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Enforcing virtue: is social stigma a threat to liberty, or is it liberty in action?

IT'S THE DEBATE that won't die: the endless face-off between conservatives and libertarians over the tension between liberty and morality. In his foreword to the 1998 anthology Freedom and Virtue: The Conservative/Libertarian Debate--much of it composed of essays from the 1950S and '60s--editor George W. Carey described it as the main fault line dividing the two philosophies.

In Carey's words, conservatives "believe that shared values, morals, and standards, along with accepted traditions, are necessary for the order and stability of society" and that some restrictions on individual freedom, including censorship, may be needed to preserve this social cohesion. Most libertarians, he continued, share the conservatives' alarm about the "erosion of both public and private virtues" but regard individual liberty as the highest value and free choice as the prerequisite for true virtue.

So far, so good. But beyond rejecting moral enforcement by government, what is the libertarian view of moral and cultural standards upheld by a voluntary social consensus? Some conservatives accuse libertarians of treating all shared values or conventions with contempt.

Take W. James Ante III, a reporter for The American Spectator (and occasional contributor to reason) who describes himself as a "conservative-libertarian hybrid." In a May 2003 article in Enter State Right, he pointed to the response to the then-recent flap over virtue czar William Bennett's gambling problem.

Antle acknowledged that Bennett "was an unrepentant drug warrior and leading force for using the federal government to promote traditionalist conservative objectives." But he charged that "libertarian criticism was not limited to Bennett's designs for the state: many were clearly put off by his propensity to judge lifestyles, criticize individual choices and espouse limits on personal appetites." In a Wall Street Journal article published around the same time, Journal columnist Susan Lee, while basically sympathetic to the libertarian viewpoint, wrote that libertarian tolerance "comes from indifference to moral questions, not from a greater inborn talent to live and let live."

Is that a fair description? Libertarians certainly have been known to criticize and ridicule moralists even when they aren't calling for government coercion--for instance, when they wring their hands over the loss of cultural constraints on sexuality. Of course, such hand wringing is often an inviting target.

Consider a November 2006 rant on the American Spectator website by the blogger Carol Platt Liebau. Liebau lamented our culture's alleged failure to stigmatize the crotch-flashing antics of Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, and the alleged message to young girls that such tawdry displays are a path to empowerment. In fact, Spears' indecent exposure was cruelly mocked by the same gossip outlets that publicized it, and Rosie O'Donnell, hardly a rightwing moralist, pleaded for a cover-up on ABC's The View.

But the merits of specific conservative pleadings aside, is there anything illiberal about an argument for the cultural stigmatization of, say, casual sex? Does supporting the free speech right to chronicle your sex life or explore your sexual fantasies online mean that you cannot regard such porno-blogging as tacky and narcissistic? Must you oppose not just state censorship but the social conventions that generally compel such bloggers to conceal their activities from relatives and employers?

Few libertarians, I think, would argue that stigmatization as such is abhorrent. While no libertarian worth the name would support legal prohibitions on hate speech, the overwhelming majority would agree that racist, anti-Semitic, or homophobic slurs should be socially unacceptable, penalized through severe disapproval if not outright ostracism.

To take a less extreme example, many (myself included) would also agree with the mainstream culture's dislike of such voluntary traditionalist initiatives as the Southern Baptists' call for wifely submission. The question, then, is not whether undesirable conduct should be curbed through social censure. It's which conduct should be seen as undesirable--and on that, self-professed libertarians should be able hold a wide range of opinions.

Within the libertarian milieu, there is a tension between political libertarians, whose chief concern is limiting and reversing the expansion of the state and its powers, and social or cultural libertarians, whose central interest is maximizing individual opportunities and freedom of choice.

For some political libertarians, the centralized government is so unquestionably the greatest enemy that they not only oppose civil rights laws banning private race and gender discrimination but reject the post-Civil War constitutional doctrine that state governments must abide by the Bill of Rights. (That was the position espoused by the late Libertarian Party presidential candidate Harry Browne, who opposed Jim Crow laws but felt they should have been fought on the local level. State infringements on individual rights, he argued, posed a far smaller danger to liberty than expanded federal power.) Meanwhile, some cultural libertarians are concerned about constraints on individual freedom from government as well as from traditionalist familial, religious, and community institutions--the same civil institutions that conservatives see as necessary for ordered liberty to thrive.

In his 1960 book The Constitution of Liberty, F.A. Hayek wrote that his real quarrel with conservatives was not their opposition to drastic change in institutions but their readiness to use government force to curb such change. To Hayek, moral and cultural standards were the product of spontaneous order emerging from the interplay of economic and social forces, from evolution and experimentation unguided by any central authority. Yet noncoercive criticism of what some of us deem to be negative social and cultural trends is itself a vital part of that evolution. It's one thing to demand a federal virtue police; it's another to write and market a book about virtue and hope that its lessons will catch on.

As long as the Bill Bennetts of the world are intent on using not just persuasion but force (and public funds) on behalf of their favorite virtues--promoting premarital abstinence through federal programs, banning legal protections for same-sex unions, censoring sexually explicit materials, waging the war on drugs--libertarians can be forgiven for fearing even noncoercive moralizing on their part. But it's important to remember that cultural progressives have not hesitated to use the government on their side: to promote liberal attitudes toward sexuality and sex roles through public education, say, or to compel landlords to rent to unmarried cohabiting couples even if they have religious objections to such a lifestyle. The backlash from the social right is directed at such social engineering as well as spontaneous cultural change.

It is also true, of course, that even noncoercive moralizing can be egregiously misguided. If criticism of modern cultural trends is a part of the spontaneous order, so is anti-traditionalist countercriticism. But this is where libertarian discourse can benefit from a greater variety of viewpoints and a more calibrated approach to social issues.

Just because conservatives are quite wrong (in my opinion) to argue that young women are victimized by sexual freedom doesn't mean that only right-wing killjoys can have misgivings about prepubescent girls parading in T-shirts with vulgar messages and gyrating to music with sexually explicit lyrics. Just because I think the right is wrong to cling to a family model based on rigid gender roles doesn't mean I am happy about the growth of single parenthood.

The Hayekian principle that "neither moral nor religious ideals are proper objects of coercion" is one most Americans will readily embrace. But if libertarians are seen as championing not simply freedom of choice but a rigidly nonjudgmental attitude toward all choices--if we are seen not simply as tolerant but as indifferent to moral questions--then many people who might be sympathetic to liberty will be pushed into the arms of the authoritarians.

Contributing Editor Cathy Young (CathyYoung63@aol.com) is the author of Ceasefire! (Free Press).
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Title Annotation:Columns
Author:Young, Cathy
Publication:Reason
Date:Mar 1, 2007
Words:1265
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