August 3rd, 2012

Behold, A Straw Man!

I’ve been called many names and associated with many labels during my political advocacy and activism. One must develop thick skin in this business, of course. And most of the time, I let it slide and carry on. Recently being called “very confused and overzealous” by Paul Mero of the Sutherland Institute, however, merits a response.

First, some context. Two weeks ago, I wrote a post for Libertas Institute discussing our view on individual liberty. It was a response to a question from a visitor to our website, who used a couple quotes to determine what “flavor” of liberty we’re advocating for.

One of the quotes was from Lord Acton, and is very often used by Paul to bash libertarianism. On numerous occasions Paul has channeled Lord Acton to argue that liberty is “the right to do what you ought to do”—thus providing justification for the conservative desire to compel morality and responsibility when people allegedly aren’t doing what they “ought”.

As I looked for the quote’s source, I soon realized that its missing context worked against Paul’s use of the quote, and not in favor of it. So, I included that in my article to show how that specific statement by Lord Acton was a very libertarian one. Of course, I was not also arguing that everything else Lord Acton wrote or believed in was libertarian.

But Paul apparently believes that that is in fact what I was claiming. In his response to my article, Paul sought to correct my “ignorance” by producing one quote after another by and about Lord Acton to show that in fact, he was a conservative (by Paul’s standards) and not a libertarian. For example, he wrote:

And Acton has many quotes that can be singled out in championing personal liberty, for, once again, Acton was a Roman Catholic living in a very oppressive Protestant England. But it would be a massive misjudgment to accuse Acton of libertarianism for his defense of minority rights and “independence” in behalf of his religious liberty.

Most individuals who read my article will understand and agree that I was not “accusing Acton of libertarianism,” but rather pointing out that a quote so often abused in his name in fact supports a libertarian view. A single quote. Not everything he said. This is especially interesting since in an earlier, stinging paragraph Paul claimed that I was seeing what I wanted to see, while it was actually him seeing in my article something entirely different. Paul said:

Ideology, especially combined with youthful hubris, is a powerful narcotic. It makes people see only what they want to see. It makes facts out of fantasy. And it turns otherwise intelligent adults into juveniles.

I hesitate to place too much emphasis on Paul here, for his political opinions are hardly unique to him or to the organization over which he presides. Indeed, many conservatives do not understand libertarianism, and when they attempt dialogue with a libertarian they respond to something that the other individual does not in fact believe and is not arguing.

And that’s what Paul’s article ended up being—a very large straw man he built up to then torch with flames. Nowhere in his reply is there a response to the points of my article, namely: the state is an enemy to liberty; individual rights must take precedence over societal demands or interests; and a social or religious standard of morality should not and cannot be compelled through the state. Instead, we are treated with a variety of quotes showing that Acton was more conservative than libertarian—something I don’t disagree with, and which has nothing to do with my use of his (contextually accurate) quote.

As I noted in my FreedomFest debate with Paul, his definition of liberty is a comprehensive one which is more religious in nature. And I agree with him. As I stated during the debate (30:30 into the audio):

When Paul talks about liberty, I find that we perhaps have different definitions. Paul’s is an overarching, comprehensive, moral liberty. It encompasses social liberty, religious liberty, political liberty, and in many of those other factors, I agree! We cannot be free if we are in spiritual bondage, or financial bondage.

In its truest meaning, liberty comes as a result of righteousness—or to quote Acton, by doing what we “ought”. What Paul fails to acknowledge is that this is a personal, voluntary, moral “ought” which cannot be compelled; men enjoy their liberty only as they themselves become personally responsible.

Though we have many disagreements, I respect Paul. I enjoy productive dialogue and look forward to more of it in the future months and years. But as the late Stephen R. Covey said, we should seek first to understand before being understood. In my exchanges with Paul, I believe that he does not understand what I and other Latter-day Saint libertarians believe and advocate. His unwillingness to engage in debate at Freedomfest (instead using his rebuttal time to read prepared remarks) and his construction of a straw man in his recent article demonstrate that there is work yet to be done; we must seek greater understanding.

