The Libertarian Threat to Human Liberty

Peter Augustine Lawler

May 1, 2002

Francis Fukuyama, always on the cutting edge, has announced in The Wall Street Journal (May 2) that libertarianism may be over as a political movement. He gives two reasons. First, September 11th showed Americans that we still need citizens and nations, not just individuals. The state, thank God, is not about to wither away.

Second, the libertarian view that designing babies and genetic engineering generally can be just another individual choice is destructive of individual rights. Parents, for example, would end up tyrannizing over the very being of their children. More generally, the very existence of natural rights depends on a relatively stable view of human nature. By thoughtlessly changing our natures, we may end up designing beings without the human qualities on which our system of inalienable rights is based. We will have made Thomas Jefferson, our Declaration, and human liberty obsolete.

Fukuyama, as usual, has raised the right issues, and he has come out for the right side. It is time for we conservatives to recognize that we are well on the way to becoming anti-libertarians. My small contribution to this development is to question him on two points. First, I doubt that libertarianism is finished; it may well be destined to win great victories in the short term. Second, the libertarians’ view of a designer future is a fantasy. It is not going to produce parental tyranny; the result instead will be unprecedented forms of government control over our most basic and intimate personal choices—political tyranny. Paradoxically, “statism” today is the only way to resist the truly monstrous statism of the future.

Libertarians, in recent years, have changed. They used to be reactionaries, pining for some past and freer America. They now believe the future is on their side. It is also only an exaggeration, unfortunately, to say that all Americans are libertarians now. The causes of personal permissiveness and the free market seem to be winning everywhere, and Americans are becoming progressively more pro-choice in both categories. Sociologists like Alan Wolfe celebrate and those like James Davison Hunter are repulsed by these facts, but most experts seem to agree on the facts.

September 11th only affected these facts slightly. It is true that Americans gratefully accept the protection their government offers them against terrorism, and they have a higher opinion of their protectors. But there has been very little real constraint on individual liberty, and perhaps no change at all in personal behavior. What September 11th may really have shown us so far is that we can live well enough with the occasional terrorist attack. Our one attack has not traumatized us enough to arrest the libertarian drift in our policies or our souls. New and more devastating explosions certainly would affect us more profoundly. But who knows when or if they are going to happen?

Personal security, in fact, is the one area in which prosperous and smart Americans were already not particularly libertarian. They are laissez faire when it comes to the soul, but toughly intolerant moralists when it comes to the body. They are obsessive when it comes to diet and exercise; they know that death is evil, if nothing else. They want laws encouraging safe sex and outlawing smoke. Most recently, they have proposed using taxation to do away with high-calorie soft drinks. Sugar even more than smoke is a dangerous killer if left unregulated. We now tend to endorse if not all at least many public means necessary when it comes to genuinely risky business.

So why wouldn’t our risk-averse libertarians not embrace every kind of biotechnological advance that promises to make individual life more safe and secure? The libertarian campaign that pits the designing individual against the nature that is out to kill him or her may well be effective. Why shouldn’t I be able to choose whatever helps me be alive and healthy? Government outlawing or even regulation of “therapeutic” cloning and so forth is already coming to seem not only moralistic but actually pro-death!

Our most powerful argument is that government guided by excessively libertarian premises always culminates in tyranny. Fukuyama worries that parents will tyrannize over their designed children. But if it happens that babies can be constructed by using all the genetic material available, then that parental tyranny will last only for a moment. Won’t government require all parents to choose the best material available when it comes to health, strength, brains, longevity, and so forth? Their “tyranny” will surely be limited to genuinely inessential choices such as hair and eye color.

The example Fukuyama uses actually confirms my point. He talks about the outrage—a libertarian excess!—reported on the web of two deaf lesbians wanting to use genetic therapy to have a deaf baby. But isn’t our immediate reaction there ought to be a law? And there will be a law. The same law will constrain Mormons and Catholics who want to have lots of kids and not submit to genetic testing, genetic therapy, or therapeutic abortion. We can’t have hoards of kids running around with preventable diseases who are weaker and stupider than “normal” or genetically enhanced children! The same law that opposes the two Moms’ perversity and ideology will oppose anyone who won’t accept the best available material for his or her children. Once, thanks to regenerative biology, we start living to, say, 150, won’t government have to tell us not only what kind of kids we can have but how many, or even if we can have any at all? The inevitability of such regulation eludes the imagination of our timid libertarians because they assume that all reasonable human beings will choose for their own lives above everything else. If the opportunity presents itself, they believe we will freely choose for ourselves over our natural replacements.

We have to get libertarians to imagine the world coming soon where those who are now pro-life become pro-choice. Even if everyone else is designing some and killing other babies, the new or religious pro-choicers will argue, we should be left alone to have the kind and number of children we want. Will their argument have any chance at all of prevailing if biotechnology is allowed to develop without thoughtful regulation based on the truth that human beings are more than bodies? Even religious freedom and duty may have to give way to the safest ways biotechnology has given us to protect our lives and health and those of our children. The true libertarians—meaning the true lovers of human liberty-cannot really be against regulation of biotechnology now.

Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College in Georgia. His most recent book is Aliens in America: The Strange Truth About Our Souls