The Slavery of Excessive Freedom


After a rigorous content analysis (PDF) spanning more than half a century of articles in National Review, The Weekly Standard, The American Enterprise, and The American Spectator, George Mason University economist Daniel Klein and graduate student Jason Briggeman conclude, basically, that conservatives are not libertarians. On issues related to drugs, gambling, and sex, Klein and Briggeman find, these magazines have been more likely to support the status quo or increased restrictions on freedom than to advocate liberalization. The one partial exception has been National Review, especially in the area of drug policy, where pro-liberalization articles outnumbered those favoring current policy or calling for greater government intervention by a ratio of more than 2 to 1 from 1955 through 2007. But by and large, say Klein and Briggeman, the leading conservative magazines are not "real champions of liberty" because they "more often than not fail to oppose government intrusion into America's bedrooms, gambling places, and drug activities."

The choice of magazines is somewhat questionable. But if the study had included, say, Commentary instead of The American Enterprise, which has not addressed these issues much one way or another and was in any case never very influential, the evidence of an anti-libertarian tilt would have been even stronger. "This investigation," Klein and Briggeman conclude, "underscores that nowadays the menu of major public philosophies offers three options: conservatism, social democracy, and classical liberalism/libertarianism. Only the third upholds the presumption of liberty."

Over at The American Spectator, Joseph Lawler takes offense, calling Klein and Briggeman's conclusion "a sweeping, sweeping generalization" that "reduces all kinds of arguments about the nature of liberty and the role of government in upholding liberty to grossly oversimplified terms." Lawler, who personally opposes the war on drugs, says many conservatives support restrictions on drugs, pornography, and gambling because they think these policies protect liberty, properly understood. He's right about that. To those who believe, for example, that attachments to drugs, pornography, and gambling are equivalent to slavery or demonic possession, it's plain as day that forcibly preventing people from enjoying those things is a way of preserving their liberty (and this argument is not limited to conservatives). They honestly do not see themselves as inconsistent when they talk about, say, forcibly imposed "freedom" from drugs.

Or consider Robert Bork, who argued in the 50th anniversary issue of National Review that "liberty in America can be enhanced by reinstating, legislatively, restraints upon the direction of our culture and morality." The former appeals court judge, now a distinguished scholar at the Hudson Institute, conceded that "censorship as an enhancement of liberty may seem paradoxical" but explained that "people forced to live in an increasingly brutalized culture are, in a very real sense, not wholly free." In Bork's view, the debasing effect of movies, music, and books he does not like deprives people of their liberty. 

But Klein and Briggeman's point, I think, is that advocates of government intervention in these areas should not be so quick to accept premises that are so lacking in empirical and logical support. Smoking pot, watching dirty movies, and playing poker are not, in fact, tantamount to being enslaved or possessed, and the idea that more cultural options reduces freedom is counterintuitive, to say the least. If conservatives consistently applied a pro-liberty presumption, they would be more skeptical of such assertions.

[Thanks to Tom Angell for the tip.]