The Proud Duck

Thoughts on policy, history, faith, baseball when I get around to it, waterfowl, and life in general by a junior attorney who'd much rather have Jonah Goldberg's job. Or possibly Darin Erstad's.

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Tuesday, August 03, 2004
I'm now happily settled into a decent-sized law firm -- a different experience from the two smaller outfits I've previously worked with. The first firm's Liberal Partner (mentioned a few months back) has been replaced by the Socialist Paralegal. In other words, my hapless opposition has gone from a kind of mild-mannered, soft-jazz NPR conventional wisdom liberal to a self-styled radical who thinks that Prescott Bush supported the Nazis (short answer: he didn't; long answer: look it up yourself) and that Dick Cheney is the fount of all evil.

The Socialist Paralegal apparently likes to argue politics, as I discovered a couple of weeks ago when he wouldn't leave my office for an hour and a half when I really had to get a project done.

The main thrust of his main argument appears to be that Republicans are hypocritical for wanting "small government," but -- according to him -- only when it suits them; otherwise, they want to control people as much as do Democrats. (He's one of those people who thinks the difference between the mainstream parties is generally insignificant.)

I'm trying to inform the Socialist Paralegal, or "SP," on the difference between conservatives and libertarians. While many libertarians lean Republican, it's true that libertarians are often greatly dissatisfied with that party as being excessively statist. Some of these criticisms are valid, especially with respect to Republican officeholders; let a man get his hands on the levers of power, and he may start to enjoy using them a little too much. Others are simply unrealistic. Anyway, though, assuming that support for limited government is appropriately considered a Republican article of faith, the Republican positions cited by the SP claims conflict with the limited-government ideal are not the contradictions he argues they are.

First, I don't agree that conservatives and liberals are equally interested in "control." As examples of Republican "controls" over private behavior, the SP cites the issues of abortion, gay marriage, and drug restriction. (I have also had the pleasure of a lecture on the environmental benefits of hemp. I never knew there could be such a need for a fiber with half the strength of nylon and twice the cost.) Even combined, these issues can't compare to the Democrat urge to regulate everything under the sun. Furthermore, individually, I submit these issues aren't the clear-cut evidence of "control" as they're claimed to be.

First, abortion. I've often heard this issue discussed with some line about how the government should stay out of the bedroom, as if this issue involved nothing more than regulation of people's private sexual lives. But abortions don't take place in bedrooms. They take place in clinics, which are subject to all kinds of regulations already. Less semantically, the thing that distinguishes abortion from other issues involving personal sexual conduct is that at some point, it becomes impossible to deny that a second party is involved. You can argue that birth control is entirely a personal matter; it's harder to argue when an eight-month fetus is involved that the matter doesn't involve a second person, or something close to it. (My daughter, incidentally, was born a month early. She looked and sounded pretty human to me.)

Somewhere along the continuum of human gestation, there is a point where society needs to draw a line dividing the respective spheres of personal autonomy and interpersonal relations, in the latter of which spheres the government should legitimately exercise its power to protect the weak. Since the protection of life is such an elemental responsibility of government (governments, after all, are instituted, according to the Declaration of Independence, to protect, among other unalienable rights, the right to life), if government may legitimately intervene in any sphere, this would seem to be one.

Neither does the debate over "gay marriage" involve a government restraint on personal behavior. It is not argued (at least in this debate) that the government should prohibit a particular variety of sexual conduct. Rather, the opponents of gay marriage are actually being more libertarian than its proponents: Since civil marriage is a government institution -- a quasi-contractual relationship defined and enforced by law -- expanding the scope of that institution expands the scope of government. In this particular case, it would expand the scope of government to compel a majority of the country's citizens to afford the incidents of marriage to a coupling they would rather not.

Drug prohibition is probably the toughest of the SP's three challenges, to the extent that the prohibition -- like mandatory seat-belt laws -- is intended to protect individuals from the consequences of their own potential misconduct. Many conservatives do, in fact, oppose drug prohibition; for example, support for some kind of decriminalization frequently appears in National Review. On the other hand, drug prohibition is not designed only for the protection of the potential user from himself. The abuse of mind-altering drugs, by altering a person's judgment, may cause him to endanger others. Of course, some substances are probably more potentially dangerous to third persons than are others; for example, drugs that increase aggression or cause psychosis might be more legitimately restricted than drugs with a milder effect. It may well be true that certain controlled substances are actually less interpersonally dangerous than alcohol, for example, which contributes to traffic accidents, domestic violence, child neglect, and the like. Frankly, I tend to think the prohibition on drugs other than tobacco and alcohol isn't so much a determination that the former are necessarily more interpersonally dangerous than the latter, as a conclusion that two social drugs (whose use is too firmly entrenched in the culture to eradicate) are enough.

But assume for the moment that the SP is correct at least in some respect -- that conservatives really do want to enforce controls on personal behavior. Might not these proposed restrictions actually further the cause of limited government, rather than diminishing it? Specifically, might conservatives not be concluding that government efforts to shape the national culture, by steering people's behavior into healthy channels, minimize the kind of destructive conduct that creates a perceived need for even greater government intervention?

For an example, take the case of single parenthood. One of the most reliable ways for a person to guarantee that she will be poor is to have a child while unmarried. And while it's of course not universal that the children of single parents have behavioral problems (my stepson clearly does not), a disproportionate number of young people who act poorly were raised by single parents. Raising a child is expensive and hard; it's even harder when all the burden is on one person. My hat is off to someone who is able to do it right, unassisted -- but there are clearly not enough such champions in the field. Increased poverty, neglect, and crime results; in turn, government feels pressure to intervene to mitigate these problems. Government attempts at mitigation inevitably develop into ponderous programs, top-heavy with bureaucracy and tending, like all institutions, to self-perpetuation. The result is increased taxation and regulation, restricting freedom perhaps far more than some small steps at guiding the culture would have done.

Altering your course a few degrees at the beginning of a flight involves a lot less effort than trying to get back on course after you've flown an hour on the wrong heading. (Microsoft Flight Simulator has been eating up shameful amounts of my time; my wife would prefer I delay risking splattering myself against a mountainside until the kids are older and I have more insurance.)

So the question is this: Is it possible to be both socially and economically libertarian? Or is the only way for an economically-libertarian society to remain so -- in the face of pressure for government to step in to relieve the human suffering caused, in large part, by personal misconduct -- to withdraw a few steps from absolute social libertarianism, aiming to so shape the culture so that damaging personal misconduct is minimized and the pressure for government relief reduced?

I think it is.


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