Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus. – Thomas Jefferson, 1816
My blog post on freedom and feminism prompted a number of short but informative dialogues in the comments section, and I thought it would be a good idea to draw some of these arguments out a little more and really delve into the implications of what it means to be free.
My original post was meant to serve as a general outline of the major rift within libertarianism (and, by implication, the American Right) today: the cultural one. I think that the rift between libertarians on cultural issues is actually much less serious than the one between libertarians and conservatives, and the comments section highlighted this important disagreement. Instead of a mutual mistrust based upon suspicion of authoritarian tendencies hiding in plain sight, libertarians actively fight conservatives when it comes to the struggle between liberty and power.
Two key arguments will be exploited on this blog for the sake of showing Ron Paul Republicans and other, newer members of the libertarian movement just how nakedly aggressive and barbaric anti-abortion laws really are.
The anti-abortion crowd bases its arguments on two central pillars: the definition of life (it begins at conception) and, less frequently, the laws of God.
NEO, a blogger in Nebraska and a good representative of the first pillar, provides us with a cookie cutter argument in favor of outlawing abortion (and thus forcing services for this age-old practice into the black market):
A lot of us believe chemical or physical abortions are nothing less than the murder of a person, and obviously a serious intrusion on his rights.
Accusing a person of murder is a strong charge indeed. Very quickly: I am a libertarian for both practical and moral reasons. Morally, I consider the rights of individuals to be sacrosanct, but it has occurred to me that my moral intuitions may be wrong (I was once a Marxist after all!) and therefore I always yield to facts when a moral question is presented at my feet. It just so happens that libertarianism and facts are very, very compatible with one another. So, I always head into battle with my moral intuition in place, but I am more than willing to change my views based upon the pertinent facts. This formula, simple as it may be, has served me quite well: I succeed at one of the most selective universities in the world, for what its worth.
I bring up my own method of thought because I think it is important to note that I am more than fair when it comes to hearing other arguments. I like to chew on them for a bit. I like to consider the implications of the arguments. I like to think about where the other side is coming from before coming to a decision. This might be the cultural anthropologist in me, but I am never 100% sure that I am in the right and others are in the wrong. Therefore I also pay attention to the relevant facts of any given case that I happen to stumble across. This is, in my opinion, the only just way of coming to a conclusion.
Behind the opposition to abortion rights for women (and the millions of men whose lives would be ruined with an unnecessary burden; we do not live in a labor-intensive agrarian world anymore) is the idea that human life itself begins as soon as the sperm starts to fertilize the egg. Yet this belief seems entirely absurd to my skeptical self, and so I presented the following question to Neo:
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that a human baby was born during the first or second trimester.
Would it be able to survive? If the answer is ‘yes’ then I think I might buy your definition. If the answer is ‘no’ then I think you’d have to seriously reconsider a position that takes away the choices of hundreds of millions of individuals in the free world.
The question has thus far gone unanswered.
If the hypothetical fetus is born during the first or second trimester is not able to live (and it is not), then the argument that human life begins at conception is totally fraudulent at worst, and totally irrelevant at best. This is simply a case of liberty struggling against power. The idea that hundreds of millions of people should yield their liberty to the beliefs of hundreds of millions of others is not only absurd, it is loathesome. The whole point of submitting to rule by law rather than men is so that the facts of a dispute can be presented and deliberated upon, rather than relying upon the traditions of a society and the knowledge of a select few. Precedence and history are guides for initiating change in an orderly fashion, they are not chains that bound a society to the laws of their primitive ancestors. Perhaps another angle can be utilized to illustrate my view: look at the places around the world where abortion is considered a right, and where it is still considered murder. The individual right to have an abortion is protected by law in the largely free West, and nowhere else.
There is an issue here that has not been dealt with yet: that of third trimester abortions. I find these to be nothing short of murder and that such a service should be performed legally only if the life of the mother is at risk. I find this to be a common sentiment among a sample population stretching from the student co-ops of Santa Cruz and Berkeley to the Protestant churches of the Sierra Nevadas to the Indian reservations of Arizona to the villages of Ghana to the lively streets of Barcelona to the Mormon communities of the Utah desert. The key here is to focus on the one situation where such a service should even be considered: when the life of the potential mother is in danger. Even in this situation the concern for the living and breathing trump the litanies of a barbaric past.
