E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
April 15 1997 12:30 AM



Dear Michael Sandel,


       This is deeply frustrating. Most issues dividing libertarians from social democrats are so profound that dialogue is next to impossible, so I chose to begin this exchange by posing a question about the nature of vital, effective communities on which we share enough common ground that we could disagree without completely passing in the night.
       Then your first posting comes back, asking me to clarify what kind of libertarian I am. Fine, I say to myself. It is a reasonable question. There are different kinds of libertarians. Then we can talk about community.
       Then your next posting arrives. Any response to the original topic? No. Any reason given for choosing not to respond? No. Any acknowledgment even that I posed an issue that you have decided not to respond to? No.
       You prefer to talk about whether libertarians must be morally indifferent to a society of great wealth side by side with abject poverty. It is a familiar--may I say tired?--line of argument. It used to work. As recently as 10 or 15 years ago, it pretty much closed off discussion in polite circles. If one accepted a moral obligation for the welfare of one's fellow human beings, it followed that one was in favor of using the government to implement that obligation. But with each passing year, fewer people accept that logic. The left has lost its moral monopoly. Parenthetically, a big part of the intellectual left's problem in engaging the right in recent years has been its inability to recognize that it has lost its moral monopoly.
       I don't mean to denigrate the importance of the specific redistribution issue you raise. There are fascinating theoretical questions about the nature of justice and equality that libertarians can argue about. A ton of books has been written about them. But the answers to such questions are not what is distinctive about contemporary libertarianism.
       Libertarians still say that freedom is an inalienable human right--this is the first of the two discourses I referred to in my last posting--but we are also saying more aggressively that freedom is the best way to organize society in practical terms--the second of the discourses. It is the best way to organize society for those on the bottom of society as well as those on the top. One of the most intriguing and (to me) compelling aspects of this latter point is the link between individual freedom and vital communities. It is something you have thought a lot about and something I still want to discuss with you some day. Too bad that this time we passed in the night after all.

Charles Murray

Charles Murray is a Bradley fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of What It Means to Be a Libertarian. Excerpts of his book are available on the MSNBC Web site. Michael Sandel is a professor at Harvard University and author of Democracy's Discontent: America In Search of a Public Philosophy.