Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Libertines and the Law

Libertarians, I fear, are often too quick to think that “personal” and “economic” liberty go together as naturally in everyone else’s minds as they do in libertarians’ minds. Thus they sometimes end up being tin-eared about the broader political culture, which is dominated by the right and left, and think we’re winning even when we’re losing (or vice versa).

In particular, I’ve repeatedly urged libertarians to stay focused on economics (basically, cutting the government’s budget and deregulating) not because I think war, sex, and drugs are unimportant but because I think those non-econ issues are (a) more divisive than the econ issues among libertarians themselves, causing needless waste of combative energy; (b) genuinely more philosophically ambiguous, since economic theory is where we’re on the clearest theoretical and analytical ground (foreign policy is a crap shoot, addiction is arguably an odd special case even for an advocate of individual liberty, etc., etc.); (c) destined to remain divisive among citizens at large for a long time to come, whereas in theory the economic argument is one about which we could actually create a broad coalition, I think, the more people learn the dry facts and stop associating them with the various unending culture wars; and, yes, (d) arguably of slightly less utilitarian consequence most of the time and for most people than the econ issues, if we grant some of the philosophical ambiguity alluded to in (b), to make a long, complicated story short (and if we remember there’s still a planet full of people living on the verge of starvation out there lest I seem to be worrying about solid gold backscratchers when I mention econ).

Regardless of whether you buy the preceding paragraph, though, you have to admit that there are times when the libertines and the statist authoritarians seem made for each other, engaging in a tango of decreased personal responsibility and subsequent police crackdowns that leave us bourgeois lovers of republican virtue sitting off to one side, in the awful position of trying to decide which we fear more, drunken hippies urinating on the lawn or overly aggressive cops stopping the hippies.


Case in point: Ironically, a friend of mine who might be the most conservative (good) playwright in New York City happens to live right around the corner from a spot that strikes me as the worst nightmare of someone who is libertarian but somewhat socially conservative. The strip of West 27th Street between 10th and 11 Avenues is notoriously filled with bars that attract hordes of trashy-looking, noisy, very drunk, and reportedly often underage party animals — dutifully cordoned off three nights a week or so by a surprisingly large number of cops, who from behind barricades keep an eye out for fistfights, unconsciousness, sexual assaults, and the like.

And this is not some gratuitous police-state presence harshing the mellow of innocent frolickers — it’s a fairly reasonable response to frequent past incidents, ones that caused radio host and former Guardian Angel vigilante Curtis Sliwa to condemn those bars as dangerous “gin mills,” in an amusingly old-fashioned turn of phrase.

If West 27th Street were as self-regulating as, say, Burning Man, that’d be swell, but instead it’s a pretty good reminder that the system a lot of humanity defaults to is “We misbehave, and an outside authority cleans up the mess.” This is the juvenile future I fear — with all the habituation to greater state intrusions it obviously invites — if libertarians take their eyes off the ball and simply cheer every victory for sex and drugs. We should stop to ask whether such victories, rather than being precursors to the collapse of the state, are merely, in effect, the privatization of the delivery of breads and circuses. Instead of the emperor bribing us with a few simple entertainments while all our other freedoms vanish, we entertain ourselves in a few select, juvenile ways (sex, drugs) while the state consumes everything else. What a contrast with the sort of ordered liberty the American Revolutionaries anticipated on the Fourth of July 233 years ago.

I see that (new dad) James Poulos has been warning about the same trend, calling it the “Pink Police State” (he’s more a religious-conservative type than libertarian himself, a reminder that to simply dismiss religious-conservative concerns on these issues as a hunger for greater authoritarianism is to oversimplify).


And note that I’m in no way calling for social-conservative laws (in the sense of banning sex or drugs). I remain an anarcho-capitalist whether you like it or not (and as an atheist and an anarchist, I’m also inclined to think that God often serves the same sick save-me-from-myself police function as the state in some people’s minds, though God, being imaginary, is easier to elude).

I’m just more wary than some of my anarcho-capitalist comrades about saying, for example, “Pot laws are loosening — and porn laws — so society must be trending our way!” That often seems about as far as the trend goes — not surprisingly, if you try thinking in right-left terms instead of like an over-optimistic libertarian for a moment. The left leaves us the freedoms that are strategically useful to them in their campaign to undermine tradition and capitalism, while creating wards of the state. I’m not saying they consciously think of it that way, most of the time. I’m just saying that functionally, it’s not surprising things tend to work out that way (similarly, it’s not surprising that the only parts of the conservative agenda that tend to make it through the maze of governance and get enacted are the more statist items, be they good or bad, such as war, while budget cuts tend to fall by the wayside — all the more reason for everyone who understands econ to stay focused on econ).

I notice the August-September issue of Reason has an article by Brendan O’Neill of Spiked-Online warning about the UK’s increasing tendency to treat overly loud sex as a violation of the law. That’s interesting and amusing and maybe even right on the merits (though noise pollution is an inherently ambiguous issue), but we shouldn’t be too encouraged if, say, college students can be rallied to Reason’s side on that issue — but not on tax cuts or deregulation (no matter how many libertine bones they’re thrown as bait).

There are countless laws not so dissimilar from the anti-loud-sex one that can be attacked to good PR effect simply for their sheer pettiness without setting off any culture-war alarm bells right or left, though, and perhaps one day it will be a quiet revolution against those sorts of laws — zoning rules controlling the size and color of people’s houses, for example — that will end up turning back the tide of the state instead of the big econ issues that seem most important to me. That’s fine. I just don’t want freedom-lovers to be lulled into thinking progress is being made if the only freedoms that advance are the one or two the freedom-haters happen to favor.

(And as a reminder that the UK, like us, has bigger things to worry about than loud sex, let’s take a moment to remember that today’s the fourth anniversary of 7/7/05 and that despite all this police-state talk, coercion sometimes takes decentralized but still horrific forms.)


Sean Dougherty said...

Ditto. I lived on a block in NYC with a “rowdy” bar whose patrons I never heard or saw. Never could figure out what the fuss was about. I remember there was a shooting there once and the neighbors complained it needed to be shut down. My only thought was “gee, if someone fired a gun at you in your apartment and the super’s response was to evict you, how would that go down?”

Oh, Yeah! said...

[...] Libertines and the Law [...]

nj said...

How is war not an economic issue? War isn’t free.

Todd Seavey said...

It is at least sometimes more ambiguous whether humanity will experience a net gain from opposing the foe than from surrendering to it. Traditional econ issues are clearer, properly understood.

John David Galt said...

I agree with your article in general, but you seem to have misunderstood the Reason item re. “excessively noisy sex.”

There isn’t any “increasing tendency” to penalize noisy sex in Britain; the restraining order (ASBO) they cite applies to one individual. The point of the article is much broader: by adopting the law that enables ASBOs, Britain now allows anybody who finds one of your personal habits annoying to get an arbitrary order banning it — even if it’s none of his business and is not a type of behavior that other people are banned from doing. In short, Britain has abandoned the rule of law.

Beware attempts to expand similar measures here. The present US “sexual harassment” law and the “Violence Against Women Act” already have the effect of allowing women to ban arbitrary conduct just by saying they feel threatened or harassed by it.

No country has business enacting “precautionary” restrictions on liberty just because someone is afraid, or pretends to be afraid. The danger we need precautions against is too much power in the hands of government.