And that’s as much (if not more so) on myself than it is on Paul, or on those of us in the liberty movement than those in the conservative camp. Hubert Humphrey once said that “Freedom is hammered out on the anvil of discussion, dissent, and debate.” It is in civil conversation where competing ideas can be accurately contrasted, and informed conclusions made. But logical fallacies abound, and are destructive to our common goal to create a moral society. Straw men may make people feel better about their positions, but they ultimately do nothing to promote understanding, let alone a freer society. Let’s recognize and reject them, and move forward to (through persuasion!) persuade people to do what they “ought”.

27 Responses to “Behold, A Straw Man!”

  1. Paul Mero
    August 3, 2012 at 10:30 am #

    Fair enough. I don’t want to leave you hanging…or be accused of not listening or of creating straw men…so let me leave you with these thoughts (which will no doubt trigger endless rounds of further debate):

    “The state is an enemy to liberty”: Yes, it is, as is every other form of external authority. Government, on the other hand, is part and parcel of how we maintain a free society in which you are able to exercise your personal liberty. My point all along (I am actually listening) has been freedom often necessarily trumps your individual liberty and government plays a role in that larger freedom. To respond to your emphasis on individual liberty, I have tried to explain the difference between freedom and liberty…but that’s a distinction without a difference for you it seems.

    “Individual rights must take precedence over societal demands or interests”: It depends. If your individual rights diminish freedom, then no.

    “A social or religious standard of morality should not and cannot be compelled through the state”: It should and is (whether anyone likes it or not) because of the intransitive nature of human actions. There are no “neutral corners” in a free society…it simply isn’t human nature.

    Okay, so I don’t think I’ve dodged anything…unless you tell me otherwise. Your friend.

  2. Jeremy Lyman
    August 3, 2012 at 11:23 am #

    Paul, I have a challenge for you. Hopefully you won’t dodge it.

    Regarding the Lord Acton quote, to which we owe all this hullabaloo, to paraphrase the great Inigo Montoya, I do not think that quote means what you think it means.

    Will you stop using it to promote something that it clearly was never meant to promote?

  3. Paul Mero
    August 3, 2012 at 11:40 am #

    I won’t dodge it. Your view is incorrect. It’s important to remember the context of not only the quote but of my use of the quote and my understanding of Acton: the moral and spiritual basis of freedom. I began using it when I gave speeches about being a LDS and a conservative. My use of it recently at FreedomFest, again, was in the context of what should LDS think in terms of political philosophy…a moral and spiritual context. I can’t control the context you or Connor choose to use or not use. The Acton quote perfectly describes not only the Catholic view of integrated liberty (i.e. freedom) but the LDS view as well…in my opinion.

  4. Jeremy Lyman
    August 3, 2012 at 12:31 pm #

    Someone once said that ideology “makes people see only what they want to see.”

    Interesting thought.

  5. Jacqueline Smith
    August 3, 2012 at 12:38 pm #

    Great article, Connor. I respect Paul’s views, but I tend to agree more with Connor. After all, being a Latter-Day Saint, agency is the one thing I hold dearest. While I am saddened when I see my fellowman make bad decisions for himself, that is his agency. As long as he has not violated my rights or my property, he is free to do as he chooses, and face all of the consequences of those actions.

  6. Jeremy Lyman
    August 3, 2012 at 1:14 pm #

    Food for thought:

  7. Leo Ebbert
    August 3, 2012 at 5:10 pm #

    Paul there’s no shame in admitting when you’ve made an honest mistake. You’re calling into question your credibility by your stubborn refusal to do so.

  8. Jim Davis
    August 4, 2012 at 1:59 am #

    Paul claims that freedom and happiness are synonymous while simultaneously accusing libertarians of focusing on freedom as the end goal. Obviously freedom is a means (a righteous one by the way) to happiness. I see Connor merely pointing out that freedom and persuasion are the only righteous means to achieve that goal and that force/aggression are only justified as an act of defense.

    Also, Paul keeps speaking unfavorably about individual freedom and keeps referring to some abstract idea he calls “larger freedom” or “ordered liberty”. Are those fancy words for collectivism? Does he at all believe in individual freedom?

