Gerson’s Trenchant Critique of Libertarianism

In last week’s Republican debate, Ron Paul called for a repeal of laws against prostitution, cocaine, and heroin. Paul argued that our society should treat turning tricks and shooting up in the same way that we treat freedom of religion—they are inalienable rights. This kind of libertarianism in my view is deficient in its view of human nature and would comprise an unloving and degrading way to organize society. I couldn’t agree more with Michael Gerson’s critique of Paul’s libertarian approach. Gerson writes:

Libertarians often cover their views with a powdered wig of 18th- and 19th-century philosophy. They cite Locke, Smith and Mill as advocates of a peaceable kingdom — a utopia of cooperation and spontaneous order. But the reality of libertarianism was on display in South Carolina. Paul concluded his answer by doing a jeering rendition of an addict’s voice: “Oh yeah, I need the government to take care of me. I don’t want to use heroin, so I need these laws.” Paul is not content to condemn a portion of his fellow citizens to self-destruction; he must mock them in their decline. Such are the manners found in Paulsville.

This is not “The Wealth of Nations” or the “Second Treatise of Government.” It is Social Darwinism. It is the arrogance of the strong. It is contempt for the vulnerable and suffering.

The conservative alternative to libertarianism is necessarily more complex. It is the teaching of classical political philosophy and the Jewish and Christian traditions that true liberty must be appropriate to human nature. The freedom to enslave oneself with drugs is the freedom of the fish to live on land or the freedom of birds to inhabit the ocean — which is to say, it is not freedom at all. Responsible, self-governing citizens do not grow wild like blackberries. They are cultivated in institutions — families, religious communities and decent, orderly neighborhoods. And government has a limited but important role in reinforcing social norms and expectations — including laws against drugs and against the exploitation of men and women in the sex trade.

Read the rest here.


  • Kelley Kimble

    I’ve always thought that for libertarianism to succeed, everyone would have to care how their actions impact others. That doesn’t happen. It’s a philosophy that is doomed to fail. Drug addiction and prostitution are not victimless crimes. They harm first the families of the perpetrators, often resulting in a social cost to the taxpaying public. Is Ron Paul suggesting that the children of addicts be left in their care to starve or suffer abuse, rather than removed from the homes and placed with other relatives or foster care? That might save a lot of money, but it wouldn’t be worth it. It would result in the decline of our society. The more one thinks about it, the worse it gets.

  • Donald Johnson

    One of the problems of politics is the sound bite. The media wants to encapsulate a political philosophy into a few words, so we, the hearers, can digest it easier and then some people play to that media desire.

    What US Prohibition showed was that there was an unacknowledged alliance between bootleggers and temperance leaguers as they both wanted prohibition laws, the former to make more money and the latter to try to enforce morality on an unwilling populace. And the US now has an insane drug policy, where some are legal and taxed and others are illegal and result in penalties. How much of a paternalistic government do we want? Yes we are all sinners, but who thinks all sins should be crimes? Yes, heroin addicts are not free, but do they need help or need jail? The US jails more of its population than many other nations, must it be so?

  • Ryan K.

    Gerson nails some of my fears of libertarian views. It is a failed anthropology just as much as communism, which believes way to highly in the moral goodness of humans. As Chesterton said, history has even shown these idealistic views of human nature has soundly been refuted by human history.

    In addition, what Ron Paul fails to understand with notions about legalizing heroin or things of that nature, is that many laws are not put in place for the 80% of society but rather the 2% of society. Because we realize that even if 2% of society partake in a certain behavior it will be detrimental to the whole.

  • Kelley Kimble

    All laws legislate morality. Should we abolish laws against theft and murder simply because some people don’t observe them? Even if laws don’t prevent some people from engaging in certain behaviors, it gives society a means to remove them from our midst. This is why Ron Paul cannot be taken seriously as a candidate. Who gets to decide which laws should be abolished?

  • Donald Johnson

    All laws do legislate morality. I agree totally.

    And we should legislate SOME sins, like theft and murder.

    I asked if we should legislate ALL sins, which is a different question. I think that would be a horrible place to live.

    So it is a question of which sins to legislate and make into crimes for the common good and which to not make into crimes.

  • Wes

    “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” Prov. 22:6

    Families are responsible for training their children in righteousness. And for those who didn’t grow up in good families and engage in destructive habits then let the church reach out to them instead of expecting the government to bring change.

