We’re in a libertarian moment. As a full-time libertarian, I know this because lots of nonlibertarians suddenly have all kinds of ideas about what libertarianism really means. At times they can dredge up the darnedest things, and this is a post about one of them.
In the bad old days of the Cold War, a troubled marriage was formed. A marriage between social conservatives and libertarians. Between the trads and the rads. A marriage of necessity, as the bad old days would have it.
It never was a happy marriage. But with the welfare state rampant at home and the Soviets rampant abroad, rad-trad fusionism seemed to make sense: Libertarians gave a moral defense of the free market, one that explained why communism was worth opposing. Social conservatives reminded Americans that not every new experiment was good, and that – just as in architecture - high modernism was lousy in government, too.
As Brian Doherty observed in his great book Radicals for Capitalism, the marriage may have begun with Ayn Rand. But it ended with an angry mob of social conservatives shouting “Kill the lazy fairies” on the floor of the 1969 Young Americans for Freedom convention (Doherty, 353).
Fairies? Welllll… perhaps. Not like I haven’t heard that one before. But lazy, good sirs? There… well, there you cut me. As the bad old days would have had it, cruelty is grounds for divorce.
Doherty writes that the 1969 YAF floor fight was for many libertarians the start of the modern, independent libertarian movement – a movement that didn’t need social conservatism anymore, if it ever did. Henceforth libertarians would have their own activism, their own institutions, and their own ideas, and they would be much the stronger for it. They would be free, in other words, to criticize social conservatives whenever the trads weren’t actually advocating liberty. Libertarians welcomed gay people, whom the trads disdained. Libertarians patiently endured the trads’ ridicule. And libertarians watched them lose, again and again and again.
And just now, of all times, come calls for a revival of rad-trad fusionism. Like here:
If small-government advocacy is to be successful, it must be combined with energetic and self-conscious efforts at cultural reform. We need young conservatives to understand that liberty is meant to enable virtue, not vice, and that virtue is essential to protecting liberty over the long term.
Behavior that was once judged harshly in explicitly moral terms (and often penalized by law) is increasingly viewed in explicitly amoral terms. Or rather, a wide range of moral judgments has been reduced to a single one: individual consent….
You like promiscuity, technologically facilitated hookups with strangers, threesomes, homoerotic experimentation, partner swapping, BDSM, and polyamory? Provided everyone involved has freely chosen to participate, have fun!
This moral libertarianism even extends to pornography — not just watching it, but “acting” in it, too.
And here, from Phyllis Schlafly, who seems not to understand what she is getting into:
The New York Times has proclaimed the “libertarian moment” has arrived, by which it seems to mean libertarian ideas about marriage and the family.
We hear people say the libertarian view is to “get the government out of marriage.” But where did that slogan come from? There is simply no basis for that notion in the works of classic libertarian writers…
[Murray] Rothbard wanted to privatize nearly everything, but he never suggested privatizing marriage.
Schlafly is all kinds of wrong here. From the radical Voltairine de Cleyre to the mainstream John Stuart Mill, classical liberals most certainly understood that marriage and the state had had a troubled… um… marriage. And Murray Rothbard was an anarchist. He wanted to privatize everything; marriage was included simply as a matter of course. (It would be news indeed to the Rothbardians to learn that their mentor had wanted to keep the state’s lights on, but only to run marriage.)
Anyway. The trads these days mostly disavow the unlibertarian methods of the older generation, though sometimes grudgingly. Yet the sentiment remains the same: If you don’t share our morality, then you’re doing freedom wrong, and bad things will happen.
That’s a startling claim, because by the lights of a 1960s traditionalist, the rads have won a total victory. Not just in our little intra-factional fight, but in the nation as a whole: We got exactly what we wanted on questions of vice, as much as anyone ever does in politics. Obscenity laws are moribund. Divorce is easily had, with or without a cause. I dare to hope that we are in the midst of a full-scale surrender in the War on Drugs. Sodomy is no crime, and the last person who called me a fairy to my face at a libertarian gathering… well, gosh, I don’t want to tell stories. But let’s just say it was a long time ago, and it didn’t end well for the person in question.
