage to anyone over any other is an unjust usurpation of power and therefore basically immoral (that is, in violation of basic, or legal, morality, to say nothing of higher morality); that equality of materials, incomes, and outcomes are noble goals, but that such ends have no moral or legitimate means in the law; and that men are lifted most when they are allowed to lift themselves and willingly lift each other in accordance with higher morals.

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