My Delightful Societal Bubble

Libertarians make a self-defeating mistake in assuming that their fundamental principles differ radically from most other people’s principles. Think how much easier it would be to bring others to the libertarian position if we realized that they already agree with us in substantial ways.

What am I talking about? It’s quite simple. Libertarians believe that the initiation of force is wrong. So do the overwhelming majority of nonlibertarians. They, too, think it is wrong to commit offenses against person and property. I don’t believe they abstain merely because they fear the consequences (retaliation, prosecution, fines, jail, lack of economic growth). They abstain because they sense deep down that it is wrong, unjust, improper. In other words, even if they never articulate it, they believe that other individuals are ends in themselves and not merely means to other people’s the ends. They believe in the dignity of individuals. As a result, they perceive and respect the moral space around others. (This doesn’t mean they are consistent, but when they are not, at least they feel compelled to rationalize.)

These are the opening paragraphs of an article by Sheldon Richman, “One Moral Standard for All.”

Sheldon then goes on to point out the big difference between (most) libertarians and non-libertarians and then expresses some optimism:

Libertarians differ from others in that they apply the same moral standard to all people’s conduct. Others have a double standard, the live-and-let-live standard for “private” individuals and another, conflicting one for government personnel. All we have to do is get people to see this and all will be well.

He also adds a touch of humor:

Socrates would walk through the agora in Athens pointing out to people that they unwittingly held contradictory moral positions. By asking them probing questions, he nudged them into adjusting their views until they were brought into harmony, with the nobler of their views holding sway. (Does this mean that agoraphobia began as a fear of being accosted by a Greek philosopher in a public place?)

I love this essay. I’ve been thinking about it since I read it yesterday and I think it helps solve a puzzle.

I had been wondering why I didn’t connect at all with Bryan’s March 9, 2012 post, “My Beautiful Bubble.” Like him, I have very specific tastes and I judge everyone. So why do I love interacting with everyday people–at the supermarket, the drug store, heck, even the DMV? Well, my wife put her finger on it. When my friend Fred Jealous, as we were getting ready to patrol the streets of Seaside, along with some black ministers, the night of the Rodney King verdict, said, “David loves a challenge,” my wife replied, “David loves people.”

Bryan wrote that he finds our society “dreary, insipid, ugly, boring, wrong, and wicked.” I find it almost the opposite. It has all those elements that Bryan notices but for me they’re secondary to the underlying goodness of most people. Sheldon Richman’s piece helped me see that.

Bryan writes, “Trying to reform it [the larger society] is largely futile.” Again I disagree. With my interactions I try to reform it every day and succeed in little ways.

One little story might make this last point more concrete. When my students graduate, I show up just before they file in and visit with them, getting pictures taken of them in their military uniforms and me in black robe, mortarboard, and UCLA blue and gold. To get what I’m about to say, you need to remember that the Americans among my students take an oath, not to defend the country–that’s not even mentioned–but to defend the Constitution. Virtually all of them are familiar with the First Amendment. A number of years ago, one of my students while dressed in his crisp Marine uniform, vented about some statist thing newsreader Tom Brokaw had said and then added, “He ought to be locked up.” I grinned, looked at him, and said, “Sworn to defend the Constitution and any day now you’re going to start, huh X. [I don’t want to name him.]” He grinned back and looked sheepish, realizing what he had done.

By the way, all this is a further answer to the question John Stossel asked me: “Why are you so cheerful?”