Politics & Policy

Power of The Pen

Bennett's critics continue to aim to destroy — with bad arguments.

William Saletan is frustrated by the fact that so many thoughtful people have come to the defense of William Bennett. Saletan has therefore made an effort to reiterate Michael Kinsley’s bad point. Kinsley and Saletan claim that William Bennett has forfeited his right to a “libertarian” defense on gambling because of his own hypocrisy. Supposedly, Bennett can’t be defended on libertarian grounds because Bennett himself rejects libertarianism. Just because Bennett says that casual drug use in the healthy and wealthy helps to make drugs permissible for the more vulnerable, Bennett supposedly can’t take a more libertarian stand on gambling. Just because Bennett says that gambling that harms families is a problem, he supposedly can’t excuse gambling that does not harm families, but might encourage such harm in others.

But both Kinsley and Saletan make the mistake of insisting that all issues are the same, and that the balance between liberty and social harms must always be resolved in exactly the same way. That is just not so. The Catholic Church draws the lines differently on gambling than do conservative Protestant sects. And the Catholic Church also draws the lines differently on marriage and sexuality than it does on gambling. So every issue has to be approached individually.

Catholicism takes a more absolutist position on marriage and sexuality than it does on gambling. On sex and marriage, Catholicism puts the impact of excessive freedom on social norms in the forefront. In the case of gambling, despite some real social harm, the Church is more “libertarian.” It permits gambling that does not harm the gambler’s family, even if it could be argued that a blanket prohibition on gambling would protect society as a whole.

So if even the Catholic Church can treat different issues in a more and less “libertarian” fashion, why can’t a good Catholic like Bennett? Kinsley and Saletan are trying to lock Bennett into a single position. But that only fits their silly stereotype of a social conservative. It doesn’t describe even the Catholic Church. So why should it describe William Bennett?

Kinsley and Saletan are the real hypocrites here. They’re giving up their own libertarianism to destroy someone they don’t like. They haven’t bothered to consider that one-size-fits-all arguments can’t be applied to every moral issue. Or maybe they’re just too busy trying to destroy William Bennett to remind themselves of this point. And maybe they don’t understand enough about either Catholicism, fundamentalist Protestantism, or religion in general, to see that even religions draw the sort of lines that they won’t let Bennett draw.

But you don’t need to understand anything about religion to grasp this point. American society draws moral lines between gambling and drugs. Kinsley and Saletan may not like that, but it’s a fact. This country permits gambling (in fact, the state positively promotes it), yet we forbid drug use. Like William Bennett, Americans understand that gambling can harm families, yet they also draw a line between recreational gambling and harmful gambling. Americans tend not to draw such a line between different forms of drug use. Now it’s fair to want to change our drug policy, but it’s absurd to forbid a man from acting on moral distinctions that his own society has long made-in law, in policy, and in social norms.

When he treats gambling and drug use differently, William Bennett is simply articulating America’s existing policy distinctions on these two issues. You have to want to destroy William Bennett pretty badly not to realize that it’s alright for an American to take different moral views on gambling and drugs, and not be run out of town for it. I’d like to see Michael Kinsley and William Saletan address this point, but I’m not holding my breath.

Stanley Kurtz is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.


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