Standing Athwart Liberty Yelling, “Stop”

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In a couple recent National Review Online columns, Jonah Goldberg has once again tried to figure out libertarianism, and once again failed. You’ll recall that in June he attempted to attack all of libertarianism on the basis of a single conversation (about suicide, of all things) with a college student in Washington. (In a later column he claimed that he hadn’t actually been doing that, because, as he put it, “that would be stupid.” Indeed it was.) This time around, Goldberg claims that the difference between conservatives and libertarians is that conservatives are “anti-Left,” while libertarians are “merely” anti-state. Being anti-Left means opposing the “secular-humanism” represented by the modern liberal coalition, while being anti-state means merely opposing the methods by which liberals prosecute their culture war. “I have always believed, and have written, that a conservative case can be made for the NEA, PBS, and the public schools,” Goldberg writes. “Conservatism has always understood the important role institutions play in transmitting culture, so if these institutions could be trusted to transmit cultural values which didn’t tell people that America is racist, that your soul resides in your gonads, or that Cuba is a workers’ paradise – I could be open to keeping them around.”

For Goldberg, government-funded propaganda is fine, so long as it is in conservative hands. Only when National Public Radio gets taken over by, say, pro-choicers, would he consider the question of whether it is constitutional in the first place. Still, Goldberg claims, he isn’t being intellectually dishonest – the anti-staters (libertarians) are. Although we “think you’d have to be higher than a moonbat to support even the theoretical idea of a government-run TV network,” he writes, we “are perfectly happy to make anti-Left arguments (‘Do you really want the federal government teaching homosexuality?’) if it will help [us] win allies in [our] cause.”

In a subsequent column, Goldberg blamed libertarianism for the apparent treason of John Walker, the American who

Goldberg’s basic premise: Unless a per- son’s ideology (or cultural taste) is backed up by force, that ideology is irrelevant.

 

was captured fighting for the Taliban. Ah, that’s right. Libertarianism is certainly the well from which springs fundamentalist Muslim movements like the Taliban. But hear him out. Goldberg’s argument is that “libertarianism is essentially a form of arrogant nihilism. There are no universal truths or even group truths (Le., the authority of tradition, patriotism, etc.) – only personal ones. According to cultural libertarianism, we should all start believing in absolutely nothing, until we find whichever creed or ideology fits us best.” Thus “Virginia Postrel can write triumphantly that the market allows Americans to spend $8 billion on porn and $3 billion at Christian bookstores, because she isn’t willing to say that one is any better, or any worse, than the other.”

I do not know Mrs. Postrel’s thoughts on pornography, but I for one do not regard pornography as culturally superior to Christianity. In fact, I have never been in a pornography shop, just as I have never taken drugs or tasted a drop of alcohol (I wonder whether Goldberg has a similar record himself). Yet because I am a libertarian, he would accuse me of arrogant nihilism – of not being willing to say that sobriety is preferable to hedonism.

These columns illustrate Goldberg’s, and indeed, cultural conservatism’s, basic premise: Unless a person’s ideology (or cultural taste) is backed up by force, that ideology is irrelevant. Unless a person attempts to force another person to patronize a Christian bookstore instead of Le Sex Shoppe, then the fact that he himself prefers the former to the latter is insignificant. Goldberg knows well enough that libertarians (and particularly we Objectivists) have very strong cultural preferences. It’s strange to hear followers of the philosophy of Ayn Rand being accused of too much tolerance. But because we do not believe those preferences can be forced on other people, we are therefore “nihilists.” If we really preferred religion to pornography, then we would join the conservatives in coercing people to agree with that preference. Because we think that people should be free to make that decision for themselves, then our preferences, no matter how deeply we seem to hold them, are really just illusory.

It’s interesting to contrast Goldberg’s view of the properly moral sociology with that of John Milton, the greatest Christian poet in the English language. According to Goldberg, Milton was a nihilist. Listen to what he said in Areopagitica:

“… when God gave [Adam] reason, he gave him freedom to choose, for reason is but choosing; he had bin else a mere artificial Adam, such an Adam as he is in the motions. We ourselves esteem not of that obedience, or love, or gift, which is of force: God therefore left him free, set before him a provoking object, ever almost in his eyes herein consisted his merit, herein the right of his reward, the praise of his abstinence. Wherefore did he create passions within us, pleasures round about us, but that these rightly tempered are the very ingredients of virtue? They are not skillful considerers of human things, who imagine to remove sin by removing the matter of sin …

In his Second Defence, Milton urged Oliver Cromwell not to make laws”which interdict those things which are lawful only on account of the abuses to which they may occasionally be exposed. For the intention of laws is to check the commission of vice, but liberty is the best school of virtue….”

Milton wasn’t the first libertarian to be accused of hedonism, nihilism, etc. Decades later John Locke responded to the same slanders in his Second Treatise, writing that “The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom. For liberty is to be free from restraint and violence from others, which cannot be where there is no law; and is not, as [conservatives like Goldberg claim], ‘a liberty for every man to do what he lists.’ For who could be free, when every other man’s humor might domineer over him? But a liberty to dispose and order freely as he lists his person, actions, possessions, and his whole property within the allowance of those laws under which he is, and therein not to be subject to the arbitrary will of another, but freely follow his own.”

That remains the core belief of libertarianism. Of course we believe in the difference between right and wrong. Some of us choose not to drink or use drugs, and we even encourage others to make that choice as well. The libertarian doesn’t believe that pornography and Christianity are interchangeable. We simply believe that if Mr. Goldberg wants people to patronize the Christian bookstore, he must convince them that it is better to do so, rather than using government to force them to do so. Indeed, because we believe it is morally wrong to force such choices, we place a far greater emphasis on the importance of moral persuasion in our soc.iology. In fact, Postrel writes extensively in The Future and Its Enemies about the importance of cultural criticism for a free society to work. Like Friedrich Hayek (and Locke and Milton) before her, Postrel believes that”Criticism is at the very heart of the dynamic process of learning.”

Conservatives like Goldberg are indeed merely anti-Left. We are pro-liberty. Goldberg’s belief that freedom of choice amounts to moral relativism and nihilism is shared with a certain fundamentalist, theocratic, socially conservative philosophy which once governed Afghanistan.

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