Cathy Young's "Enforcing Virtue" (March) skillfully exposes the fallacies of the cultural libertarians on one side and the social conservatives on the other. The "good society" rests on two mutually dependent pillars: 1) that the people of that society exercise private and civic virtue and 2) that they recognize the moral limits on the coercive use of power by the government. Neither belief can operate alone.
Social conservatives, together with religious liberals, are addicted to the "quick fix" of government action to enforce their principal moral goals: piety for the conservatives and charity for the liberals. But the person who doesn't read pornography because doing so will put him or her in jail exercises no virtue, and neither does the person who aids the poor only because the government decrees that some of the tax money will be spent in that fashion. From the Judeo-Christian perspective, at least, government action is not a legitimate way of working out one's religious beliefs.
On the other hand, cultural libertarians must recognize that the morally irresponsible exercise of "liberty," properly defined, nevertheless often creates intolerable social conditions. At some point, the public pressure to do something becomes irresistible, for we are basically a decent nation. And the something that usually emerges is legislation, for we are also basically a utilitarian nation. Our history of civil rights legislation is a perfect example. Too many of us—even if it was limited to purely private economic and social transactions and thus "within our rights"—treated racial minorities in a manner that was morally despicable. But this was rending the social fabric. Few people today remember the hot anger of the 1950s and '60s. I do, because I felt it. Liberals of the day, like me, recognized the broadly defined "immorality" of it all, but even (or especially) the High Churchmen translated that primarily into a legal response.
Herein lie the problems of libertarianism. The political libertarians are short-sighted because their abstract appeals to "limited government" will always be trumped by the pragmatic demand that we do something to fix intolerable social conditions. Prattle about our natural right to be our potty little selves falls on deaf ears. The subset of Chicago School economic libertarians fare no better as a practical matter (who cares if employment discrimination is disutile or the "drug war" not cost-effective?). And the cultural libertarians are, at the very least, short-sighted because making free choice itself the highest good often leads to situations where that choice is constrained, not merely by the social stigma they eschew but also by the coercive action of law.
Thomas R. Haggard
Professor Emeritus of Law
University of South Carolina
Every time a libertarian wants to distinguish himself from the conservative movement, to apply the phony self-description of "economically conservative but socially liberal," he winds up talking about sex and drugs. One casual aside by Cathy Young: "While no libertarian worth the name would support legal prohibitions on hate speech…" Well, who does? Social liberals. And who sides with the libertarians? Social conservatives. Who sets up restrictive "Free Speech Zones" on campus? Liberal academe. Who opposes restraints on political speech? Conservatives. Who opposes the libertarian position on the right to self-defense? Liberals, not conservatives. Who created and support the monstrous and failing government school system? Liberals. Who supports school choice? Conservatives.
Are these the socially liberal programs that libertarians would accept in order to avoid being lumped in with the prudish social conservatives? Name a current political controversy not involving sex or drugs, and nine times out of 10 the majority of conservatives and libertarians will be in agreement and the liberals will be in opposition. But we must continue to publicize the "endless face-off" (as Young puts it) that makes libertarians feel superior and gives "social liberals" implicit support for their mostly big-government agenda.
Black Mountain, NC