Libertas Institute Founder: Closet Liberal?

The president and founder of Utah’s newest libertarian think-tank, the Libertas Institute, penned a surprisingly liberal-minded op-ed on the pages of the Salt Lake Tribune last Sunday. In the op-ed, Connor Boyack discusses the suicide of Matthew David Stewart, accused of killing police officer Jared Francom when his house was raided for growing marijuana.

Boyack’s position is not liberal because he has taken up the token issue of young libertarians–the legalisation of marijuana–but because Boyack’s editorial is primarily concerned with the question of human accountability.

“Who bears the blame for Matthew David Stewart’s death?” asks Boyack. For a libertarian, Boyack’s answer places surprisingly little emphasis on individual accountability–a trademark argument for thinkers across the conservative spectrum. Instead, Boyack acknowledges that Stewart’s circumstances might be partly to blame.

Boyack argues that “Stewart may have hanged himself in his prison cell last week, but that does not mean that he alone bears the blame for his premature death.” So who, then, is to blame? True to his libertarian ethos, Boyack first blames the government: “The government is responsible for putting him in the unfortunate circumstances that led to his desire to escape the grim future that lay ahead for him.”

But notice Boyack’s appeal to circumstances. Circumstances that, apparently, extend beyond even the government’s role. For example, Boyack argues that Stewart “act[ed] on training and instinct,” suggesting that our environment and biology place special qualifiers on how we can and cannot act. By arguing that Stewart was a casualty of circumstances beyond his control, Boyack ultimately argues that societal changes–changes that would presumably require a high degree of human cooperation–must also occur.

Granted, Boyack places ultimate responsibility for Stewart’s suicide with Stewart himself. “Stewart is responsible for taking his own life,” says Boyack. But even this claim is attenuated by the sentence that immediately follows it: “We are all responsible for tolerating, and in many cases praising, the policies and tactics that lead to such situations.”

This is an apparently new, and I would add welcoming, sort of thinking by Boyack. As liberals have argued for years, it acknowledges we are responsible to each other.

Boyack and I both agree and disagree on a variety of issues. We’re on opposite ends of any debate on gun rights.* But we likely have a lot of common ground on the issue of government involvement in marriage. Putting specific policies aside, I’m most surprised about how similarly we think about human responsibility. He might call himself a libertarian, but Boyack’s account of human motive is liberal.

I agree that people like Stewart aren’t entirely accountable for the situations in which they find themselves. Which means society–individuals cooperating in ways that are mutually beneficial–must intervene to improve those situations. If Stewart isn’t completely responsible for his own death, is it such a leap to argue that Boyack might see those without health insurance or adequate housing as not entirely responsible for their own situations as well? And, if they aren’t totally responsible for those situations, might it not fall upon us, as a democratic society, to help them out of their narrow straits, just as we should have with Stewart and Francom? Might we be, in Boyack’s words, all responsible?

Maybe Boyack isn’t as libertarian as he thinks. Maybe there’s hope for him yet.

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*I’ll note by way of full disclosure that Boyack wrote a scathing indictment of an op-ed I wrote for the Salt Lake Tribune earlier this year after a mutual friend posted it on his Facebook wall. I hope my own comments here are more generous.

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6 thoughts on “Libertas Institute Founder: Closet Liberal?”

  1. This article is nothing if not creative. I appreciate your thoughts.

    What I’ll primarily point out in my comment here is that you are, as so many do, conflating society with government. I agree that we have responsibility to ourselves and one another. I wrote a book about it. We should help others in need. We should devote our time, talents, and resources to the care of those around us.

    But it should be done voluntarily.

    That’s where society and government depart ways. Passing a law (“democratically”) forces people to help. It threatens them with fines, jail time, and ultimately death (if the punishments are resisted) for refusing to help others by mandate of the state. This isn’t charity. It’s coercion.

    People are born into poverty. People lose their jobs because of the effects from geopolitical strife, bailed out banks, corruption, and any number of other factors they cannot control. People have health complications, surprise illnesses, broken bones, etc., without being responsible for what caused the problems.

    This does not mean that they are justified in forcing their neighbor to help them. Frédéric Bastiat explained it pretty well 150+ years ago:

    “Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.”

    To Matthew’s case. We are all responsible for tolerating a government that created these circumstances. We should instead be working through churches, non-profit groups, families, etc. to discourage drug abuse, help those with mental illness and other problems, and improve society. We should not turn to the government for such things, since (as we see in Matthew’s case) the results are not pretty — even when those results are socialized across millions of people who are only each forced to give up a dollar or two of their income.

    So while I can sympathize with your paradigm and the resulting conclusions you’ve made here, it is predicated upon a misunderstanding of what society is. Society is people voluntarily networking together for mutual benefit — not using the coercive arm of the law to force the dissenting minority to comply with their demands, even if they are “charitable”; the ends do not justify the means.

  2. In my opinion Connor has made THE definitive distinction between socially conscientious libertarians and the often used objectivist caricature of libertarians that hold selfishness as the ultimate virtue in his comment here. The accusations that libertarians don’t care about people because we don’t believe the state should mandate charity is the uphill battle we face.

  3. In my opinion Connor has made THE definitive distinction between socially conscientious libertarians and the often used objectivist caricature of libertarians that hold selfishness as the ultimate virtue in his comment here. The accusations that libertarians don’t care about people because we don’t believe the state should mandate charity is the uphill battle we face.

  4. This article is nothing if not creative. I appreciate your thoughts.

    What I’ll primarily point out in my comment here is that you are, as so many do, conflating society with government. I agree that we have responsibility to ourselves and one another. I wrote a book about it. We should help others in need. We should devote our time, talents, and resources to the care of those around us.

    But it should be done voluntarily.

    That’s where society and government depart ways. Passing a law (“democratically”) forces people to help. It threatens them with fines, jail time, and ultimately death (if the punishments are resisted) for refusing to help others by mandate of the state. This isn’t charity. It’s coercion.

    People are born into poverty. People lose their jobs because of the effects from geopolitical strife, bailed out banks, corruption, and any number of other factors they cannot control. People have health complications, surprise illnesses, broken bones, etc., without being responsible for what caused the problems.

    This does not mean that they are justified in forcing their neighbor to help them. Frédéric Bastiat explained it pretty well 150+ years ago:

    “Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.”

    To Matthew’s case. We are all responsible for tolerating a government that created these circumstances. We should instead be working through churches, non-profit groups, families, etc. to discourage drug abuse, help those with mental illness and other problems, and improve society. We should not turn to the government for such things, since (as we see in Matthew’s case) the results are not pretty — even when those results are socialized across millions of people who are only each forced to give up a dollar or two of their income.

    So while I can sympathize with your paradigm and the resulting conclusions you’ve made here, it is predicated upon a misunderstanding of what society is. Society is people voluntarily networking together for mutual benefit — not using the coercive arm of the law to force the dissenting minority to comply with their demands, even if they are “charitable”; the ends do not justify the means.

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