Thursday, May 25, 2006

Column on Demeaning Libertarianism

Demeaning Libertarianism in Academe

Tibor R. Machan

In a new reader in business ethics that?s just been sent to me by the
publisher, Honest Work (Oxford University Press, 2007!)?so I might consider
using it in my business ethics courses?the editors include a final ?case?
about ?Roberto, a pure libertarian in moral and political philosophy,? who
decides to enter the cocaine trade as ?a pure form of the free market in
which supply and demand control transactions. This fact about the business
appeals to Roberto, as it seems perfectly suited to his libertarian views.?

Now to start with, libertarianism is not a moral but only a political
philosophy or theory. That is to say, it proposes an answer to the
question ?How ought human communities to be organized, what laws should
govern them,? not to the question, ?How ought one to live his life, what
are standards of right and wrong conduct.?

Once this is appreciated, the attempt at besmirching
libertarianism in
this final, concluding piece of this new text book becomes evident: the
authors of this imaginary case, supposedly based on ?accounts in The Wall
Street Journal and The Economist? (without a clue as to where those
accounts could be located)?Professors Tom Beauchamp, Jeff Greene, and
Sasha Lyuste?conflate the moral (or ethical) issue of whether trading
cocaine (and, by implications, any other hazardous items) is ethical with
whether there ought to be government regulations and bans controlling such

Let?s go back for a moment to those Danish cartoons to see the
difference. It is one thing to defend the right of the editors of the
papers that published them; it is another thing to defend the journalistic
ethics of publishing those cartoons or, indeed, anything else offensive
and insulting in various publications, from magazines, newspapers, books,
and the media in general. Obviously, even if one is wrong to publish
something, one can have the right to do so?many, for example, defend the
basic right of Larry Flynt to publish Hustler?s magazine, a filthy glossy
rag that?s a frontal insult upon women?s bodies, without defending the
morality of his doing so. In the case of freedom of speech and religion,
there is no confusion like this other than by some fundamentalists around
the globe. One can have the right to do what is wrong.

Roberto?s entering the cocaine trade may very well be wrong.
Libertarianism as such, as a political theory, does not address that
issue, just as it does not address whether Roman Catholicism or Judaism or
Islam is a faith to embrace, but it does address whether the rights of
adult men and women to enter that trade ought to be respected and
protected. Since, of course, there is plenty of agreement on other fronts
about the merits of the basic rights to life and liberty, attacking them
would be bad strategy. Instead it is smarter to make it appear that
libertarianism not only defends these rights but also endorses the ethics
of entering cocaine trade, as if it not only defended the right to freedom
of speech but also whatever those who exercise this right actually say.

The business ethics industry is, of course, full of such smear efforts.
If you defend free markets, oppose government regulations, or champion
global free trade, then you need to be shown as an promoter of immorality.
Never mind that this is a complete non-sequitur. It is very sad that
ethics students across the country will have such a smear effort peddled
to them by well credentialed professors in books published by the most
prestigious publisher in the world.

In my own history of teaching business ethics, I have encountered such
efforts everywhere?I have called it business bashing, because it mainly
involves besmirching, belittling the profession of business and commerce
itself, presenting these as amoral?morally indifferent, callous?endeavors
that then need to be tamed by governments, by those paragons of virtue
across the globe, politicians and bureaucrats.

Go figure.
Machan is RC Hoiles Professor of business ethics & free enterprise at the
Argyros School of Business & Economics, Chapman University, and a research
fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

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