The Definition and Role of Degeneracy

The formation and maintenance of a stable social order requires widespread recognition and respect of the first principle of self-ownership, as well as its direct corollaries of non-aggression and private property rights. Although these three ideas are necessary, they are not sufficient for describing how people should behave in order to preserve such a social order against both internal decline and foreign conquest. It is in the discussion of proper behavior beyond the basics of libertarian theory that the right-libertarian in general and the libertarian reactionary in particular will use the term ‘degeneracy.’ This term and the concepts it represents are effective and powerful when utilized correctly, but many right-libertarians do not do this. Instead, they use the term as a snarl word to signal against and denounce particular behaviors, as well as insult the people who engage in those behaviors. Though this may have beneficial effects, it is not nearly as potent as a proper explanation and denunciation of harmful behaviors. Thus, it is necessary to synthesize a useful definition of degeneracy. Once this is done, we will explore the nuances of our definition and apply it to relevant situations and behaviors.

Defining Terms

Though dictionaries are rarely capable of providing the full understanding of a word, they are an excellent place to start. Merriam-Webster defines degeneracy as “sexual perversion” and degenerate as “having declined or become less specialized (as in nature, character, structure, or function) from an ancestral or former state,” “having sunk to a lower and usually corrupt and vicious state,” “one degraded from the normal moral standard,” and “having low moral standards; not honest, proper, or good.” From here, we get a sense of degeneracy as immorality, which entails corruption of good into evil, decline from greatness, lack of virtue, and loss of capability. Thus, the opposite of degeneracy encompasses the maintenance of good against evil, the restoration of greatness, the presence of virtue, and the growth of capability. These are the essential features of a stable social order, more simply known as civilization. Therefore, we may also define degeneracy as “that which is not conducive to civilization.”

Though the above definition is thought-provoking and superficially correct, it is lacking in nuance and depth. As such, it is necessary to unpack each part of the definition of degeneracy and define some of the terms used in the definition in order to better understand the concept. Let us do this now.

Sexual Immorality

Sexual perversion may appear to stand apart from the other aspects of degeneracy described above, but in many cases, it is at the root of all of them. Understanding degeneracy as “that which is not conducive to civilization” and strong family units as the building blocks of civilization, the role of sexual perversion becomes clear. Activities which prevent, replace, destroy, or otherwise interfere with healthy relationships between mating couples threaten the formation of new family units as well as the health of existing families. These include (but are not limited to) fornication, excessive masturbation, homosexuality, pedophilia, bestiality, spousal abuse, adultery, and no-fault divorce.

The former five behaviors prevent the intimate relationship between husband and wife by replacing it with something else; a premarital relationship, a self-indulgence, a same-sex relationship, a relationship with a child, and a relationship with a member of another species, respectively. The result of these behaviors is that less family units will form, which in turn leads to lesser quantity of offspring and a less healthy environment for the offspring that are produced. If these behaviors become sufficiently widespread, the next generation will be too small to replace the previous generation. Such a society cannot sustain itself and will either be demographically replaced or suffer a collapse. Furthermore, the acceptance of such behaviors in public presents a signalling hazard for heterosexuals, who need to be able to have close relationships with other people without being mistaken for the aforementioned deviants. The widespread acceptance of such deviancy weakens the bonds that are necessary for building a strong community.

The latter three behaviors destroy or otherwise interfere with a healthy bond between husband and wife. Spousal abuse does this by introducing physical harm, while adultery does this by introducing emotional harm and by weakening trust. Finally, no-fault divorce allows couples to dissolve their bonds too easily rather than keeping their commitments to each other and supporting each other during times of hardship. The result of these behaviors is that the family units that form will be less likely to survive, leaving children to deal with the damage, choose sides between their parents, and wonder if they are to blame for the misdeeds of their parents. The children raised in broken homes are more likely to commit crimes, be less productive, and engage in the degenerate behaviors that they witnessed while growing up.

Other Low Standards

The second aspect of degeneracy to consider is low moral standards beyond sexual immorality. This produces a lack of honesty, propriety, and goodness, which in turn produces corruption and viciousness. Dishonesty, when practiced against people who are not committing acts of aggression, usually constitutes fraud. Though some libertarians restrict their consideration of force to physical violence, there is no logical justification for this. In practice, widespread dishonesty will both overburden the dispute resolution mechanisms of a society as well as reduce the level of trust in those institutions to act impartially. Thus, interpersonal violence and other such vigilantism will increasingly become the preferred method of arbitration. The end result is a breakdown of social order.

A lack of goodness refers to a complete lack of concern for one’s fellow human beings for the purpose of this discussion. While a welfare state invariably devolves into its own form of degeneracy through the subsidization of bad behavior and inferior people, a free society may venture too far in the other direction, practicing complete selfishness and financial narcissism rather than a rational thought process for determining which people are worthy of assistance. It is precisely this lack of goodness, combined with the general unwillingness to physically remove problematic people, that creates the conditions for welfare statist demagogues to step in and seduce the masses with their lies. Though such demagogues may themselves be physically removed from a libertarian social order, one cannot physically remove an idea, and the idea of forced redistribution of property will linger in the minds of the disaffected until they act upon it. There is thus a stark choice between private charity, welfare statism, or bloodshed, and the maintenance of a libertarian social order requires that people make the correct choice.

