Many people sympathetic to the idea of a free society balk when advocates of liberty state that any noncoercive action should and would be permitted in a properly constituted society. Such skeptics believe that a natural function of government is to ensure that citizens live virtuous and moral lives. If it is permissible to jail criminals when they rob, steal, or otherwise harm us, then why should the government not punish other behaviors which are also immoral? Whether the issue is using drugs, purchasing pornography, discriminating against minorities, or any other action which a majority judges to be wrong, the government has an obligation to make people behave properly just as it does when punishing thieves and murderers.
The classical liberal may answer that no one has the right to impose on others his ethical views on issues such as gambling, sexual practices, or objectionable reading material. The skeptic may then counter that requiring citizens to live according to a legal code recognizing full liberty is no different in principle than what the skeptic desires, i.e., to "impose a morality" -- his -- on those who disagree.
Such a reaction is understandable given the zero-sum view of life promoted by many who believe you should do-it-to-them-before-they-do-it-to-you. Understandable or not, however, such an idea is wrong. At best, this approach reveals an erroneous perception of the proper roles of government and ethics. At worst, it is an attempt to establish conditions antithetical to freedom and to the very morality such people profess to support.
These false premises hold that, first, the requirements of morality are met when people merely perform the right behaviors and, second, that the State is charged with maintaining that morality. The conclusions reached by those who accept an activist State are therefore unsurprising. They push the notion that government should operate as a substitute parent to protect its citizens from themselves. In such a vision, it does not matter whether potential harm arises from ignorance, accident, or unethical impulses.
Yet the crisis in liberty we face today does not flow from any excess of moral behavior the State has induced by keeping its eagle eye trained intrusively upon the minutia of our daily existences. The Vandals pounding at the walls of freedom and morality threaten us so imminently precisely because the self-styled moral watchdogs have destroyed the very ramparts they claim to defend.
There exist many important societal stressors. Gun violence, random murders, white collar crimes, and other frightening disruptions plague our individual lives. Yet endangering our liberties on a more abstract and, hence, less immediately visible level, are the concerted attacks by the political, intellectual, and cultural leaders of our nation on the fundamental nature of morality. Their actions and words constitute a denial not only of the concept of an absolute, objective morality which is applicable to everyone, but of the conditions necessary for the establishment of any type of morality. If such people were to acknowledge any principle, it would be the "principle" that there are no principles.
The self-refuting nature of such beliefs does not, of course, bother the advocates of moral and political relativism. A contradiction can occur, after all, only if certain absolutes do, in fact, exist. Since absolutes are, however, anathema to their worldview, they are unconcerned by what they do not think exists.
When they proclaim that "guns kill" or that "drugs kill" or alcohol or poverty or any other such thing or condition "kills" or "makes" people act in certain ways, they remove individual people entirely from the realm of morality.
A valid ethics (or morality) requires the ability to make choices in the face of alternatives and to act upon those choices. Making choices requires the possession of free will (in the form of a volitional, conceptual consciousness). And such free will and resultant choices and actions are possible only to specific, distinct individuals.
When such requirements are not met, morality does not exist. In situations where no alternatives are present, morality does not apply. Where free will does not occur, any consideration of moral issues is moot. When people are prevented from acting as they desire, they cannot be judged according to any moral standard. If people are considered merely as "groups" or "communities" or "society" rather than as individuals, the idea of morality becomes meaningless.
So it is that statist, "pragmatic" politicians and intellectuals pursue and encourage a zigzagging course implicitly designed to bolster and maintain the conditions necessary for a situational "morality." This mercurial guideline permits them to take any action, commit any outrage against freedom, spout any lie if it furthers their goal of achieving greater power for the government and themselves and increased collectivization of the country. After all, they are merely guiding us "for our own good."
Yet like any skill, moral judgment requires that one have the opportunity to practice it, to make mistakes, to learn and grow in ability. If denied cognitive exercise, a person's sense of morality will atrophy like an unused muscle. Every law, every directive, every regulation which impedes an individual in this area wreaks the same kind of havoc that would result were we to forbid our children to walk lest they fall and hurt themselves. The evidence of this type of tragedy is evident in any of the former collectivist countries where for generations people acted only as they were permitted. Such moral confusion and fear is far too prevalent here, as well.
