FDA Nonsense, Libertarian Nonsense

 Posted by on 15 August 2006 at 7:14 am  Libertarianism
Aug 152006

A recent press release from the Ayn Rand Institute, “Medieval Sexual Morality at the FDA,” says:

Irvine, CA–”The FDA must stop the stalling tactics that have prevented over-the-counter sale of the ‘morning-after pill,’” said Dr. Yaron Brook, executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute.

“There is no question about the safety of the drug. The FDA’s own advisory panel endorsed it three years ago for over-the-counter use. The delays are clearly an attempt by conservative FDA officials to impose their brand of medieval sexual morality on Americans. Such an egregious violation of the separation of church and state is unacceptable in a free country.”

Personally, I’m baffled as to why we have a system in which I need a prescription for birth control at all. I’ve been on the pill more-or-less continuously since I was a teenager. So why exactly do I need my doctor to authorize my taking it for yet another year? Oh right, it’s because government bureaucrats think me incompetent. Silly me, I forgot!

These days, religious conservatives are more than happy to use that regulatory structure to force their values down our throats. And liberals might scream and stamp their feet about some particular policy, but they’ll never entertain the idea that the FDA itself ought to be abolished. That’s because statists of all stripes are fundamentally allies. Sure, they’ll viciously fight for power — or for this rather than that concrete proposal. Yet they all agree upon the propriety — even necessity — of tangled masses of business regulations, paternalistic laws against vices, expensive welfare programs for the poor, elderly, and otherwise downtrodden, and so on. The only disputes are the form of these laws — if even that. Today, new programs are supported or not solely based upon party loyalties — as in the prescription drug benefit for the elderly. The power-lusters on both sides are well-aware that expansions of power by their opponents can be molded to serve their own ends once they regain power. So the liberals will use the power of the FDA to reign in those evil drug companies, while the conservatives will use it to control contraception.

To put the point another way, this simple example clearly illustrates the absurdity of Randy Barnett’s attempt in “The Moral Foundations of Modern Libertarianism” to portray libertarianism as a second-best alternative for pragmatic statists, whether liberal or conservative. Here’s the abstract of his paper:

Libertarians no longer argue, as they once did in the 1970s, about whether libertarianism must be grounded on moral rights or on consequences; they no longer act as though they must choose between these two moral views. In this paper, I contend that libertarians need not choose between moral rights and consequences because theirs is a political, not a moral, philosophy; one that can be shown to be compatible with various moral theories, which is one source of its appeal.

Moral theories based on either moral rights or on consequentialism purport to be “comprehensive,” insofar as they apply to all moral questions to the exclusion of all other moral theories. Although the acceptance of one of these moral theories entails the rejection of all others, libertarian moral rights philosophers on the one hand, and utilitarians on the other, can embrace libertarian political theory with equal fervor. I explain how can this be and why it is a strength rather than a weakness of libertarian political theory.

Conservatives, neoconservatives, and those on the left who seek to impose by force their comprehensive conception of “the good” neglect the problem of power – an exacerbated instance of the twin fundamental social problems of knowledge and interest. For a comprehensive moralist of the right or left, using force to impose their morality on others might be their first choice among social arrangements. Having another’s comprehensive morality imposed upon them by force is their last choice. The libertarian minimalist approach of enforcing only the natural rights that define justice should be everyone’s second choice. A compromise, as it were, that makes civil society possible. And therein lies its imperative.

This abstract is overflowing with obvious disdain for the philosophic foundations of political theory: Philosophic debates between libertarians are of no significance today. Truth need not be considered, since opposing philosophic foundations can produce “equal fervor” for liberty. Liberals and conservatives should embrace libertarianism not for its truth, but for its capacity to optimize the satisfaction of their desires.

In fact, Randy Barnett’s pragmatism seems to run so deep that he’s unable to see the obvious fact that none of the many varieties of statists are fundamentally opposed to each other. Although statists often viciously fight for power, they share basic principles. That’s why they can and do build upon the “achievements” of the statists who come before them, of whatever stripe. That’s why both George Bush and Ted Kennedy are committed to government welfare programs: the only difference between them is the particular form of those welfare programs. Ted wants monolithic state control, while George demands the illusion of choice in which all options are helpfully pre-screened by the government. Yet somehow, in the rationalist dreams of a libertarian, both Ted and George might instead opt to totally eliminate government welfare so as to prevent themselves from being “oppressed” by the statism of the other.

Oh please. Will the pope have an abortion next week too?

If libertarians paid more attention to philosophical principles underlying political theory — particularly to the facts about human nature and about the world that make freedom necessary to human life — these rationalistic absurdities might be avoided. If Randy Barnett did that, he wouldn’t be able to trot out the standard contemporary divide between “moral rights” and consequences” as if an ironclad brute fact of nature, as he so often does. Nor could he think of politics merely in terms of the satisfaction of magically-given and unquestionable desires. Nor could he offer a string of abstractions wholly disconnected from the facts about the conflicts between statist politicians. And so on.

Don’t worry, I won’t be holding my breath waiting for such a change.

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