Wednesday, February 12, 2003

The Poverty of Libertarianism

Susan Lee begins her defense of libertarianism in today's Wall Street Journal with a brief statement on cloning, noticing that conservatives are opposed to it in all its forms and that liberals favor only therapeutic cloning. Lee does not exactly distinguish the libertarian position here, but later in the piece she claims that libertarians defend "cloning" without stating which kind or for what purpose.

So, in addition to Glenn Reynolds and Virginia Postrel, we seem to have another libertarian defending cloning without taking any of the President's Bioethics Council arguments seriously. In distinguishing generally between conservatives who discuss normative questions and libertarians who shy away from them, Lee notes that the only role of government for libertarians is to protect people from force or fraud. If she had read the Bioethics Council's report on cloning, however, she would have confronted the argument that the government, in banning reproductive cloning, is seeking to protect cloned human beings from having identities forced upon on them by narcissistic adults. It is true that Kass makes other arguments which Lee might consider unnecessarily normative or moral, but this particular one about protecting those who cannot protect themselves from a kind of psychological tyranny ought to register with her and other libertarians. Unfortunately none of them have bothered to read the council's report on cloning.

Libertarianism, according to Lee, promotes "relativism" and results from "indifference to moral questions." She says these things gleefully without considering their implications. As we see with cloning, however, certain behavior has effects on other human beings that are not immediately apparent and to which libertarianism is insensitive. How could cloning a human being adversely affect the clone? Libertarianism cannot say. Shouldn't adult human beings be allowed to make use of that technology as they see fit? Libertarianism cannot think of an objection, even when a rights-based one is right under its nose. Conservatism which is more sensitive to moral questions would give us pause, buying us time to consider more carefully what might be wrong with such behavior and what about such behavior might compromise the rights of others.

More generally, if libertarianism is relativistic, how does it defend freedom?

Libertarians often get lumped together with conservatives, for both camps worry about an ever-encroaching centralized government. Nevertheless, plain conservatives recognize the need for some government and even celebrate a fairly extensive government in certain instances. Conservatives also do not have the cheery faith in technological progress which characterizes fanatical libertarians who often view technology with undue, simpleminded, and even infantile zeal and optimism. In its recent series on conservatism of which this piece is part, the Wall St. Journal has made it plain for all to see the poverty of libertarianism.


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