Having partied with The New Criterion and the Georgetown Graduate Student Organization in the space of twenty-four hours, I now feel qualified to issue judgment on liberaltarianism, that contrabulous fabtraption gaining so much said across the “high-end” blogosphere [meaning mainly the Clown Prince of Libertarianism, Julian Sanchez, the Urbane Paleo M.B. Dougherty, the Dark Lord of Paleoconservatism, Daniel Larison, and the We-Don’t-Need- No-Stinking-Object-Modifiers Straight Up Conservative John Tabin.
The only irrational prejudice against conservative Christians is sexual. The idea that some sex things simply ought not to be done, as a matter, at its most extreme, of divine command, and that the respect one has for people can be keyed to such interdicts, generates a massive Dionysian hatred that is the real portrait of the American psyche.
But libertarians still basically side with conservatives who are willing to develop public standards of shame, guilt, and disgust and let people carry on as they may behind bricked-up doors. Not until very recently has the left’s hallmark demand after the triumph of the therapeutic — for publicity as a human right — pressed libertarians to support public sexuality, legalized sexuality, enforced respect for sexuality. And what Dupont University graduate can deny that? ~James Poulos
If I am the Dark Lord (a very satisfyingly gloomy description, I must say), I think Mr. Poulos should be called the Ironic Marquis of Postmodernity. Now there have been and will be a number of different reactions to Mr. Poulos’ post. Most of them will be unfriendly or dismissive. Not surprisingly, Julian Sanchez has declared it the silliest response of them all. This, Mr. Poulos notes, is fitting for the Clown Prince, but what is a Dark Lord to do? Fulminate? Denounce? Send forth the Nazgul? (So long as I don’t take my Eye off of Iraq, Sen. Santorum will be pleased.) It is a puzzle. Therefore, I will take a more roundabout way to offer my reply.
Libertarians are predictably always very upset when someone takes their rather staid, boring articles about meaningless, insignificant electoral alliances, rejiggering the tax code and reforming agricultural policy and tries to spice them up and make them interesting to a broader audience by saying that this or that sort of libertarian is mainly interested in sexual liberation. It isn’t that they are against sexual liberation or necessarily think highly of old-fashioned virtues of chastity and restraint (as if!), but they get so tired of being pushed into this stereotype. (It is rather the way I respond when people talk about “isolationism”–I don’t actually have any problem with the views of the people who have been called “isolationists” over the years, but I find the word itself terribly misleading and annoying.)
In fact, there is something to the old idea that people are interested in regulating only those things they think are terribly important, so that libertarians are probably more indifferent to sex than they are preoccupied with it. It is not that they are personally indifferent to it (they might or might not be), but they are indifferent to it as something that needs any kind of serious control or discipline that cannot be managed by individuals themselves. Because it is basically irrelevant, no one needs to be so worried about it. The social pressures and social control of the past are simply obstacles to individual freedom; they serve no real purpose, so just get rid of them. The libertarian is that person who is deeply, painfully aware that someone else somewhere is possibly attempting to impose his moral values on some other person–and the libertarian feels that this person must be stopped from doing this! The only really relevant things for them are respect for the rights of people and the principle of non-aggression–mess with these, and libertarians will normally become extremely irate. Any policy that touches on these “rights” becomes a major concern.
Besides this, they want you to notice how terribly serious and practical their policy proposals are: “Look, we have a plan for Social Security! We have market-driven solutions! Look at our charts and numbers!” They want you to notice how politically significant they are: “Look at how many of us there are! We’re a swing vote all on our own!” Libertarian pundits and bloggers say all of this in earnest. They will fight to the death for a person’s right to indulge his sexual passions in just about any way he pleases (so long as there is consent, because consent is magical and makes all things good), but they themselves will not necessarily partake, nor are they even necessarily all that interested in the more bizarre practices of the day. There are zoning regulations to be torn down, after all, and they won’t tear themselves down.
What matters is the defense of “individual autonomy”–something that Brink Lindsey describes as a “core political value” for libertarians and something Nick Gillespie mentioned as being central to libertarianism (just in case someone would like to protest at this point that I am caricaturing libertarians and imposing views on them that they do not hold). It does not matter whether anyone ever goes into the sex shop down the street; what matters is that the opportunity to go into the sex shop is available to one and all and not restricted by the hateful clerics and their sheepish followers; what matters is that we let free individuals in the marketplace decide.
Libertarians will react badly to suggestions that they’re in it mainly for the sex (or whatever other indulgences others pin on them) since, besides being untrue for many, it makes their political philosophy seem trivial. But take heart, friends–the triviality of their political philosophy can be shown in so many other ways that we need not take this approach at all. (I can expand on this part more if anyone would like, but what I have said so far ought to have demonstrated what I mean here.)
If I might add another note of dissent to Mr. Poulos’ post, there is more than one irrational prejudice against conservative Christians. The other is that conservative Christians (or simply most Christians) are somehow less than rational for acknowledging the claims of their authorities and then attempting to follow what their authorities teach. If there is one constant theme running through much of libertarianism, it is that appeals to authority and reliance on authority are not things that “free people” with “free minds” do. It is not because religious authorities seek to control any particular physical action that libertarians often loathe them, but because of the imposition this control puts upon the mind. Whatever they imagine the opposite of a so-called “free mind” to be (presumably a slavish mind), that is the kind of mind they see produced by deference to authority. Their mockery of Christian declarations on matters of sexual morality is actually mostly incidental. They take it as a symbol of the unreasonable lengths (as they see them) to which people will go to satisfy the requirements dictated to them by authorities or by the Supreme Authority, when the libertarians themselves regard the activity being so regulated and controlled is not really that big of a deal. For them, restrictions on sexual behaviour that become a matter for the public authority and social stigma to enforce are representative of the limitations that people put on their own minds; these restrictions represent the abdication of free and independent thought and the replacement of that thought with “external” requirements. Removing the social pressure and the influence of authorities that “impose” these requirements is something libertarians can praise and have praised because I think they believe that, somehow, the human mind and human spirit are relieved of terrible, artificial burdens when these things are overthrown.
In all of this they are stunningly, painfully wrong, but it is important to understand that it is the need to be freisinnig that drives them. If sating sexual appetites were their principal drive, libertarians would have been kicking around since the dawn of time. It seems to be the desire to “make up one’s own mind,” a phrase that must make neuroscientists and theologians alike laugh heartily, that is at the core of what most libertarians think libertarianism is. That being freisinnig also appears at first glance to make life more enjoyable in some narrow sense may add to its appeal, but it is not the reason why the libertarian takes the path that he does. The Dark Lord now retires to his Dark Tower for some Dark Refreshments.