by Rod D. Martin
February 8, 2014

Our libertarian friends frequently take an “anything goes” approach to public morality, asserting that it is not the state’s business what an individual chooses to do, particularly so long as it does not directly infringe on someone else’s rights.

I generally agree.  But America’s Founders did not seek to establish an “anything goes” standard for freedom:  rather, they spoke of “ordered liberty.”  They were joined by such leading thinkers of their time as Edmund Burke, who believed that “liberty without virtue is the greatest of all evils.” They followed the founders of New England, who distinguished between “natural liberty,” or the “liberty to evil as well as to good,” and “civil liberty,” which John Winthrop termed “a liberty to that only which is good, just and honest.”

The American system was built on this principle of ordered liberty.  Our lives should be as well.

We live in a sex-saturated society, so let’s start there.  Men are drawn to attractive women with a primal force they frequently have difficulty controlling.  This can be extremely harmful to them, despite the libertarian thought that whatever they might be doing is “victimless.”  Ignoring morality for a moment, promiscuity today means almost certain exposure to incurable diseases:  for much of the population the odds are worse than 50-50 for Herpes alone.  Promiscuity can mean disgrace, diminished marital prospects, a strong sense of guilt, the breakup of marriages, the destruction of families.  Sex outside of certain boundaries is dangerous; and of course, human nature being what it is, the danger is inevitably part of the temptation.

Liberty for a man drawn to this is not “anything goes”:  true freedom is the ability to resist this foolishness rather than be enslaved to it.  But all of us tend toward slavery, in this area or some other(s), because of something else the Founders understood:  we are all fallen.  We are sinners by nature.  And even if one does not believe in such silly religious babble (and I assure you it is neither silly nor babble), take note that Thomas Jefferson — surely no Christian — sided with the faithful.  Regardless of the reason, the empirical proof overwhelms:  men are weak and corrupt by nature, and susceptible to vices over which they quickly lose control.

How shall a man practice ordered liberty?  He should start with prayer:  “You have not because you ask not.”  But in practice, he’d be wise to follow that up with accountability.  Billy Graham refused throughout his career to be alone with a woman not his wife for any time whatsoever.  Some might find that extreme, but the principle is sound enough:  avoid things that are likely to give you trouble, even if it’s only trouble with your reputation.  It has been my experience that we tend to fall in areas where we think ourselves strong:  pride opens the door for temptations we don’t see coming. Ordered liberty is nothing if not wise, reasonable self-restraint.

I am not suggesting by this a puritanical asceticism, something which the New Testament explicitly forbids (not that many people seem to be aware of that).  I am rather just suggesting what I said: wisdom.  If a man knows himself to be an alcoholic, he shouldn’t frequent bars. If he must go to a bar, he should have a companion of sufficiently strong character to prevent him from acting on his weak nature.  Afterward, he should go to AA. If he likes being married, he should probably block porn on his computer, and he should probably avoid strip clubs, and he should probably not get flirty with his secretary. These are not harsh restrictions: they’re simply evidences of maturity.

And it is that maturity that the Founders sought for all of society. They did not want to restrain legitimate activity, even where they disagreed with it, but they did know certain temptations were not merely destructive but beyond many people’s ability to resist. Broken marriages don’t just hurt the former spouses: they do immeasurable harm to the next generation, and through that next generation the next as well. The state has a strong interest in protecting families, the foundation of all civil society. The state also has a strong interest in keeping crack users from operating heavy machinery, especially in public. This is not because the state is sovereign, but rather because the people, acting in their collective sovereignty under God, ordain the state as the guardian of the peace and the general welfare.

When the state adopts practices that undermine these truths, it fails its citizens. Family law in the United States has long since ceased to recognize these founding purposes: originally designed to guard the integrity of the family for the sake of its innocent children and their safe, sound, healthy upbringing, it is now turned on its head, focusing entirely on individual rights. This is perverse, and the examples are many.  Rather than protect the integrity of a new adoptive family, biological “fathers” who’ve abandoned their children increasingly have “rights” to disrupt the new family unit. No-fault divorce has unleashed now two generations of broken homes and people who genuinely believe their self-actualization more important than the duties they knowingly took on when they chose to procreate. And the new drive to redefine marriage — even bringing back polygamy — is really at heart an effort to render marriage itself passé and obsolete: it’s all about you, you have no duties outside yourself at all.

A civil society must guard its foundations, which themselves allow the maximum genuine freedom for all.  A man is not free if he is a heroine addict, even if he was free when he took the first dose. His child is not free if she is condemned to his inevitable irrationality and dysfunction. His wife is not free if she cannot trust him to keep his vows predictably (and if you do not believe this, understand well: the average American woman comes out of divorce with 25% of the wealth and earning power she had before her husband started banging the nanny or the chick down at the bar). Libertarianism tends to think about freedom only as it relates to “me.” Conservatism has always understood that, short of moving to the woods like Grizzly Adams, there is never just “me,” and what I do has consequences for others, consequences that greatly impact their liberty as well as my own.

This is why society has tended to ban prostitution, strip clubs and so forth. It is not that any rational person thinks a determined adult won’t do exactly what he chooses; rather, it is that scarcity of opportunity greatly reduces the chance that people will act on their spur-of-the-moment urges. We don’t ban crack dens because we are killjoys: we ban them because, even though they will inevitably spring up anyway, our prohibition will make them harder to find, make risk of indulging that much higher, and provoke moments of thought which otherwise might not take place.

Government can go far too far in this direction.  I am not arguing for a maternal state, not by any means.

But individuals being broken, whether you define that as sinners burdened by the fall or simply as finite individuals whose capacity can be easily overcome by a much bigger world, potent substances and hormones, there is a need to put hedges around certain behaviors to prevent many of us from finding ourselves in the gutter.  Society should revisit this topic from time to time:  it is a grave subject because it involves restrictions on human action, and not only does one size not fit all, but one answer may not apply in the same place from generation to generation or to different places at the same time.  Local democracy and state sovereignty are key to getting this balance right, not least because localism allows an escape if government gets things wrong.

I doubt many libertarians will like this essay.  But they should.  We cannot deal with the supermen libertarians like to believe exist, but only with the fallen, foolish creatures who really do.  At times those creatures need help to be free.  The more we find self-restraint the less we need government; but keeping that red light district out of town might help some young wives sleep better at night, and their babies fed and educated for years thereafter.  In an age of air travel, when anyone who truly purposes to sin can always grab a flight to Bangkok, this seems a pretty small price to pay to protect the usual victims of “victimless” crime.  And all too frequently, the chief victim in these cases is the perpetrator:  the hedge is there to prevent what tomorrow he’ll regret with his very life, because in that moment, he was not truly free.