Government Without the State: Morality in a Libertarian Society

Within conservative circles there is a specific stereotype of libertarians that repeatedly rises to the surface.  In 2013, conservative pundit Derek Hunter articulated this stereotype when he huffed, “Honestly, what does being a Libertarian mean beyond legalizing drugs (and) banging hookers…?”

We have already addressed one of the issues Hunter raises, but his general opinion is shared by many conservatives, especially those who believe that public morality is dependent on state action. For them, a free society is mutually exclusive from a moral one and, because of this belief, libertarians who argue that the state has no role in morality appear to be endorsing unrestrained immorality.

But this is obviously untrue. Not only are some of the most prominent libertarians deeply moral and religious people, but libertarianism itself objects to government power on moral grounds. Since individuals have inherent rights – an idea which, to a large degree, finds its genesis in Christianity – libertarians hold that no government can morally violate them.

Additionally, libertarians recognize that there’s no way to empower government to control morality while keeping it constrained on other matters. Hunter lamented libertarians’ deprioritization of “individual responsibility (and) limited government,” but conservatives who argue that government should be empowered to stop people from making immoral decisions must reconcile that position with their belief that government should be strictly limited.

Exactly how government is to be, on the one hand, powerful enough to halt a wide swath of immoral activity and, on the other, limited enough to not intrude on other freedoms is unclear. It is easy to see how quickly this idea unravels any design at limiting government to any meaningful degree.

The State and Immorality

Beyond this, state involvement in morality poses another problem, because the state tends to corrupt rather than propel morality. What politicizing moral issues ultimately accomplishes is the state’s acquisition of the power to define what is and isn’t moral. Even worse, it allows the state to use its violent and coercive powers to enforce these definitions.

This might seem appealing at first blush, but it can only remain so as long as the state’s definition of morality is on your side. What happens, however, if the people in power change their mind about what is moral, or if people with different conceptions of morality ascend to power? Suddenly all that political power to define and enforce morality is turned against you.

Until recently, this could have all seemed theoretical, but it is exactly this sequence that is now playing out in America. Conservatives, who have for decades argued for increased state involvement in moral matters, are seeing the political class first redefine what is moral and then fine and imprison people who won’t go along with their redefinition. The political system, once considered an ally of traditional morality, has turned its lances against it.

But the more fundamental moral problem is that the state, when it steps outside the role of protecting individual rights, is acting immorally. In The Law, Frederic Bastiat wrote, “since an individual cannot lawfully use force against the person, liberty, or property of another individual, then the (government) cannot lawfully be used to destroy the person, liberty, or property of individuals or groups.”

Philosopher Gerard Casey has expounded this point,  explaining, “Without in any obvious way possessing a different moral status from ordinary mortals, the state does things that, if done by anyone else, would be illegal, immoral and criminal — for example, in making war, it kills; in taxing, it steals; in conscripting troops for war, it kidnaps.”

Since the state, a collection of individuals , has no more moral authority than individuals themselves, it cannot morally do things that any single individual cannot do. We must ask ourselves, then, if individuals are morally authorized to steal from or imprison anyone who violates their definition of morality. Clearly not, for to do so would violate another individual’s rights. So how is the state supposed to acquire the moral authority that individuals don’t have? The answer, simply, is that it can’t.

Government Without the State

Does this mean that society is doomed to stand idly by as its collective morality circles the drain? Of course not. Unless, that is, we believe the socialist claim that the state and society are the same thing. But it is exactly this point that both libertarians and traditionalist conservatives have historically rejected. Both groups have proclaimed the importance to society of voluntary institutions like the church, the family and the local community.

In The Quest for Community, conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet observed that individuals have an innate desire for community and that this desire can only be effectively fulfilled by small, voluntary associations. These associations, in turn, provide not only meaning and purpose to individuals, but also communicate to them acceptable behaviors, including moral standards. As Nisbet explained, the authority of these associations effectively governs the behavior of its members because it is “a form of constraint, but, unlike power, it is conditional,” meaning that the threat of force – the domain of the state – is absent.

Even with the absence of force, such associations have traditionally performed an important function in the moral lives of individuals. Nisbet observes,

“In earlier times…there was an intimate relation between the local, kinship, and religious groups within which individuals consciously lived… There was an intimate conjunction of larger institutional goals and the social groups small enough to infuse the individual’s life with a sense of membership in society and the meaning of the basic moral values.”

In other words, traditional society did not rely on force to moderate morality, but instead counted on the ability of voluntary associations to communicate standards. And this remains true today. Most individuals who behave morally don’t do so because the law forces them to. They do so because of the social institutions that influence their behaviors.

For example, I don’t use drugs, and I’ve always understood this to be a moral choice. To use drugs would, I believe, violate the teachings of my faith. It would additionally be outside of the expectations and standards of my family and my church, and the responsibility that I feel to these voluntary associations guides my decision making. In other words, I don’t use drugs, not because of laws, but because of my faith, my associations and my responsibilities.

This is true of the moral choices that millions of people make every day. The belief, then, that legislation is a required feature of a moral society represents an implicit lack of faith in the ability of social institutions to set moral standards and provide for their enforcement.

