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Thursday, October 21, 2004

Evangelical libertarianism

The Evangelical Outpost skips over a few things in casting a critical eye on libertarianism:

Take, for example, the “victimless crimes” of prostitution, vagrancy, or public drunkenness. Theoretically, libertarians should support the “decriminalization” of all these acts since they do not necessarily harm other people or their property. But how long could a community last if such liberty is granted free reign?

Indefinitely. Prostitution, vagrancy and public drunkenness have existed in every society in human history. In some they have been illegal, in many they have not. The idea that the United States will become less socially functional if victimless crimes are no longer criminal acts is massively contradicted by the history of Prohibition and The War on Drugs.

This is the heart of Wilson’s “Broken Window theory" of crime: At the community level, disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence. Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in rundown ones. Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.

In a similar fashion, the breakdown of community standards does not break down all at once. Rather each “broken window” of virtuous behavior (recreational use of drugs, for example) leads to more “window-breaking” until the community lacks the “virtue” necessary to govern itself and requires a higher level (the state) to step in.

Libertarians, of course, are primarily from the middle to upper classes of society. They are not affected by such behavior precisely because the police maintain a level of order and discipline within their communities. If, however, they had to live with such activity on a day-to-day basis, they would likely revise what was considered “arbitrary” and what is considered “spontaneous.”

EO's argument here is manifestly absurd, as illegal drug usage is arguably as high in the more civilized suburbs as it is in the inner city. The idea that most drug users function quite adequately in society is difficult for some to accept, but it is true nonetheless as a majority of adult Americans have more than a little experience with such illicit activities. Clearly, it is not the law that is maintaining the social order. Such illegal activity may not be virtuous, but it is clearly not socially destructive either; indeed, it is far less socially destructive than the attempts to stamp it out.

There is no moral difference between the high class escort and the street strawberry or between the crackhead and the Wall Street coke sniffer, but the effects on society at large are perceived entirely differently. EO will have to look elsewhere to identify the cause for this dichotomy, as moral virtue never stems from the state.

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