By Michael Penn
Libertarianism is a positive influence when it seeks to prevent the social engineering and tyranny of socialism and statism rampant in modern liberalism. Yet it also has a dangerous undercurrent of near-anarchism that threatens the very idea of law and order. To some, anarchy is the logical conclusion of a philosophy that has preserving individual rights as its primary emphasis. While an emphasis on individual rights is absolutely necessary in our current climate, it can like most things be taken to a dangerous extreme that ignores other concerns and in the process threaten its own valid goals. What is most significantly neglected in an anarcho-libertarian philosophy is the good of society, which is simply individuals considered as a group. To neglect the good of society is to neglect the good of its individual members. A society of individuals is kept healthy by those individuals subscribing to common customs and embodying those customs in laws. These laws require sacrifices from a society’s individual members but in the end allow a society as a whole to function in peace and freedom thus ensuring those benefits for its individual members. Laws are thus the guarantors of liberty.
Good laws further peace and freedom by preserving a way of life. When people are raised from infancy being told that something is against the law, it is thus being pressed upon them that that something is wrong. Laws against obviously evil actions such as murder or rape reinforce those negative opinions. By being constantly reminded that these and other things are against the law and thus bad, people are discouraged from committing them. They strengthen an awareness of right and wrong. Laws concerning lesser evils such as fraud, divorce, or drugs are simply further examples of law’s inherent purpose of perpetuating moral standards. Only a population that has recognized standards of conduct can live at peace, and laws strengthen those important standards.
Laws also protect those who would be indirectly harmed by individuals’ actions. Libertarians principally consider harm inflicted directly. People are obviously harmed directly by violent crimes, but many actions of individuals affect others indirectly while still inflicting very significant harm. Some libertarians say that people have a right to commit suicide because doing so harms only the person committing it. But if a father of several children were to commit suicide he would be endangering his wife and children. He would very likely be consigning them to a life of poverty in the care of a single working mother or the state. There are many other things that are socially destructive that should therefore be discouraged by laws. Alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs not only ruin individuals, but in the process ruin families and neighborhoods. Individuals’ actions that jeopardize the good of others, even if indirectly, should not be totally outside the scope of the law.
Laws also protect people from endangering themselves. There are countless smokers suffering from the effects of cigarettes who will warn you not to smoke even while they themselves are smoking a pack every day. Countless individuals are turned into addicts due to lack of legal bans or limitations on dangerous substances. Many take the first step into drug abuse because it is easy to do so. The easier it is for people to do something, the more they are going to do it—sometimes even when they know it is detrimental to their own wellbeing. Good laws prevent people from making decisions that could ruin their life and enslave them.
As conservatives and libertarians, we agree that laws can wreak havoc in a society, but we should likewise recognize that anarchy can cause just as much harm. Libertarianism can sometimes be used as a cover for those with narrow self-interests to oppose laws that put valid constraints on them for the good of society as a whole. Those with a proper regard for rule by law, on the other hand–both conservatives and libertarians–must work towards laws for the good of others and the good of generations to come. Both camps must remember that it is for society’s benefit that we should support or oppose any law. Laws that are wisely conceived work for everyone’s benefit, but lawless anarchy works for no one’s.