    “We believe that no government can exist in peace, except such laws are framed and held inviolate as will secure to each individual the free exercise of conscience, the right and control of property, and the protection of life.” (D&C 134:2)

    “…that is why we have the Bill of Rights, granting protection to each individual. The government was established to protect the individual; the individual is not a part of the State, nor should he be used as part of the State. The government is set up to protect him in his rights.” David O. McKay (The Founding of an American Republic)

    “We pray, O Lord, that thou wilt inspire men to desire to make equal advancement in preserving and making applicable to society the principles of individual liberty and freedom of worship brought by the pioneers and vouchsafed by the Constitution of the United States.” -David O. McKay ( Dedicatory prayer of the Mormon Pioneer Memorial Bridge, Omaha, NE, Jun 1953)

    “Because some Americans have not kept faith with our Founding Fathers, the Constitution faces severe challenges. Those who do not prize individual freedom are trying to erode its great principles. We believe the Constitution will stand, but it will take the efforts of patriotic and dedicated Americans to uphold it.” -First Presidency Message (July, 1976)

    “The founding fathers, inspired though they were, did not invent the priceless blessing of individual freedom and respect for the dignity of man. No, that priceless gift to mankind sprang from the God of heaven and not from government.” -Ezra Taft Benson (The Heritage of Freedom)

    And to tie in these quotes/scriptures on the importance of individual rights and liberties to the idea that we have the right to do what we please while we don’t infringe on others’ rights…

    “All men are, or ought to be free, possessing unalienable rights, and the high and noble qualifications of the laws of nature and of self-preservation, to think, and act, and say as they please, while they maintain a due respect to the rights and privileges of all other creatures, infringing upon none.” -Joseph Smith (History of the Church 5:156)

    “I should like to express gratitude this Thanksgiving season for this great country, for the Constitution of the United States which grants to each individual liberty, freedom to think and to speak and to act as he pleases, just so long as each gives to the other man that same privilege. I am thankful for this country which has given more persons opportunity to raise themselves under an individualistic, capitalistic, free enterprise system from menial to commanding positions than any other nation in the world, past or present.” David O. McKay (Faith and Freedom: Two Guiding Principles of the Pilgrims)

    I think the difference between Paul and Connor’s arguments are the means by which they want to carry out their goals. Connor and Paul both believe in clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, abstaining from drugs/alcohol, keeping the sabbath day holy and otherwise keeping the commandments (Even though Paul keeps alluding that libertarians don’t-as if their political philosophy renders them incapable of righteousness). The difference is that Connor believes that persuasion is the only just means by which to create a moral society. Paul doesn’t make that distinction. I think Paul can learn from Paul (Biblical) when he had to debunk the false philosophy:

    “Let us do evil that good may come” (Romans 3:8)

    But I doubt Paul (Mero) sees the compulsion of moral and religious conduct as evil… Perhaps he forgot which side he chose during the war in heaven.

    Also, Connor’s book, Latter-day Liberty, makes a clear distinction between collectivism (aka statism) and community (voluntary involvement and consent). Individual freedom doesn’t diminish community. But it is a crucial principle by which governments are to protect and treat its citizens.

  9. Jonny Day
    August 4, 2012 at 9:01 am #

    Paul, you responded to Conner’s comment claim that “Individual rights must take precedence over societal demands or interests” with: “It depends. If your individual rights diminish freedom, then no.” How is it that any individual right can possibly diminish freedom (by the definition of freedom that you use, as a larger freedom, or I guess I would call it a “societal freedom”)? I contend that anything that diminishes the freedom of others is not a right and could never logically be rationalized as one. I also contend that the individual has a right to diminish one’s own freedom or liberty if one so chooses, by which I mean a right to do what one ought not to do so long as it doesn’t involve coercing or initiating force on others.

    I also contend that there are 2 levels of liberty. I contend that Lord Acton and John Stuart Mill are both correct. There is an essential liberty to be free to act according to one’s own conscience, whether for good or for bad, so long as no coercion or initiated force is used on others (or as John Stuart Mill put it, “the right to do what one desires, with certain restrictions”). And then there is a higher liberty, of which I know is the definition you prefer, of doing “what you ought to do”, as Lord Acton defines.