When a governmental official or an academic proclaims that some factor in the environment "causes" undesirable behavior, they effectively eliminate people from the causal loop. If television "causes" violence or pornographic pictures "cause" rape, such external elements transform people from moral beings responsible for their freely chosen actions into irrelevant carriers of the supposed true enemy: those flickering video images or that explicit photograph.
Not only does this decrease an already woefully diminished acknowledgement and encouragement of personal responsibility in our society, it serves that cynical political expediency which characterizes pragmatism. Statists find it much easier and socially acceptable to attack a "thing" such as a handgun than to attack the citizens they supposedly serve and our tradition of individual responsibility. To directly suggest a further curtailment or outright elimination of that liberty to which they must still give lip service might cost them the narcotic of political power they covet so dearly.
Blaming a person's actions on poverty or abusive parents or genetics or too much junk food conveys an entirely different implicit message than to say he "chose to do this." The latter retains the individual's active role as a responsible moral agent and grants him a degree of human dignity. The former relegates him to a secondary position in which he becomes almost a victim himself, a helpless, pitiable pawn to that engendering entity, "poverty" (or whatever scapegoat is currently in vogue.)
But the environmental influences with which we all must contend are not magical talismans capable of possessing the souls of unsuspecting, innocent individuals and bending them to evil ends. Reversing the roles of tool and master may serve statism, but it does not serve morality.
If societal ills are the result merely of unwanted personal behaviors induced by external agents beyond the control of any individual, then the true moral issues of personal responsibility and constitutional safeguards against a tyrannical government need never be raised, let alone discussed. To solve social problems, we need merely control what people do and say. Just as liberals have co-opted the label of liberalism and given us its opposite, so, too, have they promoted an Orwellian reversal of what it means to be a moral person. They mouth the words of ethics while simultaneously avoiding any discussion of the requirements for its fulfillment. By divorcing the actual connection between moral means and moral ends, they need not face any serious challenge to their political programs.
Yet issues of morality, responsibility, and constitutionality are the very ones which should and must be examined and reaffirmed in this country if we are to reestablish the freedoms we have lost during this century.
The lovers of liberty need not grant the skeptics their premise. Supporters of freedom are not seeking to "impose" their morality on others when they try to limit government to a reactive rather than a proactive role. In fact, a desire for political liberty is not a call for a specific morality of any kind. The critics who suggest otherwise confuse cause with effect. People do not become moral if they only act "morally" when being watched or coerced. Demanding certain actions of people and calling them "moral" without establishing the preconditions required for morality -- free will choices among alternatives and the ability to actualize those choices -- leads to an oxymoron and is itself immoral.
First we must have the framework which permits us to make moral choices (whatever those specific decisions might prove to be). That is, first we must establish a free society in which no one may initiate coercion of any stripe. Yet liberty, in and of itself, is not a moral code; that is, it is not a guide to individual behavior. Nor is it equivalent to anarchy: "anything goes" also destroys morality. Once freedom is recognized and accepted as an initializing political principle, then -- and only then -- can we discuss what is, in fact, the single, objective morality which applies to us all. It is unlikely we will all agree as to its nature, but given the ideas outlined above, such disagreements will be of no concern to government.
Political freedom is a tool. What we do with it is up to us. With liberty, we have the opportunity to build good and decent lives in accordance with sound moral principles. We may succeed or we may fail. Yet without freedom, we can no more construct truly moral futures for ourselves than we could build a worthwhile home if we were forced to use "tools" of vegetables and fruit rather than hammers and saws. Governmental interference in our lives makes it impossible to practice any morality; it denies us the chance even to try to be fully and consistently moral.
The essential, fundamental question we must thus focus upon is: Are we to have a society which allows each of us to make our own ethical choices (even wrong ones) or do we accept a culture in which the primary foundation necessary for ethics of any kind is denied us? Are we to have a limited, reactive government or a growing, proactive one?
Are we to have morality or no morality?
There is no alternative.