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The Lax Logic of Libertarians

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"There's... a thin line between promoting virtue and tyranny," proclaims Ed Luce, Washington bureau chief of The Financial Times. This abuse of terms reveals deep errors in popular ideas about liberty that are unrealistic and free of data. Crucial questions are misframed by pitting J.S. Mill and free-market libertarian faith against Mayor Bloomberg, reason and experience. Reminders of definitions, history, evidence and old wisdom are required:

Tyranny really means capricious and absolute rule especially when oppressive and cruel. Aristotle's definition added that tyrants rule only for their own interests, not for the people.

Virtue now mainly means moral or religiously approved of behavior. But key virtues predate a religious context and were originally skilled actions befitting an honorable man. When Aquinas selected virtues from Aristotle's rationalist philosophy for import into Christianity, he defined two types. The "cardinal" virtues -- justice, temperance, prudence and courage -- were natural, whereas the theological virtues -- faith, hope and charity -- were supernatural. Cardinal comes from Latin cardo meaning principal. So principle priests and vital virtues both came to be called cardinal.

But back to the lax logic of libertarians: whatever your position on the supernatural, how on earth can promoting "justice, temperance, prudence and courage" be oppressive or cruel? Or only in the interests of rulers? Promotion of something isn't prohibition of its opposite. Such phantom freedom reductions are far from tyranny.

Aquinas' natural virtues may sound like religious relics, but in modern terms they are adaptive life-skills. They are useful not for the afterlife, but for the after-in-life.

Temperance originally meant sound-minded. Not abstinence, but self-governing of appetites within healthy limits. Its opposite overindulgence comes guaranteed punishment by the laws of nature. Eat badly and you gain weight. No faith or karma required, only biological logic. The other natural virtues also have irresistible logic. Courage enables action in an uncertain world. No rational person could prefer life without justice. Prudence is itself the use of reason. Markets depend on all these virtues.

The libertarian faith that people choose well when left to their own devices and vices is an aspirational error. It is empirically evident that most now aren't making food or finance decisions well. J.S. Mill declared using power to prevent citizen self-harm unacceptable in a time steeped in Victorian virtues. However desirable Mill's limit isn't now working in practice. Seemingly only self-harming actions are imposing costs on others. Widespread intemperate eating increases health care costs for all. Mass financial imprudence crashes economies. Bloomberg's desire to limit harmful choices comes closer to fitting the data.

The more freedom we have the more we need virtues that are rationally desirable skills. Not promoting this is folly.