    I contend that the level of liberty endorsed by Mill is necessary for all, and that it is the only liberty that the state or anyone else can ever be qualified to protect on behalf of others. But the higher liberty of doing good in all things, of being free from one’s own sins and addictions, this is a liberty that must be acquired of one’s own free will; it cannot be successfully forced upon others; all coercion and initiation of force will fail in enforcing this liberty; this is a level of liberty that can only be attained by choosing to be free from oneself. Only persuasion and love can be used to encourage higher liberty, by setting a good example and teaching others; but ANY coercion or initiation of force is wrong because it violates the liberty of free choice, and this is why the state cannot morally be used to enforce the higher liberty. And aside from it being immoral, it is also impossible because we cannot control the minds and hearts of others.

    In essence, what I endorse if free will for all individuals. And this means none can infringe on the free will of others; none can coerce or force others to do anything, good or bad, because so doing violates free will. And this is what we have moral grounds to defend against. And beyond that it is up to all individuals to be responsible for their own choices, and to choose for themselves whether they will be free from sin, addiction and guilt, or enslaved by them.

  10. Rhonda
    August 4, 2012 at 12:42 pm #

    Government seems to attempt to negate negative consequences.

    The question I’ve been mulling over for a couple years is: how should they punish crimes? And how, to begin with, do they determine what constitutes crime?

    That seems to be where the breakdown occurs between libertarians and conservatives, and where I’ve run into the most difficulty in discussions with my city council.

    What are your thoughts on this?

  11. Jaxx13
    August 4, 2012 at 9:26 pm #

    It seems you are all in a contest to see who can sound the smartest and be the fairest in the land. Can you say pseudo intellect? Why not DO something with your time that will make a difference?

  12. Jonny Day
    August 4, 2012 at 11:29 pm #

    So, what you’re saying is that educating each other doesn’t have an impact on anything? That there’s no point in learning? And that being fair is a waste of time as well? Tell me, how is your comment not ironic in that you are wasting your time in the same manner you accuse us of? You could have just ignored us if you don’t see value in our discussions. Perhaps it would have been a better use of your time. If you have no interest in liberty then just ignore us. You aren’t going to sway away any who have embraced it.

  13. Yin
    August 5, 2012 at 7:37 am #


    Your comment actually made me laugh out loud. Do something with his time? You obviously know nothing about Connor.

  14. outside the corridor
    August 5, 2012 at 9:44 am #


    I may not understand what you are asking, but one of the things I have been faced with as an active LDS who used to be ‘typical’ conservative and swallowed the argument of ‘morality must be legislated’–

    is the shunning that occurs when I see something like what happened with Chick-filet’s CEO–

    Yes, I happen to believe that he has a right to speak up and be ‘for’ traditional marriage–
    and, no, I don’t think that it’s right for someone else who disagrees with him to pass a law in a city that punishes him for speaking out–

    but many of the LDS people I know go too far in a strange and inexplicable way when they give themselves points for eating at Chick-filet on a certain day to show support–

    it’s their right to do that, but it becomes a cult following almost . . . well, almost scary when you’re not a good person if you don’t eat at Chick-filet (we don’t have that franchise here, and the food is not healthy)–

    and if you speak up and say that you are ignored and told that you aren’t ‘with the program’–

    that sort of mentality, that mentality of, “the gospel is pushing people into being what our definition of morality is by shaming them if they don’t comply with our ideas”–

    really frightens me.

    And as for city councils (sp?); we’ve been trying to get them to listen to us about having backyard chickens for a long time, and they tell us they will hear us out and schedule us to come and speak, and then they . . . forget about us–


    it should NOT be a crime to have chickens in a backyard, and yet it is, notwithstanding the fact that predatory animals who leave nasty droppings, kill harmless birds or dig up gardens and make noise are allowed (dogs and cats)

    I’m not against dogs; I have one (allergic to cats), but–

    the mentality is stupefying to me–

    Is that what you meant?

    As in what is a crime, and what is not a crime?

    Those who love liberty do believe in protecting life, so if someone takes a life, there should be punishment, but some of us are not so sure that capital punishment is right or even effective–

    not sure–

    maybe my response has nothing to do with what you are saying–

    but I can be for traditional marriage without being anti-someone who is involved in something else–

    can’t I?