Libertarians have enough work to do as it is. Protecting the rights of living, breathing individuals against the imaginations of the mob is, and always will be, a no-brainer. It would be wise to accept that, in the case of abortion rights, the facts support the moral intuitions of individual liberty and move on to bigger and better things.
Speaking of imaginations, there is a less popular but nonetheless powerful argument that still gets traction within the anti-abortion crowd: that of God’s law. Operating under this assumption gives proponents of this theory a two-pronged advantage: 1) being on the side of an omnipotent being means the other side can’t possibly be right, and 2) history, precedence and all of the other analytical tools that humans have devised for legal jurisprudence over thousands of years become irrelevant in one fell swoop.
Pure brilliance! In fact, it is so brilliant that it took thousands of years for a small segment of the human population in the western corner of Eurasia to counter its munificence. It is so brilliant that even today large swathes of the world’s population still cower before its blinding Light! Billions of people in poverty-stricken areas around the globe still bow before its glory. And yet, this masterful display of human cunning and deceit falls apart quite quickly when the following question is asked:
Asking questions is the cornerstone of liberal arts, a distinctly Western tradition that is not given nearly enough credit for the West’s rise above the rest over the past few centuries. I think this has to do with the fact that, today, the liberal arts profession is a parody of its once-great self. Political Correctness and half-baked notions of inequality have destroyed the majority of the profession’s ability to ask simple but devastating questions. If you can’t ask simple questions, how can you even hope to combat the structures of power that make life miserable? This is the key to Right’s success despite its minority status in a democratic republic.
Questioning the very nature of God itself eliminates the theocrat’s first advantage. Asking this simple question immediately levels the playing field and shakes the very foundations of power. This is why the West is so prosperous today. It is not because of “capitalism” or the decentralized nature of its political institutions. It is because power’s antagonist, liberty, asks simple questions.
I am digressing. Since God’s existence cannot be proved, how can it be that he (or she?!) is able to create laws seemingly out of thin air? And why on earth would these laws have any legitimacy whatsoever? Does God simply whisper his laws into the ears of specially chosen servants who relay his divine message to the masses? One would have to be quite gullible indeed to believe such rubbish, such barbaric nonsense. Take this argument to its logical conclusion: if God makes the laws and specially chosen men simply relay them, then there is no need for historical precedence, and without historical precedence law is simply arbitrary. The logical conclusions of divine law explains well why so many non-Western societies, still under the yoke of organized religion, suffer from the despotic rule of the educated few. It also explains well why anti-abortion activists find it so appealing.
The fact of the matter is that the term “God’s law,” as it was used by Western jurists prior to the modern era and in today’s underdeveloped world, is nothing more than a condescending way of explaining civil and common law. In order for laws to be effective, they must have some sort of legitimacy in the eyes of those whom the laws are enacted for. If the laws of a polity are deemed to be unjust in the eyes of a populace, there are two paths to be taken: 1) disobedience of the laws that could either culminate in rebellion or irrelevancy, or 2) tyranny in the name of enforcing the laws. This is the general theme of historical study. Kings and conquerors were always loathe to undertake laws that would be unpopular, and as such unpopular laws were only undertaken during times of extreme duress, like war (“war is the health of the state” and all that) and other activities that sought to centralize power.
The laws espoused in the world’s holy books are no different in this regard. Bans on killing, stealing, humping your neighbor’s wife, homosexuality and abortion were laid down not because God said so but because of the heavy demand for labor and reproduction that ancient and medieval life required. As labor-intensive industry, subsistence farming, and God himself became more and more irrelevant thanks to the industrial revolution in the West, so too did the need for laws banning things like adultery, homosexuality and abortion. As the world has changed materially, so too have the laws of men changed with it. Where the world has not changed much, like in the Middle East and Papua New Guinea, the laws have not changed either. The fact that some citizens in the West want to impose laws that mimic more isolated (i.e. poor and violent) parts of the world – and in the name of an imaginary, omnipotent being no less! – is telling. The primacy of the individual, the moral foundation of libertarianism itself, is threatened when the choice to have an abortion is attacked by the state. Persuade all you want, but do not force it.
Enacting laws that would restrict individual choices based upon the words of an imaginary being is so aggressively violent and condescending that no self-respecting libertarian can support such a thing. The only explanation for support of these barbaric policies I can think of is a short-tempered reaction to the Left’s own hostile stance on abortion rights. We can do better than that. Indeed, we must.