How’s it all working out for us? Pretty well, I’d have to say. Let’s imagine some victory conditions: How about massively falling crime rates? Check. Also falling abortion rates? Check. A whole lot less teen pregnancy? Check. Falling divorce rate? Yep, got that one too!
No traditionalist would ever have predicted the present moment. On every single one of these matters, if the numbers had gone the other way, the so-called libertines would be taking every bit of the blame. Perhaps reasonably. But over here in the real world, we have a paradox: It begins to look as if the way to get almost every item on the social conservatives’ wish list is to give us libertines what we wanted.
And that’s a big problem for social conservatives as they try to convince us to come back to them. On all of these matters, we’ve got the wind at our heels. No one, least of all us, wants to go back to a time in which the state savagely and arbitrarily repressed people whose morality was not up to snuff. If we’re being fair to them, not even most of the so-called social conservatives want that.
It may therefore be appropriate to ask what’s at stake here. It could be nothing, in the public policy arena. But then again, you can certainly make a young gay man’s life completely miserable even without the law on your side. And I can still think you’re a bigot and a horrible person for wanting to do so. And nearly everyone nowadays would agree with me. You can still hector porn stars if you want, I guess. Or teen moms. But this does begin to say more about you than it does about them, does it not? Is this, my friends, all that you mean by tradition?
If so, it’ll be a tough road from here on out for the traditionalists. Consider that by the rules of virtually any other age, and by those of our own country until the late 1960s at the earliest, I would pass not merely for a libertine, but for a degenerate. So would nearly everyone else: I think birth control is awesome. I don’t believe that sex outside of marriage is necessarily immoral. I have enjoyed pornography without feeling any guilt at all. I think some version of feminism is plainly, unarguably correct. And yes, I’m gay. I stopped keeping it a secret back when I was still a teenager. And I wouldn’t inflict that particular hell on anyone, ever.
On all of these points, the past would condemn me. It would probably condemn you, too, for these and for many other lifestyle crimes that I haven’t named.
In a sense, then, we are all libertines, if that’s what a libertine really is. But in another sense, none of us are libertines – if by that word we mean foregoing all moral judgment. Essentially nobody does that. We give a very false picture of developments since the 1960s if we suggest that it’s all been a matter of things disappearing from our moral radar. We have added many new norms as well, and we are clearly better off for having them. Norms against drunk driving, smoking, racism, and sexism are stronger than ever, and those are certainly better than the norm that permits you to disown your son if you find him having gay sex.
Finally, it is a maxim that cannot be repeated often enough: To allow the freedom to do something is not necessarily to approve of that thing. It is simply to find that the alternative – repression – is worse. As Montesquieu wrote:
It is very odd that these three crimes, witchcraft, heresy, and that against nature, of which the first might easily be proved not to exist; the second to be susceptible of an infinite number of distinctions, interpretations, and limitations; the third to be often obscure and uncertain — it is very odd, I say, that these three crimes should amongst us be punished with fire.”
Montesquieu was no friend to us sodomites. But he knew all too well that certain types of laws are especially open to abuse, and that bad laws are the mainsprings of arbitrary power. Even today in some countries, sodomy laws are still at work, not at preventing vice, which they have never done successfully, but at suppressing political dissent, because they’re great at that. Make punishment contingent on obscure and uncertain behaviors, and you get arbitrary enforcement – which is simply another term for arbitrary power.
Much traditionalist social conservative legislation falls into the same category. We need not endorse whoredom to find that laws against it are a remedy that are much worse than the disease. And yet I will say this in defense of whores: Unlike social conservatives, I have never seen them lobby the government to force others to live their lifestyle. While I have never made use of their services, not one of them has so much as called me names for it. To borrow a quip from Dan Savage, prostitutes don’t go pounding on the doors of private homes to see if the residents are having sex the wrong way. And this is greatly to their credit.
In that context, the answer to the hour’s burning question – what if your daughter were a porn star? – is easy: Better a porn star than a vice cop. Both have their dangers, but only one of them is unfailingly disgusting.