    I don’t like all the warring–

    and I don’t like feeling that I am a bad person because I refuse to eat bad food to show my support for traditional marriage; it seems that one’s thoughts on marriage should be private, and . . .

    between oneself and God, who ordained marriage–

    not governments.

    I really do fear that these people want a government to force something, and I’m not sure what they want to force, but there is a hateful, narrow feeling among them, even good LDS.

    I am sad–

  15. outside the corridor
    August 5, 2012 at 9:47 am #

    OH, sorry, Connor–


    I am trying to follow what happened between you and Mero, and I am such a passionate libertarian that I will probably agree with what you say, but I haven’t processed it all yet–


    I’m really tired of ‘conservatives’, I am afraid–

    used to be one–


  16. tj
    August 5, 2012 at 1:55 pm #

    Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law’ because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual.
    Thomas Jefferson

  17. AV
    August 5, 2012 at 2:48 pm #

    Connor said:

    “A religious standard of morality should not and cannot be compelled through the state.”

    I disagree. The whole reason God wants men to set up righteous governments is to set a standard of morality to be upheld and enforced by the state, based on God’s (Christ’s) religious laws.

    Everyone would still have their agency to obey God’s laws or not, but consequences would be applied to those who broke God’s laws. This is the only way to maintain freedom and a righteous society.

    But God’s moral laws can only be applied by righteous leaders who understand and live God’s laws, which we don’t have hardly any today. Church leaders today are not even upholding God’s laws.

    So our laws are now upholding the Adversary’s laws and lack of morals.

    If we had righteous leaders like Moroni who would compel people to righteousness then we would have peace and prosperity, like we will in the Millennium when God’s laws are finally enforced.

    People have the mistaken belief that it is wrong to make laws according to God’s morality, they think it’s Satan’s plan. But it is really God’s plan to enforce morality, Satan plan is to not give us the choice to obey or not even moral laws.

    If we had righteous leaders today, we would have laws that outlawed things that were contrary to God’s laws : like stealing, lying, killing, abortion, adultery, porn, harmful drugs (some that are now legal), divorce, polygamy, most taxes, welfare, public education, socialism, etc. etc.

    But no law is really legal or has any validity unless it is based on God’s laws.

    All laws should be based on God’s laws. Many of our laws today are, like laws against stealing, lying, killing, abortion, parental rights, marriage, etc.

    When Christ comes he and his leaders will definitely legislate morality according to his laws. If we would do so now we could only bring on the Millennium that much faster.

  18. jimz
    August 5, 2012 at 4:49 pm #

    Something similiar happend in a town I used to live in, but exactly the opposite of chick filet. It was a big bussiness that wanted to set up an operation, but the town wouldn’t let them set up shop because they had some domestic partnership policies that a few people in power disagreed with. It hardly even made news in the town, let alone the country. So, why is everyone so down on the ‘liberal media’, its given so much exposure to the fast food company.

    Someone posted a question on fb, why does a fast food company have a stand on this issue at all? I don’t really know, but it seems like a cheap shot at free publicity. Its happend before, I won’t mention the name of the business. But it fired some employees based on sexual orientation, and also race. That generated national news, and it seemed to only further that businesses cause….in the short term.

    The food quality was/is poor, along with service, and with that kind of pr, its very unlikely to improve. I am sure there is a reason why its always the poor quality places that generate these types of public relation questions and matters.

  19. Jacqueline Smith
    August 5, 2012 at 4:57 pm #

    Rhonda —

    Negative consequences are part of natural law. If a negative consequence follows bad judgement, people learn. If they are deterred from negative consequences by positive law, no learning ever occurs. Public Service announcements about seat belts do more good than a law like “Click it or Ticket.”

    We have many laws on the books that are truly victimless crimes. The only time a crime occurs is when a victim is created. Too many laws say the “state” is a victim, and it’s really just a revenue stream.

  20. jimz
    August 5, 2012 at 5:25 pm #

    About natural law, the name seems to imply that everyone can and should come to the same conclusion as to what that is…yet there are several descriptions of ethics based on ‘natural law’.