How the State Interferes with a Moral Society

Now, the objection might be raised that this is all good in theory, but the current state of morality proves it to be false. But Nisbet observed that as the state has grown, it has interfered with the proper functioning of voluntary associations, thereby reducing their ability to moderate morality. Nisbet wrote,

“Our present crisis lies in the fact that whereas the small traditional associations, founded upon kinship, faith, or locality, are still expected to communicate to individuals the principal moral ends…of society, they have manifestly become detached from positions of functional relevance to the larger economic and political decisions of our society. Family, local community, church, and the whole network of informal interpersonal relationships have ceased to play a determining role in our institutional system of mutual aid, welfare, education, recreation, and economic production and distribution. Yet despite the loss of these manifest institutional functions, we continue to expect them to perform adequately the implicit psychological or symbolic functions in the life of the individual.”

As Nisbet explained, the rise of the modern state – with its appropriation of, among others, the economic, charitable and educational roles of voluntary institutions – has resulted in the decline of these associations. Thus Nisbet’s observation that, “The state becomes powerful not by virtue of what it takes from the individual but by virtue of what it takes from the spiritual and social associations which compete with it for men’s devotion.”

Divorced from relevance to individuals’ basic needs, these associations have declined in prestige and importance. Nisbet believed, for instance, that “The alleged disorganization of the modern family is, in fact, simply an erosion of its natural authority, the consequence…of the absorption of its functions by other bodies, chiefly the state.”

It is tragically ironic that the state, the institution that conservatives want to proclaim as the savior of morality, is the chief cause of the decline of the social institutions that have historically communicated moral norms. Amazingly, the state, a leading cause of moral decay, is said to be the only way to reverse it. This brings to mind Groucho Marx’s observation that “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.”

What’s the Point of Morality?

There is one more question that we should ask: what is the purpose of morality? Is it an end in itself, or is it a means to other ends?

Many people treat morality as an end in itself, and not without reason. Certainly a society in which people behave according to traditional moral codes would be a more pleasant environment than a hedonistic free-for-all. But this perspective views morality through a utilitarian lens, which dramatically understates its importance.

In reality, morality is much more than a set of actions that are socially desirable. It is the reflection of attitudes and worldviews that are conformed to principles of right and wrong. In Christian terms, morality is the result of a heart molded to the will of God.

This understanding of morality led British philosopher Auberon Herbert, to question whether state-enforced morality is moral at all. Herbert wrote,

“How can an act done under compulsion have any moral element in it, seeing that what is moral is the free act of an intelligent being? If you tie a man’s hands there is nothing moral about his not committing murder. …Those who would drive their fellow-men into the performance of any good actions do not see that the very elements of morality–the free act following on the free choice–are as much absent in those upon whom they practice their legislation as in a flock of sheep penned in by hurdles.”

To confine the moral decisions of human beings by legislation is to appeal to brute force, not reason or religion, to change their actions. Even if laws have the ability to change behavior, it is only behavior that is being changed. Herbert concluded,

“Any fool can reform the surface of things, can drive…prostitutes out of public sight, can drive dram drinking into cellars…provided that he has the handling of money that does not belong to him, and a people not trained to inquire beyond the present moment, and ready to applaud what has a surface look of philanthropy; but what is the good of it all when he has done it? To be compelled into virtue is only to live in order to die of dry rot.”

Conservatives, especially Christians, hold this exact view as it relates to charity. Liberals will occasionally claim that Jesus’ commands to provide for the poor validate the modern welfare state. Christians counter that the passages in question, rather than empowering the state to compel society, through the force of law, to give money to state-run “charities”, actually appeal to Christians to be personally generous and to provide for the poor themselves.

Frederic Bastiat made this point when he wrote,

“Without a doubt, morality and religion make it a duty for men, especially the rich, to deprive themselves voluntarily of that which they possess in favor of their less fortunate brethren. But this is an entirely moral obligation. If it were to be asserted on principle, admitted in practice, sanctioned by law, that every man has a right to the property of another, the gift would have no merit—charity and gratitude would be no longer virtues.”

This is no less true of other moral actions. Many of the current conservative attitudes towards morality are in some ways at odds with Christian teachings in that they focus on outward acts instead of inward motives.

The New Testament is filled with lessons calling the reader to realize that whatever evil is in the heart – be it murder, lust or envy – is just as morally abominable as murderous, lustful or envious actions. As a Christian, it occurs to me that we should be less concerned with using the state to force people to act like Christians and more concerned with appealing to hearts and minds to know Christ, the basis of those actions.

Even if we put aside the religious overtones, it is still not desirable for society to be forced by law into morality. Such a scenario reaps only a population that knows what actions it must perform in order to not be punished. It does not teach a principled rationale for what moral actions are and why they are desirable.


It should be clear by now that there is nothing to the charge that libertarians don’t care about morality. The people who make such accusations are ignoring the problems inherent in their own views. They’re ignoring the state’s corrupting propensities and the immorality of government force. They’re denying the importance of voluntary associations like the family and the church. And they’re ranking moral actions higher than moral decisions.

Libertarians can and do have strong beliefs in traditional morality. But we also hold liberty to be the highest political end, which means that we oppose state-enforced morality. However, this in no way denies the importance of morality, nor of family, society or religion. Liberty and morality are not mutually exclusive. Rather, as Bastiat wrote, “liberty is an acknowledgment of faith in God and His works.”

Note: This article is part of a series exploring libertarian positions through a conservative lens. Click here for the full list of articles.