Robert H. Bork Critiques Libertarianism

Part of the "Critiques of Libertarianism" site.

Last updated 10/25/07.

[The following (rather long) critique of Libertarianism is found on pages 150-152 of Robert Bork's popular book, "Slouching Towards Gomorrah." Thanks to Joe Steve Swick III, who posted this to the net.]

Libertarians join forces with modern liberals in opposing censorship, though libertarians are far from being modern liberals in other respects. For one thing, libertarians do no like the coercion that necessarily accompanies radical egalitarianism. But because both libertarians and modern liberals are oblivious to social reality, both demand radical personal autonomy in expression. That is one reason libertarians are not to be confused, as they often are, with conservatives. They are quasi- or semiconservatives. Nor are they to be confused with classical liberals, who considered restraints on individual autonomy to be essential.

The nature of the liberal and libertarian errors is easily seen in discussions of pornography. The leader of the explosion of pornographic videos, described admiringly by a competitor as the Ted Turner of the business, offers the usual defenses of decadence: 'Adults have the right to see [pornography] if they want to. If it offends you, don't buy it.' Those statements neatly sum up both the errors and the (unintended) perniciousness of the alliance between libertarians and modern liberals with respect to popular culture.

Modern liberals employ the rhetoric of 'rights' incessantly, not only to delegitimate the idea of restraints on individuals by communities but to prevent discussion of the topic. Once something is announced, usually flatly or stridently, to be a right --whether pornography or abortion or what have you-- discussion becomes difficult to impossible. Rights inhere in the person, are claimed to be absolute, and cannot be deminished or taken away by reason; in fact, reason that suggests the non-existence of an asserted right is viewed as a moral evil by the claimant. If there is to be anything that can be called a community, rather than an agglomeration of hedonists, the case for previously unrecognized individual freedoms (as well as some that have been previously recognized) must be thought through and argued, and "rights" cannot win every time. Why there is a right for adults to enjoy pornography remains unexplained and unexplainable.

The second bit of advice --'If it offends you, don't buy it' -- is both lulling and destructive. Whether you buy it or not, you will be greatly affected by those who do. The aesthetic and moral environment in which you and your family live will be coarsened and degraded. Economists call the effects an activity has on others 'externalities'; why so many of them do not understand the externalities here is a mystery. They understand quite well that a person who decides not to run a smelter will nevertheless be seriously affected if someone else runs one nearby.

Free market economists are particularly vulnerable to the libertarian virus. They know that free economic exchanges usually benefit both parties to them. But they mistake that general rule for a universal rule. Benefits do not invariably result from free market exchanges. When it comes to pornography or addictive drugs, libertarians all too often confuse the idea that markets should be free with the idea that everything should be available on the market. The first of those ideas rests on the efficacy of the free market in satisfying wants. The second ignores the question of which wants it is moral to satisfy. That is a question of an entirely different nature. I have heard economists say that, as economists, they do no deal with questions of morality. Quite right. But nobody is just an economist. Economists are also fathers and mothers, husbands or wives, voters citizens, members of communities. In these latter roles, they cannot avoid questions of morality.

The externalities of depictions of violence and pornography are clear. To complaints about those products being on the market, libertarians respond with something like 'Just hit the remote control and change channels on your TV set.' But, like the person who chooses not to run a smelter while others do, you, your family, and your neighbors will be affected by the people who do not change the channel, who do rent the pornographic videos, who do read As film critic Michael Medved put it: ' To say that if you don't like the popular culture, then turn it off, is like saying if you don't like the smog, stop breathing. . . .There are Amish kids in Pennsylvania who know about Madonna.' And their parents can do nothing about it.

Can there be any doubt that as pornography and depictions of violence become increasingly popular and increasingly accessible, attitudes about marriage, fidelity, divorce, obligations to children, the use of force, and permissible public behavior and language will change? Or that with the changes in attitudes will come changes in conduct, both public and private? We have seen those changes already and they are continuing. Advocates of liberal arts education assure us that those studies improve character. Can it be that only uplifting reading affects character and the most degrading reading has no effects whatever? 'Don't buy it' and 'change the channel,' however intended, are effectively advice to accept a degenerating culture and its consequences.

The obstacles to censorship of pornographic and viloence-filled materials are, of course, enormous. Radical individualism in such matters is now pervasive even among sedate, upper middle-class people. At a dinner I sat next to a retired Army general who was no a senior corporate executive. The subject of Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs came up. This most conventional of dinner companions said casually that people ought to be allowed to see whatever they wanted to see. It would seem to follow that others ought to be allowed to do whatever some want to see.... Any serious attempt to root out the worst in our popular culture may be doomed unless the judiciary comes to understand that the First Amendment was adopted for good reasons, and those reasons did not include the furtherance of radical personal autonomy.

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