    Here are some examples of various outlooks of natural law, either by philosophy, religion, or individuals: Plato, Aristole, Stoic natural law, Christian natural law, Islamic Natural law, liberal natural law, taoist etc….

    Is there one or more of the above that you endorse? Is there an example of how its applied?

  21. M
    August 7, 2012 at 8:42 pm #

    Paul & Connor,

    I agree with much of what you both say. There is so much common ground that it baffles me that there seems to be such contention or at least the perception of it.

    In any case, as a libertarian and as a member of the church I do not advocate anarchy because men are not angels. In order to enjoy the benefits of civil society we need laws and the consequences for disobeying laws need to be enforced uniformly with appropriate punishments equal to the crime (via a delegation of sovereign powers or natural rights from the individuals to the government to act on their behalf). If laws are not enforced it is as if there is no law. This is why I believe we need government because I do not want to live in a state of anarchy. It is the tranny of chaos.

    You are both correct that the foundation of law is based in morality and that, as an example, the enforcement of the law “thou shalt not kill” should be a part of the governments obligations. To this I think we can all agree. Perhaps we could also all agree that Highland Utah’s enforcement of “Keep the Sabbath day holy” via government mandate may be an abuse of governmental power affecting Seventh Day Adventists who worship on Saturday and may want to operate a business on Sunday in Highland. Where there would be disagreement between us is somewhere in the middle (i.e. drug laws). I would side with Connor that we ought to use persuasion to encourage people to not put harmful things into their bodies while you would rather use government as an instrument of force to make people stop. This is where conservatism and libertarianism take side. Where is the cut off for what government ought not to do?

    But let’s not make drug laws the primary issue in Utah. we’ve got big fish to fry. Let’s discover all the common ground and work together on those things here in the State of Utah to protect our rights and to promote both freedom and liberty for all Utahans.

    As a side note and separate from fighting for Utahan’s freedom and liberty, I would be very interested in both of you comparing and contrasting your definitions of freedom and liberty. I also think you should both write a book together covering the points of contention that a Latter-day Saint conservative and a Latter-day Saint Libertarian would have with each other. It would be very interesting if you both tried to argue for the other side in the book. Connor defending the conservative view and Paul defending the libertarian view. I would buy that book.

  22. jiMz
    August 8, 2012 at 7:23 pm #

    Would be the motivation for legally enforcing a sabbath day non-work code? (or any moral code as you see it)If you can answer that, I think that would solve a lot of the questions.

  23. M
    August 8, 2012 at 8:22 pm #


    The sentence/question you are trying formulate seems jumbled to me. I don’t understand you. Sorry. Please try again.


  24. jiMx
    August 9, 2012 at 4:18 pm #

    Why would anyone want to make sabbath observation a legal requirement for someone else? Or any religious ideal binding on someone else?(if they believe it or not) If you understand the movitation, than that would clarify what can become a legal mandate, and what would not.

  25. M
    August 10, 2012 at 2:06 pm #


    I don’t know why someone would force their religious practice on someone else. You can read up on the Highland City issue here.

    Anyone who has studied history can list numerous examples of where one group has attempted to force upon other groups their system of belief. It still happens today.

    I’m still am not sure what point you are trying to make, but hopefully this response is sufficient. This all seems to be just a side note to point of my original post (#20) – there’s much that libertarians can work with conservatives on in Utah to reclaim and protect our liberty.

  26. Liz
    August 12, 2012 at 1:55 am #

    Our country was built on a Judeo-Christian moral code. For a reason. Get rid of that, and our country turns into something else less free. Oppressive even. Gentle persuasion is awesome, but there’s a reason that’s not the enforcement mechanism for our criminal courts, military operations, or the tax code. Maybe in the next life, Utopians.

  27. jimx
    August 12, 2012 at 8:19 pm #

    I never quite understood the thinking about that. The constitution is essentially non-religious. Maybe the Judeo-Christian sense comes from so many people following that tradition in the states, but certainly the constitution doesn’t prohibit other things. The majority of the population could suddenly or gradually convert to something else, in which case all the sense of a moral code, and legal code could all change.

    Why do you believe that this would make the country less free, or even oppressive?

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