  • Paul

    The thing is, libertarianism is the clear endgame for what Republicans are pushing for. You can’t have economic libertarianism (what more and more of the GOP elite seem to be pushing for) without eventually giving in to the civil side of that as well. I think it’s insanely hypocritical to think that it’s okay to let banks destroy the economy with derivatives trading, but not to let people destroy themselves.

    Now, onto the real point in this:

    Marijuana prohibition alone costs America billions of dollars per year. All so that the end result is that perfectly normal kids can’t get student loans, our jails get overly crowded, and we force a drug war on the US/Mexico border. Legalizing it (not decriminalizing it) allows for regulation, it puts a huge dent in the ability for organized crime to make money, and it would make jam bands in Colorado come up with another subject for their songs other than getting high and hiding from the police. Complaining about the deficit and how America spends its dollars without looking at that rather large elephant in the room is just asinine.

    While I don’t know that I’d allow the same for all drugs (in my line of work, I’ve seen too many casualties of hard drugs first hand to be as eager as Ron Paul is to legalize them), I certainly think that marijuana and most psychedelics should be as available as alcohol.

  • Christianes

    It is difficult to see Ron Paul’s libertarianism work in a political party that would LOVE to have it in the economic sphere,
    but would be horrified to have it in the social sphere.

    Not sure ‘pure’ libertarianism finds a home in the Republican Party as it now stands . . .
    maybe the TEA party, but that would mean a major rift in the GOP.

    Maybe it’s already happening. (?)
    What do you all see happening?

  • Darius

    YGG, why not? Prostitution right now is big business and has completely corrupted many local governments. Because it is so incentivized, thousands of women get into it because of the big money that can be made. Get rid of the risk, get rid of much of the reward. Prostitution would lose much of its luster (but not all of it, since humans are sinful, lust-filled creatures, after all). And even more importantly, sex slavery would be undermined.

  • Darius

    Exactly, Ian. Everyone, Portugal legalized drug use a few years ago (while leaving drug dealing illegal, which I think is critical as long as most countries still ban drug use) and drug use has plummeted there.

  • Paul

    well, not to mention, Darius, let’s just throw the regulation thing out there again. Right now, prostitution, besides its obvious moral flaws, is dangerous due to the pimp and whore model, and the unregulated nature of the business ensures that STD’s can run rampant. Look at Nevada’s model for how it should be done (even Republican John Ensign approves). When was the last time you heard about serial killers going after prostitutes in Nevada the same way they do in NYC or Chicago?

  • Darius

    As a libertarian-leaning conservative, I’m not so sure about the regulation side of things, but I haven’t given that much thought. I’d rather just let people do as they see fit. If some sort of free market system of regulation sprouts up, that’s fine. But once you get politicians involved in regulating something, you’re corrupting the system, since they don’t play fair, and they rig it to their advantage. Just look at what they did with Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, for one of many examples.

  • Darius

    Exactly. Regulation is just the government’s word for “how can we get a piece of the pie?” It rarely does what it is supposed to do, but always lines the coffers of politicians.

  • Marty Duren

    You quote Gerson as saying, “Paul concluded his answer by doing a jeering rendition of an addict’s voice: ‘Oh yeah, I need the government to take care of me. I don’t want to use heroin, so I need these laws.’ Paul is not content to condemn a portion of his fellow citizens to self-destruction; he must mock them in their decline. Such are the manners found in Paulsville.” This is so bogus as to be absolutely laughable. I actually watched the debate; Gerson’s characterization is skewed by his anti-libertarian views, and comes dangerously close out outright slander. I’ve watched hours of Ron Paul speeches, and have never heard him be anything but compassionate, sympathetic and Christ like in all responses. (You should check out his defense of life given while on The View.) There was no mockery in his answer, except the kind of thinking that Wallace was projecting.

    Ron Paul’s satirical response to Chris Wallace’s question was caught spot on by the ostensibly very conservative South Carolina crowd. The point was clearly made: If the government were to decriminalize heroin, it would not make him want to go out and become a junkie. Audience laughter was a response to their agreement and, perhaps, recognition: yeah, me neither. Perhaps if Gerson spent more than a 60 second clip, he might find this quote from Dr. Paul, “As a physician, father, and grandfather, I abhor drugs. I just know that there is a better way — through local laws, communities, churches, and families — to combat the very serious problem of drug abuse than a massive federal-government bureaucracy.”

