The Corner

Libertines, Leftists, and Libertarians

Over at the Wall Street Journal, James Taranto highlights a revealing and much-talked-about exchange between the Washington Post ombudsman, an anonymous reader, and an anonymous Post reporter exploring the Post’s bias against social conservatives. While the entire exchange (and Taranto’s analysis) are worth reading, I wanted to pull out two quotes of interest. First, the WaPo ombudsman:

Because our profession lives and dies on the First Amendment — one of the libertarian cornerstones of the Constitution — most journalists have a problem with religionists telling people what they can and cannot do. We want to write words, read books, watch movies, listen to music, and have sex and babies pretty much when, where and how we choose.

Taranto’s response:

That “libertarian” is quite a dodge. Most journalists are anything but libertarian in areas where that would mean siding against the left, such as guns, education, taxes, nonsexual health care and nonmedia corporate free speech.

I agree with Taranto — “libertarian” is the wrong word. And this raises a pet peeve. It’s astounding how many times liberals say “libertarian” when they really mean “libertine.” In reality, when it comes to sexual politics, the mindset is far more libertine and left than libertarian. They’re libertine when it comes to certain forms of self-indulgence (don’t tell me what I can do with my body!), but they’re leftist when it comes to the consequences (don’t make me bear the costs of my choices! I thought government is that thing we do together!). By contrast, the true libertarian may or may not be personally libertine, but they also do not believe someone else should be compelled to pay the costs of their behavior. This “each party to bear his own costs” model is inherently far more culturally conservative than the leftist model, which incentivizes and subsidizes certain forms of libertinism, even as it authoritatively stamps out the libertinism it dislikes.

The sexually libertine leftist lays the groundwork for cultural and fiscal ruin. Subsidizing family destruction creates perverse incentives at the individual level, fosters ever-more destructive behavior, and consequently impairs our economic ability to continue the subsidy as we create a vast and growing pool of state dependents. Oh, and as the voting pool of dependents grows, reform is ever-more politically difficult.  

If — in an alternate political universe — we were able to roll back the welfare state to create a more libertarian America, I think many young libertarians would find such a society would be far more culturally conservative than they might imagine (or want). When people truly bear the costs of their own choices, they tend to be a bit more cautious. People are too fallen to truly be “rational actors,” but incentives do still matter.

As an aside, I’ll believe the younger political generation is more libertarian when I see a real youth movement to roll back the welfare and entitlement state. Until then, sexual liberation and drug legalization are simply leftist and libertine — a cry for subsidized self-indulgence.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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