Libertarianism and Republican Virtue

I am short on time and effort these days, so I apologize for bringing up my school readings on the blog. I have moved on from Locke’s Two Treatises to Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws.  This passage in particular has stood out to me so far:

When Sulla wanted to return liberty to Rome, it could no longer be accepted; Rome had but a weak remnant of virtue, and as it had ever less, instead of reawakening after Caesar, Tiberius […] Nero, and Domitian, it became ever more enslaved; all the blows were struck against tyrants, none against tyranny (pg. 22).

The decay of the American republic has been a worry of learned men since the agreement first took place.  My big question here is not so much about decay or liberty, but rather what virtue is.  I have some conception of it, but any sort of clarification would be great.

Montesquieu treats the desires and defenses of manufacturing, commerce, wealth, finance and luxury as the end of virtue and the beginnings of ambition, which leads to despotism and tyranny.

Given that most libertarians are also republicans (small “r”), how do we go about explaining that the freedom to pursue material goods is what is actually compatible with democratic government?  Was Montesquieu attacking a straw man?

3 thoughts on “Libertarianism and Republican Virtue

  1. To understand virtue, we need to first understand natural moral law, as expressed by the universal ethic. By NML, acts are good if they are welcomed benefits, evil if they coercively harm others, otherwise neutral. Virtue consists of seeking to do moral good. A man of virtue provides welcomed benefits to others. Commerce and wealth as such have no inherent moral qualities because the universal ethic applies to acts, not persons or things. Wealth obtained in a good or neutral way, applied to benefit others, is virtuous.

    • Ah! Great. I know you have written a book on this very subject, The Soul of Liberty (I confess I have not read it yet), so I have another question about the virtue-wealth connection.

      I am specifically thinking about my Leftist friends when I ask this, but a lot of people point to business practices today and claim that commerce is inherently lewd and incapable of virtue. I think we would all agree that rent-seeking is lewd, but what about selling somebody a trinket that you bought for $1.00 to somebody for $25.00? The Leftist points to this and cries “immorality”.

      The libertarian responds by saying that the person who bought the trinket for $25.00 did so because the person valued the trinket at more than $25.00, otherwise he wouldn’t have bought it, but is there a better way to make the benefits of exchange clearer? Or am I not grasping how wealth is created properly?

      Or are Leftists just blowhards?

    • As long as there is no fraud, and the buyer knows what the product is, then it is not morally wrong to sell a product at whatever price the buyer is willing to pay. In competitive markets, products tend to sell at the cost of production. But if a buyer wants that product right there that now, and does not want to shop around, nobody is harmed.

Please keep it civil

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