    I cannot say that I agree with Libertarians across the board, but Gerson needs to do better than this.

  • Nate

    Which is why the federal government should only be involved in the things the Constitution mandates and leave the rest to the states and local municipalities.

  • John C

    It is easy, and predictable for mainstream Republicans to make hay out of the “second rate” values of libertarians like Paul.

    It is not, however, easy for mainstream Republicans to remove themselves from the miasma of Republican ideology, into the true freedom found ONLY in a Libertarian-type position regarding human liberty.

    The mainstream Republicans, of which Gerson clearly identifies himself with his pathetically sentimental recollection of George W. at a drug treatment center, have brought our nation only debt, endless (and pointless!) wars in the Middle East, a curtailment in civil liberties, an endless supply of empty rhetoric, and platitudes and promises that are never fulfilled.

    Gerson has some good to say, but he’s far too attached to his statist, power-hungry ideology to allow the masses the type of liberty promised in our federal constitution.

  • Darius

    Amen, John C. It is nice to see that the statist element of the Republican party is crumbling… may the Lord continue to lead us to repentance and truth.

  • yankeegospelgirl

    I do think the government shouldn’t be regulating just anything, like it practically does now.

    I mean just think of the mess that would result if they passed a federal law against discrimination.

    Oh wait… never mind.

  • yankeegospelgirl

    That is funny—I didn’t even know that. But I would definitely have to disagree with Denny there. It’s sheer moral equivalency to put abortion on a level with not letting blacks eat at your lunch counter.

    And of course there’s the whole issue of real discrimination versus what the government THINKS is real discrimination, which very often are not the same thing.

    But in any case, I keep reminding people that “discrimination” is not a dirty word. It simply means you’re treating people differently. Everybody does that constantly, and it’s perfectly natural. Can there be unfair cases of discrimination? Yes, but not all discrimination is bad discrimination.

  • Michael Heitman

    “The dirty little secret about freedom, is that you are on your own.” – Justice Clarence Thomas

  • Charlton Connett

    I find myself agreeing more with the defenders of Libertarianism here than with Gerson. I find him, typically, far too in love with “compassionate conservatism” which seems to me to just be another form of political liberalism. The Federal Government has clearly outlined duties in the Constitution, regulating how South Carolina views heroin is not one of those duties. While I think most drug use should remain illegal (hallucinogenics in particular) I think this should be a matter left up to individual states, with the only role the Federal Government should play being one of interstate commercial regulation.

  • Chris Knox

    Obviously the only reason that we have such a terrible problem with alcoholism in the US today is because the stuff is legal. I expect Mr. Gerson to come out in favor of a return to Prohibition.

  • Kelley Kimble

    Wes said: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” Prov. 22:6

    Families are responsible for training their children in righteousness. And for those who didn’t grow up in good families and engage in destructive habits then let the church reach out to them instead of expecting the government to bring change.”

    So how does that explain all the addicts whose parents never touched the stuff? And if someone is selling heroin to your kids, that’s okay with you?

  • Kelley Kimble

    Darius – I don’t think I missed Wes’s point at all. I have more personal experience in this field of than I care to. Only a person who has never had children, or whose children are still very young, would make such a statement. Children often do make choices that are contrary to how they were raised (and that goes both ways; I’ve known people whose parents were junkies and thugs, who chose not to follow in their parents’ footsteps). Why should a civilized society give in to pressure to legitimize destructive behaviors? There are some things that belong in back alleys and buildings with no windows.

  • Darius

    Kelley, no one said that we’re trying to legitimize destructive behaviors. This again proves you are missing hte point. What we want is what you want: to undermine the desire and incentive for them. This really comes back to a basic understanding of free market economics (most things do) along with positive versus negative rights.

  • Wes


    My point is regarding responsibility. The government isn’t keeping our kids off drugs and they’re spending a ton of money in the process.

    As a child I started smoking marijuana in middle school and through high school continued to be a heavy drug user expanding to much harder drugs. Thank God that he rescued me at 18 years old.

    My family was fairly “healthy” in the worlds eyes. They did’t use any substances and were very loving and present in my life, yet I still got into drugs.

    If there had been more consistent “training up in the way” with a focus on who Jesus was, what he did, and what that meant for me would I have been less likely to engage in drug use….I think there is a good chance.

