Herman Cain and the Right-Libertarian Conundrum
I caught Piers Morgan’s interview of Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain last month. It was the first time I had heard Cain speak, and I was surprised at the strength of the libertarian strain in his views. He neither labeled nor cleanly presented his positions as such, but Cain made clear that he does not think the government has a role in private-sphere, individual decisions like abortion. Cain personally thinks things like abortion and same-sex marriage are wrong, but he doesn’t think the (federal– he’s running for president) government should be making such decisions for people.
Theoretically speaking, there are two types of libertarians– Left and Right libertarians. The former believe that economic equality is required for people to be free; in other words, they must have (approximate) equality of condition and freedom from basic want to be able to pursue the good life on their own terms. The latter, by contrast, believe that equality of opportunity is what is important, and that legal and economic independence (rather than equality) is required for freedom. Right libertarians tend to hold socially conservative preferences as a personal matter but do not seek to impose those views on others.
The trouble for libertarians comes when their personal views conflict with their political views. Abortion is a prime example. Social conservatives think abortion is wrong because it is tantamount to– or is– murder. As libertarians, however, they say that the government ought not infringe on a woman’s right to chose whether to have an abortion. This brings the key tenet of libertarianism— the right of each individual to pursue, free from government intervention, his or her own definition of the good life– into conflict with the equally important limitation on that key tenet– one’s actions in pursuit of one’s self-defined good life cannot infringe on another’s pursuit of the good life. Killing would qualify as such an infringement. If aborting a fetus is the same thing as killing any other human being, it is impermissible under the tenets of prevailing libertarian theory.
Yet most libertarians, Right and Left, oppose government restriction of abortion rights. For Left Libertarians, this isn’t too problematic. The policy view matches their underlying personal view that a woman’s right to choose prevails. For Right Libertarians, though, the problem is as described above.
This mismatched situation appears to be due to Right Libertarians’ utilization of both “definitions” of the abortion issue. While “right to choose” and “right to life” commonly are seen as two ways to describe opposing views on abortion in positive terms, Right Libertarians employ both descriptions: their political, policy view is that abortion is about a woman’s right to choose, but their underlying, personal view is that abortion is about an unborn human’s right to life. When confronted with this apparent inconsistency, can Right Libertarians really square it by replying that it’s appropriate to apply one view of the issue at the public policy level and the other at the personal level, given the seeming fundamentality of the rationale for their personal, anti-abortion view? Criminal law generally allows for different degrees of homicide, but categorically, killing is killing, and if abortion is killing, a political theory that allows people to treat as not a killing an act simultaneously believed to be a killing may not be as robust as it initially appears.