The Magazine


Apr 21, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 31 • By DAVID FRUM
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The Meyer formula was in many ways too glib, but it wasn't wrong. This used to be a very socially conservative country. As late as 1967, only 5 percent of American college students had ever smoked marijuana. In 1972, with the sexual revolution sweeping America's campuses, half of all Americans still believed premarital sex to be always or almost always wrong. Divorce was no more common in 1966 than it had been in 1926; church membership and confidence in the institutions of government were near their alltime peaks; and television and the music industry adhered to standards with which the Edwardians would have been comfortable. At the same time, the socially conservative America of the mid-1960s was equally politically liberal. In the age of William Scranton and Nelson Rockefeller, Lyndon Johnson and John Lindsay, the idea of Russell Kirk-style conservatives exercising national political power seemed fanciful, to put it mildly. Under the circumstances, Meyer's libertarian wager seemed to offer attractive odds.

But today it's not so clear that the American people, left to their own devices, will behave in ways that a conservative would consider "virtuous." In fact, a disconcerting minority of them will choose to smoke marijuana, get pregnant out of wedlock, major in basketweaving at college, wear T-shirts with obscene messages on them, watch too much television, live on welfare, burn the flag, and play their boomboxes too loud.

And it's easy to imagine that the free market seems to be egging them on. A generation ago, social critics were attacking big corporations for imposing a suffocating conformity -- the life of the "man in the grey flannel suit" -- on American society. Today, conservative social critics watch in horror as an ever more specialized market brings us not only mango tofutti ice-cream substitute, cranberry-colored sports-utility vehicles, and combined wine- tasting and spelunking holidays in Castile, but also gangsta-rap compact discs, the Jerry Springer show, and topless pictures of Jenny McCarthy on the Internet.

There's a good -- even convincing -- libertarian answer to this, and Walter Olson argues it well: a free society can, through criticism and shame raise its standards without "calling in the cops."

It's a big country (and, as regards the Net, a big world), and diagnosing its cultural ills on the basis of the worst you can dig up in its darkest corners will yield far from a balanced picture. . . . Trash TV is a blight, but the effects of justified ridicule are beginning to show even there, while the film reaction against [Quentin] Tarantino is satisfyingly underway. Rap music has seen a sharp fall-off in market share in recent years, while interest mounts in retro categories, including lounge and Tin Pan Alley. Even as [Robert] Bork reproached Americans -- from the best-seller list -- with having created perhaps the most depraved society in human history, the number- one box-office draw was, for better or worse, 101 Dalmations.

But there's also a bad libertarian answer, and it's the one Reason's Postrel reverts to. As she sees it, and she's not alone, respecting the free actions of individuals means not only tolerating bad choices; it means rejecting the very idea that any lawful choices can be called bad and not just called bad by scattered individuals, but condemned by that mysterious thing we call society. "The market has no boss," she writes triumphantly.

It's unpredictable and contradictory. It lets Americans spend $ 8 billion a year on pornography and $ 3 billion in Christian bookstores (not including sales of Christian books in secular chains). It permits both The Book of Virtues and Nine Inch Nails to find their niches. It allows parents who think children should be encouraged to use their imaginations to coexist peaceably with those who think imaginative play is dangerous and sinful. . . . The market does, however, undermine central authority. Though the organizations created within it may contain many hierarchies and authorities of their own, the market process does not establish one best way. So if your central political value is authority, if you take tradition not as an evolutionary process but as a settled decree, if you see choice and liberation as inherently evil, you will necessarily be driven to oppose the market.

In other words, if you believe that the $ 8 billion pornography market is an evil thing -- and if you take the next step of asserting that this belief is not just a mere personal opinion but is actually true -- then you have taken the first fatal steps toward joining the editors of THE WEEKLY STANDARD as the New Democrats' best friend.

Without fully intending to, Postrel illustrates why so many conservatives -- even those who would probably agree with her on virtually every public- policy issue -- mistrust libertarians. There always hangs over them a little cloud of suspicion: Do libertarians favor radical freedom even despite its sometimes unconservative consequences? Or because of them?

One of the founders of modern libertarianism, John Stuart Mill, answered this question very frankly in his much-quoted essay, "On Liberty." Most people remember "On Liberty" as a stirring defense of freedom of speech. And so it is. What people forget was that the England of 1859 was a country in which freedom of speech was treasured every bit as much as we treasure it now. (The English had their blind spots of course: As Mill complains, a man could spend 30 days in jail for scrawling anti-Christian blasphemy on a gate. But is that really so much more oppressive than our rule that a lawyer can be ordered to pay a million dollars to his secretary for complimenting her figure?)

But "On Liberty" is something else -- something much closer to the reasoning of Virginia Postrel. What Mill is really defending is not freedom from the government, but freedom from the disapproval of others. It is social stigma, not legal stigma, that most worries Mill -- "so effective is it that the profession of opinions which are under the ban of society is much less common in England than is, in many other countries, the avowal of those which incur risk of judicial punishment." Mill yearns for a world in which people can be as odd as they want to be -- though even he perhaps never imagined a Dennis Rodman or a Madonna Ciconne -- without anyone pursing their lips. "In this age, the mere example of nonconformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. . . . That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of the time."

Some of us may think that a time whose chief danger was an insufficiency of oddballs didn't know how lucky it was. We may nod our heads with Mill's most brilliant critic, James Fitzjames Stephen (ironically enough, the uncle of Virginia Woolf), who pointed out that eccentricity was a form of distinction sought only by "weak and trifling minds." But what's most alarming about Mill's variety of libertarianism is that, for him, every bit as much as for Robert Bork, political liberty is not an end in itself, but only a means to an end. Both men judge political liberty a success or a failure according to whether it promotes their vision of the good society. For Bork, this means that the test of liberty is whether it preserves a bourgeois society. For Mill, the test is whether liberty helps discover a replacement for a Christian morality that he believed had outlived its usefulness: "The creed" - - and the context makes plain that he means Christianity -- "remains as it were outside the mind, incrusting and petrifying it against all other influences addressed to the higher parts of our nature; manifesting its power by not suffering any fresh and living conviction to get in, but itself doing nothing for the mind or heart except standing sentinel over them to keep them vacant."

It's not fanciful to hear in this the original of the thought that echoes in Virginia Postrel's argument. But libertarians need to realize this: If their contention is that freedom is good because it helps them find a new morality, they will succeed only in convincing adherents of the old morality that freedom is bad. Charles Murray has argued that a society that legalized drugs but freed landlords to eject tenants who use drugs, school principals to expel drug-taking students, and employers to fire drug-taking employees will do better at fighting drug abuse than a society in which drugs are barred at the border but in which drug addiction is a prohibited grounds for discrimination. That's persuasive. What isn't persuasive is the claim that snorting cocaine is some sort of fundamental human right.

Conservatives didn't oppose the New Deal, support the Cold War, demolish the case for price controls, slash taxes, and reform welfare only to surrender their claim to be the party of liberty at the end of the twentieth century. The party of liberty is what conservatives are, and what they ought to be. When conservatives forget that identity, the more libertarian members of the conservative coalition do right to chide them. But if conservatives have to be reminded that they are the party of liberty, so libertarians need to be reminded of their obligation to the cause of virtue. For without a shared understanding of what is right, what is moral, no political movement can long survive.

Contributing editor David Frum is senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author, most recently, of What's Right (Basic Books).