    But what about all those kids that aren’t trained up in the way or even those that are and stray, what are we to do with them? The government isn’t keeping them from drugs and is certainly not helping them get off of them. As government decreases the church has greater opportunity to step in and do what they do best which is setting the captives free through the gospel of Christ.

  • Dillon

    One only needs to look at the rampant abuse of prescription drugs to see how legalizing recreational drugs would go.

  • Kelley Kimble

    Good points, gentlemen, and I appreciate the respectful tone of the discussion. I guess I am not seeing the “government” as a nebulous entity out there somewhere that imposes its will on us. Generally speaking, I see the government as an arm of the people even though it is too big and too inefficient (so are we, the people). I guess the only way to find out if legalization of these vices would cause them to flourish is to try it. Either way, it won’t make a difference to me personally but I can only imagine how many teens and young adults would excuse the behavior by saying, “Hey, it’s legal!” and then form some destructive patterns. I spent my thirties getting over my twenties. Drug abuse leads to soooooo many bad decisions, even to death. I shudder to think of it.

  • Ian Clary

    What I find appealing about the libertarian position (well, positions, it’s no monolith) is that it takes away our dependence on the state. I think libertarianism will provide greater freedom for churches and Christians to step up and fulfill a vital role in society.

  • Michael Heitman

    Ian, you hit the nail on the head. We have allowed the government to fulfill many roles, that the church should be doing. The Church should be feeding the poor and protecting those who are weak or have need. It continually builds an attitude that the government is my protector and provider, rather than God. When we are in a crisis, most Americans cry out for the government to save them, rather than God.

  • John C

    Ian and Michael,

    Here’s a quote from my favorite book, which, if you’ve not read, you should:

    “The paternal state not only feeds its children, but nurtures, educates, comforts, and disciplines them, providing all they need for their security. This appears to be a mildly insulting way to treat adults, but it is really a great crime because it transforms the state from being a gift of God, given to protect against violence, into an idol. It supplies us with all blessings, and we look to it for all our needs. Once we sink to that level, as Lewis says, there is no point in telling state officials to mind their own business. “Our whole lives are their business.” The paternalism of the state is that of the bad parent who wants his children dependent on him forever. That is an evil impulse. The good parent prepares his children for independence, trains them to make responsible decisions, knows that he harms them by not helping them to break loose. The paternal state thrives on dependency. When the dependents free themselves, it loses power. It is, therefore, parasitic on the very persons whom it turns into parasites. Thus, the state and its dependents march symbiotically to destruction.
    When the provision of paternal security replace the provision of justice as the function of the state, the state stops providing justice. The ersatz parent ceases executing judgment against those who violate the law, and the nation begins losing the benefits of justice. Those who are concerned about the chaos into which the criminal justice system has fallen should consider what the state’s function has become. Because the state can only be a bad imitation of a father, as a dancing bear act is of a ballerina, the protection of this Leviathan of a father turns out to be a bear hug.” (Herbert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction, p. 184).

  • Dillon


    ” “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

    Nine most terrifying words in the English language. ”


  • Kelley Kimble

    For churches to be able to provide the social services that the government is now providing to the poor and dysfunctional, I submit that church members will have to substantially increase their giving. Are we willing to do that? Remember, it’s only a minority of us who are “dependent” on government for food and shelter. I kind of like having police and fire protection and paved streets, don’t you all?

  • Darius

    Kelley, but what you’re forgetting is that those church members are currently taxed in the 20-40% range (depending on income, state sales tax, property tax, etc.). In the Old Testament, God used 10 PERCENT as an example of a really high tax. Can’t imagine what He thinks of current governments that tax their people nearly half of their income. Police, fire, and paved streets cost almost nothing compared to everything else. If the State stopped taking care of social services, then taxes would drop by a ton, which would mean those church members could significantly increase their giving. It is a minor miracle that people give to charities at all considering how highly taxed they are.

  • Michael Heitman

    Kelley points us to the frightening question in this discussion. If we were to scale back the role of the government, is the church healthy, ready and equipped to step in and fill that role? As much as I would like to say yes, what I see across all of the church in the U.S. leads me to believe that the answer is no. That breaks my heart.

    This is why I feel that we need to change this one church, and one community at a time. However, time is short as the volume of pro-state, anti-church sentiment rises everyday.