In this case, impropriety refers to rude behavior that does not rise to the level of aggression, dishonesty, or selfishness. This includes everything from excessive profanity to the violation of cultural mores and taboos solely for the sake of doing so. When people use profanity excessively, it can turn off people who would otherwise be receptive to one’s message by conveying the appearance that one is uneducated, undignified, perpetually angry, and generally unfit to be considered as a worthy intellectual. Similarly, if people come to associate libertarianism or reaction with behavior which is transgressive without purpose, then they will recoil against them and turn toward their better-behaved political rivals. (And are not reactionaries supposed to be against such activism as a matter of principle?) Additionally, a successful social order requires the positive establishment and observance of good cultural norms more than revolt against bad ones. After all, those who have nothing to stand for can fall for almost anything.

Degeneracy As A Process

A third aspect of degeneracy is the corruption of good into evil. The above examples mostly describe end states, but degeneracy in practice is a process. One does not typically become degenerate overnight; instead, vices which may be fun or even beneficial in small amounts come to play an ever greater role in one’s life, such that they ruin one’s physical, mental, and spiritual health. This occurs in several stages, which are generally described as introduction, experimentation, regular use, problem or risky use, dependence, and mental disease. The latter three categories may always be described as degenerate, as it is here that harm always outweighs benefit and widespread use would not be conducive to civilization. However, some behaviors have no benefit that outweighs their harm, so regular use, experimentation, and even introduction may be degenerate in some cases.

At this point, it is necessary to make an important observation. Due to the differences in genetics and life experiences between both individuals and population groups, there are some activities which are on the margins between degeneracy and benign behavior. For three examples, a person with an unpleasant family life is more likely to advance from occasional drug use to substance dependence. A person who is genetically predisposed to chase after losses rather than accept them is more likely to become a problem gambler. A population group that adapted to a long-term r-selective environment is less likely to suffer ill effects from weaker family units than a population group that adapted to a long-term K-selective environment. In sum, that which constitutes degeneracy for some may not constitute degeneracy for others. But there exist some behaviors which are degenerate for all, as there are some activities for which there is no safe or beneficial level of participation.

Economic Decline

Finally, degeneracy may be understood in a economic sense. The result of the above forms of degeneracy leaves people unable to function as well as they otherwise could. In an advanced society, the division of labor is necessary because no one can gain the amount of knowledge necessary to be a master of all trades. This means that a worker must become more skilled and more specialized than in a primitive society. The effects of degenerate behavior upon one’s health make one less capable of thinking at a high level and performing skilled labor. The longevity of a person’s working career will also be negatively impacted. As discussed earlier, children raised outside of traditional family structures are less likely to do well in school and work. Dishonesty manifests in the economy as fraud, whether by lying on resumes, misrepresenting one’s goods and services, or simply failing to perform the job that one is hired to do. Lack of goodness has a similar effect, as capitalism will degenerate into the service of greed if the people using capitalism have no motivation to use it to help others. Finally, impropriety leads to a lack of professional etiquette toward customers as well as needless tensions within the workplace. The practical result of widespread degenerate behavior on the economy is thus an overall economic decline.


The basics of self-ownership, non-aggression, and private property are necessary for the creation and maintenance of a libertarian social order, but they are not sufficient. The concept of degeneracy supplements these basics by providing an understanding of the behaviors which must be minimized in order to prevent the decay of a libertarian social order back into statism. Though a libertarian must recognize the right of a person to do oneself wrong, toleration should not equal acceptance or encouragement, and the failure to acknowledge group interests is a sign of political autism. Furthermore, even with the absence of public property, there will still be such a thing as “in public” because there will still be spaces that function as commons for the purpose of social interaction. The traditional solution of disallowing deviancy in these spaces will solve many of the problems that weaken the bonds between people, which are the building blocks of a stable social order.

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  • Lost Tale

    ”Such a society cannot sustain itself and will either be demographically replaced or suffer a collapse”

    That’s not true. It may recede and slow down, but it is not accurate to name it a collapse.

    • “If these behaviors become sufficiently widespread” is the key phrase here.

      • GWF Hayek

        Well, then your claim is just a pointless tautology. If literally anything becomes “sufficiently widespread” it will cause the collapse of society, because that is included in the definition of the word “sufficient”. If nose picking becomes “sufficiently widespread” it will cause the collapse of society, because if it didn’t it wouldn’t be “sufficient”.

        At this point you aren’t really telling us anything, your contribution is to tread water.

        • Toxic substances have widely variable LD50s. The same is true for the effects of degenerate behaviors on civilizations. Only by failing to understand something so simple could you believe that I am not telling you anything.

          • GWF Hayek

            I’m not disputing that your argument is simple, on the contrary, I agree that it’s so simple as to be entirely devoid of content.

  • dennisn

    How do you figure that bestiality is automatically necessarily harmful (to society, the social order, etc)? For example, in a marriage, one’s dog isn’t REPLACING the husband, he’s just maybe providing some fun once in a while — how is that harmful to anything or anyone?