Two Cheers for Absolutism

by Jonah Goldberg

I want to thank Charlie for his thoughtful response to my surprise attack. I’ll be honest, one of the reasons I picked a fight with Charlie is that I think the Corner desperately needs some of that old-time back-and-forth and I knew he’d be game. Still, other than the SEO boon I’m not sure yet another post on porn, sans pictures, is what anyone wants. It’s a good thing I am not a slave to the desires of the masses then!

So a few quick points in response. 

I certainly agree with Charlie that the UK is royally messed up when it comes to free speech (so is the US but in different ways; we regulate political speech — which the first amendment was intended primarily to protect — while we protect obscenity with a passion). And as Charlie is far more knowledgeable about his exotic homeland than I, I’m willing to defer to him when it comes to distrusting the British government.

Fortunately, Charlie has elevated the discussion from the particulars to the general, and on that ground I’m less deferential. He alludes to what “the story of government in the West” is but I’m not sure what he’s saying. If he’s saying it’s always preferable to keep the government from making mistakes in the first place, rather than trying to fix them later, I suppose that’s fine (though some things, like gas station burritos, only emerge as mistakes after you try them). If he’s saying that once we acknowledge a principle for Orwellian/Statist/Censorial expansion we start riding the slippery slope to ever greater oppression, I’m afraid I disagree. The best one can say about this kind of argument is that it is sometimes true and it’s sometimes false.  

In the 1950s some of our forebears on the right, including many at this magazine, believed that if we establish the principle that the government can put fluoride in the water it will establish a worrisome precedent that will lead to all manner of horrors. National Review condemned it as “compulsory mass medication.” And it was that. But it didn’t lead to the State putting soma in our water supply either. Indeed, I’d bet it would be harder to mount a similar effort today.

Censorship, meanwhile, increased in the 1950s and early 1960s and then slowly declined. If the logic of the ratchet were an iron law, things would have gotten only more censorious. Gun control was once all the rage. Second amendment freedoms are more secure today than when I was a kid. Civil liberties during World War One were a horror show. But things got better, not worse. I could go on for quite a while. The point isn’t to say that everything got better. Rather, it’s simply to note that there is no cosmic law here, or even in the UK, that says if the government flags search terms like “snuff film” or “child rape” that they will inevitably come for terms like “low taxes” or “Bill of Rights.”

If I read Charles’ original piece correctly, he’s glad that there are already censorial safeguards against child porn. This, it seems to me, runs at odds with his claim of being a free speech absolutist. Even he is willing to draw a line somewhere.

Also, Charlie writes:

As I said in my piece, Cameron’s measures are destined “ultimately” to fail. The “ultimately” in the sentence is important. For a little while at least, he may get his way. But then he won’t, just as the enemies of 3D printing will get their way for a little bit before the dam collapses and the tide comes rushing in once more. I don’t think that this is a mixed argument; I think it just appreciates that you can make small improvements against the inevitable, but only temporarily. I also don’t think that accepting that censorship can work is the same thing as accepting that it “has its place.” Lots of things “can work,” but that doesn’t mean they are tolerable in free societies. 

I think we are getting confused here. There are several arguments at play.  I fully agree that technology changes things.  This is one reason why every definition of conservatism involves some recognition of the need for gradual reform as opposed to revolutionary upheaval. That is what I was getting at when I referred to “muddling through.” As Russell Kirk wrote:

Progress may be either good or bad, depending on what one is progressing toward. It is quite possible, and not infrequently occurs, that one progresses toward the brink of a precipice. The thinking conservative, young or old, believes that we must all obey the universal law of change; yet often it is in our power to choose what changes we will accept and what changes we will reject. The conservative is a person who endeavors to conserve the best in our traditions and our institutions, reconciling that best with necessary reform from time to time.

Charles’ argument seems to depend on what he thinks is the inevitable course of history. Technology will liberate us from artificial restraints imposed from government. The best we can do is delay the inevitable. Ultimately — his crucial word — the technology will win. I have no such confidence. When Orwell wrote 1984 it was assumed that technology was on the side of tyranny. And for a while it was. Indeed, from the late 1890s until around 1950, if you wanted to get on the right side of history — according to the “experts”, at least — champions of individual liberty should have thrown in the towel. But now technology is on the side of personal empowerment. I have no crystal ball that says the current trends will continue in a straight line forever. All we can do as human beings is deal with the facts as they are now. 

But let’s get back to Charlie’s absolutism. Right now, thanks to censorship, it is illegal to put up a giant electronic billboard in front of a school depicting fictional scenes of gang rape or child sex. Given his embrace of free speech absolutism, is that a bad thing? That censorship works and, I would assert, that it is not merely tolerable but a good thing in — and for — a free society. The internet is no billboard, but I think the principle can make the leap. Allowing adults to view pretty much whatever they want, while creating safeguards for children doesn’t strike me as a terrible blow to freedom (whether Cameron’s plan will actually work as billed may be a different story). 

And that’s where I think the word “ultimately” comes to my aid. Ultimately, children become adults. That far into the future we can see. And when they are adults, they should be free to do what they like in a free society. But let us not forget that the freedom to have some control over the kinds of people our children become is at the heart of meaningful liberty (which is why in Plato’s Republic through to the Jacobins, the Nazis, the Communists and various progressives all the way to Melissa Harris-Perry, have all wanted to break the monopoly of “private ownership” of children). Technological and social trends have made things ever more difficult for many parents in this regard. Many of those trends have been a net good for society, but I see no reason to be so absolutist as to say any effort to give parents a bit more control must be seen as an unacceptable assault on liberty. Some such efforts surely would be. But other efforts wouldn’t. It seems to me conservatives shouldn’t be terrified of trying to distinguish between the two.