  • Darius

    Michael, I think the answer is definitely yes. Considering the burden that the State currently puts on everyone, it is truly amazing what the Church does with the few resources it is allowed to keep.

  • Kelley Kimble

    I am all for churches providing social services, because I am convinced that apart from Christ, there is no significant change in peoples’ lives. I am also for smaller government, but being involved as a volunteer in the child welfare system, I can tell you it’s not a pretty picture and I don’t think volunteers from churches are equipped to handle those kinds of situations. Would libertarians put all the foster kids out on the street? This is an area of the social service field that is incredibly complex and there is no quick fix. These kids have been removed from their parents’ homes because of neglect and abuse. Would the libertarian model return them all to the parents who abused and neglected them, and if a few die, so what?

  • Darius

    Kelley, SOME social services are necessary for the government to handle. But most could be handled by the Church (either via local churches or parachurch organizations). Obviously, where rule of law is applied (such as removing children from their homes), the government has to be involved to some extent (the more local the better). I’m not sure what that looks like, but the current system is a mess. Good parents lose their kids all the time over nothing, while the truly abusive parents are ignored (obviously, this isn’t always the case).

  • Josh Malone

    What does this have to do with the office of the President of the United States? Prostitution is not regulated by the U.S. government. Ron Paul has pointed out elsewhere (and should have been more clear in the debate) that the states can choose which drugs to legalize and which to criminalize. Although I probably would not support him for state office, his positions are perfectly suited for federal office, and consistent with the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

  • Kelley Kimble

    Yes, Darius – the Doug Wilson link was very good. I think that’s another blog I’ll be visiting. On the subject of child welfare, in my county a kid has to be physically abused, involved in crime or molested to be removed from a home. It’s a rural county in Arizona and a lot of the parents are substance abusers, which keeps them from being decent parents. Based on the cases I have first-hand knowledge of I would guess that 75% of the kids in foster care are there because the parents are too drugged-up to parent them.

  • Darius

    Yeah, I’m definitely not saying that social services aren’t really helpful at protecting a lot of kids. But I wonder what it would look like if the Church was the primary participant in social services and child welfare. The State merely is there to exercise control and physically protect children. The Church is there to both protect kids AND change hearts. The State is fighting a losing battle, while the Church would stand a chance of actually winning that battle.

  • Cromwell

    Ron Paul is a Humanistic anarchist libertarian, and follower of Murray Rothbard.

    Like Communism, they make their man-made ideology work no matter what on paper, because fundamentally they assume that “Man is Good”

  • John C


    @Darius (more wetting your appetite)

    I quoted a book earlier, and I’ll quote it again. You’re right, of course. To think Paul’s politics are the solution is to fail to grasp the problem.

    But that is not to say that Paul’s politics would not be an improvement.

    “Many of the Austrian school economists—Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Murray Rothbard, for example—whose work in explaining the inflationary policies of modern states has been so valuable, make the same Enlightenment mistake, supposing that a technical solution, such as the return to the gold standard, will eliminate the evils they have identified. Since they think the environment caused the evil, they expect it to be uprooted by a change of the environment.” (Herbert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction, p. 105).

  • Christianes

    “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

    Nine most terrifying words in the English language. ”

    Good to know you fear the fire department, the police department, the US Coast Guard, . . .


  • Kelley Kimble

    I’ve not studied Scholssberg extensively, I may have to read that book. Another book I’ve read that really gives insight into the root causes of poverty is “Life At The Bottom” by Theodore Dalrymple. Dalrymple is not a believer, but his conclusion is that a great part of the problem is spiritual. I found the book both insightful and depressing.

  • Darius

    Oh yes, Life at the Bottom is a great book. John, I highly recommend it! Dalrymple is my favorite author, at least on the subject of social issues.

  • Kelley Kimble

    Nope. It’s a sense of entitlement coupled with a lack of acceptance of responsibility for one’s own actions.

  • Ian Clary

    John C.: Yes, I’ve read “Idols for Destruction”–it’s very helpful. It highlights very well the problems with a misplaced dependence on the state.
    On another note, Doug Wilson’s thoughts on this issue, in light of Denny’s post, are also quite good.
    It’s worth pointing out that Ron Paul isn’t the only person who has advocated these view. Here’s Milt Friedman: http://youtu.be/nLsCC0LZxkY And here’s Thomas Sowell: http://youtu.be/YZbHndilYsI

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