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What's So Great About Freedom?
05/09/2003

Stanley Kurtz lays out the forces pulling out from the middle in the culture wars:

Our relative independence of others is the key to the rise of the new social liberalism. Yet, no matter how independent we get, the ineradicable fact of childhood dependence creates demands for a stable family structure governed by certain moral rules. This is the root of our contemporary culture war. Our lived individualism continually pulls us toward a full-fledged libertarianism, while our childhood dependence exerts a countervailing pull toward moral traditionalism.

I'm not sure that I agree with the restriction of the idea of dependence to children, which understates how gregarious we actually are as human beings (hey, even maintaining connection to society via bad news appears to be a matter of health). I haven't thought to think about it, but this might be a lesson that libertarians have to learn in the way that socialists had to learn that human nature has an independent streak. As I've written before, social liberals are reaching a point in their progression at which they're going to have to address the ways in which they reconcile the freedoms that they claim with the underlying social morality and cohesion on which they rely (whether or not they admit it).

Issue by issue, I come almost to the point of many libertarians and other social liberals by drawing on the teachings of my Church and my own experience to realize that people must ultimately choose God — or, less theologically put, choose to be good — of their volition. From this perspective, I've come to believe that the law is not the forum to address broad social issues (as opposed to direct threats against citizens). But this carries the caveat that other social institutions be in place — and free to act — to carry the relinquished burden.

Several times in his piece about his "middle position," Kurtz makes such statements as, "the gains in personal freedom are worth the cost." But (conspicuously, I thought) he never says why. Again, I happen to agree with his assessment on many counts... but why?

The basis for the claim will dictate our approach to the "culture war." If it's a matter of general social welfare, then I'd say that smaller political units, such as states, ought to have some leeway for discrete communities to answer the question as the people see fit. If it's a legal matter of civil rights — as in, "governments do not have the right to institute laws against sodomy" — then there is less room for compromise.

With these two choices, I'd tend to argue for seeing such issues as ones of social welfare, removing them from the hands of broad government, but leaving them for judgments of approval or disapproval by communities, even to the point of state law. Given that Kurtz makes the specific "personal freedom" statement above in the context of social treatment of cohabitation, it seems that he's arguing that the "freedom" was gained by removing the influence of society.

My wife and I actually lived together before we were married (although we felt and acted as a married couple and had plans to become one). Obviously, I'm glad that it wasn't illegal, and I think the arrangement might prove beneficial for different people for a variety of reasons. On the other hand, there are also many reasons that it can be a harmful practice (including, as Kurtz mentions, the diminishment of marriage). For that reason, I think localized societies ought to have an ability to judge whether the general harm rises to the point of meriting legal action.

I'm not sure what Kurtz's take on this would be. What's more, I'm not sure what argument I would make for legal cohabitation (for example), were it to become an issue in my state, besides that the harm does not seem to merit the negation of the benefits. Still, I think it's important to address why, and under what circumstances, the liberalization has been "worth the costs."

Posted by Justin Katz @ 01:03 PM EST