Libertines and Liberty

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We as libertarians have a reputation for being free spirits, indulgent, questioning of morals and societal values, and shirking the norm. We have a reputation of liking sex, drugs and rock and roll, in other words, many of us have a reputation as libertines. We ain’t looking for nothing but a good time, and the reduction of the state. This is an understandable parallel to draw, as those who have pushed back against the state and society have always been seen as inappropriate. Take the first women who wanted to vote, or the first men to stand up and declare their love for other men. In the societal context of the times, these were seen as libertine actions. Many of their supporters were also libertines. In fact, in Australia, one of the early supporters of feminism was the Premier of New South Wales, Henry Parkes, who had at least two concurrent families1. One need only attend a Slutwalk or Pride today to see how the LGBT community has embraced libertines as lions of their movement, much to the chagrin of social conservatives.

It is clear that there is a strong connection between those who valiantly fight for the freedoms of others, and those who indulge  their own proclivities. Throughout history freedom fighters have been a little less than completely moral when held up to scrutiny. Gandhi had an unusual sex life, and left his father’s bedside to pay his wife a conjugal visit 2. We can compare this to the ardent support liberty has from figures like Marc Emery, the Canadian Prince of Pot. You can be sure he indulges.

The issue does not seem immediately apparent, but for anyone who has tried to sell the message of liberty to a social conservative, the difficulties are familiar. If liberty is associated with indulgence, loose morals and questioning tradition, those who value strong moral values may not feel at  home in our movement. This is a shame, as historically some of the greatest advocates for liberty in the Western World have been staunchly moral. It does not take a leap of faith to find echoes of our message in the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, or the Quran. In fact, I have been a part of many conversations where these parallels were explored.

The option always exists to hold yourself to one standard and those around you to another. In fact the style of proselytization in many religions and the liberty movement is very similar. We can not use force to make people accept the ideas of individual liberty and limited government. We must speak our message quietly and clearly, and hope that one day they accept it.

This leads to the issue: when we proselytize liberty, the parts that we emphasise are as important as the method of delivery. We all know that the soap box is much less effective than conversations. It is also important to remember that every conversation need not be a conversion. When we talk to those who hold themselves to a strict moral code, we should emphasise the moral beliefs, be they deontological, consequentialist or virtue ethical that provide the philosophical basis for our motives in the liberty movement. We should not place emphasis on the freedom to do whatever we want. Instead we should point out that enforcing a moral removes the virtuousness that would be there should that moral be freely chosen. This is the same technique we use when we emphasise the issues that matter to an individual when we are explaining liberty. We talk about gun licensing with hunters, prohibition with drug enthusiasts and equality before the state with oppressed classes. It is a bit harder to separate the underlying current of libertinism from liberty, but it is possible and necessary. By stressing that making the right decision is only meaningful if we have a free choice to do so, we can reach communities that would have otherwise shown us the door.

In growing this movement, we can not afford to let any potential alliance go unexplored. To do so, we must strive to drive a wedge between our varying, subjective personal levels of libertinism, and the pure message of liberty for all.


1 Magerey, S. (2001). Passions of the First Wave Feminists. Sydney, New South Wales: Pluto Press Australia.

2Adams, J. (2010). Gandhi: Naked Ambition. London, UK: Quercus Publishing

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