These days, one is hard-pressed not to sound like an idiot when talking about sex and what Anthony Trollope called “The Way We Live Now”—especially if one wants to be paid attention. The one sin in talking about sex is being boring—prepare yourself for hyperbole. We’re the most sex-obsessed culture of all time! Never before has sex been so commodified! Kids these days—they lust after each other (and themselves!) to a degree unprecedented in world history! No human civilization has ever reached such a pinnacle of sexual blaséness! Even assuming these are value-neutral claims—hey, onanistic blaséness might be an achievement—there’s something immensely wearying about reading anything that endeavors to prove them. Yet this is the corner into which we’ve painted ourselves. “Everyone Kinda, Not Completely, Messed Up”—that kind of headline plays at The Onion, but is poison to Respectable Journalism.
Alas, ours is not the most sexually transgressive age by far, though it is assuredly one of the more permissive and remissive. As Andrew Sullivan has quipped, “The culmination of the sexual revolution was at 4 a.m. in the Mineshaft in the late 1970s. It is not the civil marriage of two elderly lesbians in a town hall in California in 2008.” Even in its details, we have extremely vague sexual politics. Its commitments—typified by the triumph of awkward, legalistic mysticism known as Planned Parenthood v. Casey—are squishy in substance and procedurally circumspect. Its boundaries, limned in the turnabouts of certain states’ marriage laws, are shifting and ill-defined.
Yet, out of the contradiction and imprecision, a common point of reference, a cultural rule of thumb, has arisen. We are given to understand that there is no legitimate ground on which to criticize someone for pursuing, exploring, and expressing ‘their sexuality’—so long, of course, as they don’t ‘harm anyone else’ in doing so. Further, we believe that there is no ground, period, on which to criticize the achievement of our full capabilities ‘as sexual beings’ but for the puritanical religious ground of sin. Absent an idea that some pursuits of sexuality are sinful, we think, no conceptual framework for attacking them exists. And therefore, because the only possible ground for disapproval is illegitimate, anyone who disapproves is speaking illegitimately, whether inside politics or out of it.
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This line of thinking represents a clear and convincing victory for John Stuart Mill, a man who should be proclaimed the world’s first liberaltarian. For Mill, the good life, partially but by no means completely superintended by politics, required general adherence to two rules. Mill’s first rule commanded that nobody act in any way that harmed another. This done, his second required that everybody pursue the fulfillment of their personal human capabilities to the fullest. Mill expected his liberaltarian citizens to pursue their own happiness, but he presumed that he was right about what true happiness entailed. Personal choice was a means to a particular end, or progress in a particular direction—toward greater physical health, greater scientific advancement, better knowledge and fuller peace. For Mill, liberal-tarianism was the best way to achieve the best liberal society possible. Where libertarianism would permit each individual to pursue the full experience of happiness, liberal-tarianism, using government as a tool, would guarantee that each individual could do so. In 2006, in his New Republic article on liberal-tarianism, Brink Lindsey restated the case. ”Today’s ideological turmoil,” he wrote,
has created an opening for ideological renewal—specifically, liberalism’s renewal as a vital governing philosophy. A refashioned liberalism that incorporated key libertarian concerns and insights could make possible a truly progressive politics once again—not progressive in the sense of hewing to a particular set of preexisting left-wing commitments, but rather in the sense of attuning itself to the objective dynamics of U.S. social development. In other words, a politics that joins together under one banner the causes of both cultural and economic progress.
Choosing is good, insofar as fulfilling our human capabilities is good. What else is there for we humans to aspire to do? But the liberaltarian vision of subjective choices increasing objective happiness raises questions about just how objective Mill’s two key rules happen to be. How are ‘harm’ and ‘capabilities’ to be defined? How are their definitions grounded?
In Mill’s world, which we still largely share, there may be a distant point at which we will know all harms and capabilities, but for the foreseeable future, the process of answering this question is an end in itself. We don’t know goods and bads—capabilities and harms—until we try them out and try them on. Experimentation rules the day. When the floodgates of self-directed and self-regarding human activity are opened, the expectation is progress along all fronts. Though each of us will take a different path, developing our capabilities along lines of emphasis that best reflect and accord with our unique personal potential, in the aggregate we’ll all tend to become better at everything good and worse at everything bad. In large numbers, experimentation works. Not everyone will cultivate and enjoy their own particular excellence, and some people will always harm others, but society will be apt to progress more or less steadily. From the perspective of society, we’ll become more capable citizens in political life and more capable individuals outside it.
But that’s not what’s happened. Four years after the fall of Napoleon, Benjamin Constant succinctly expressed the difference between what he called the liberty of the ancients and of the moderns. We moderns, he explained, have no good reason to measure good citizenship by ancient standards. The spread of technology and education has shown us that, today, our capabilities are best pursued and fulfilled in lives that are disproportionately non-political. Whereas the Spartans and Athenians had so few resources for actualizing their capabilities that they had to rely on political life, full of conquering and ruling, we moderns have many more resources. Thanks to our markets and our cleverness, we created a vast new range of ‘private’ desires, which revealed huge new vistas of human capabilities to pursue. Of course, these ‘private’ desires aren’t very private at all. We’re social creatures, and though we like a little privacy now and again, we love publicity. And the more time we spend fulfilling our social capacities as publicists, the less time we’ll have—or want to have—fulfilling our political capacities as citizens. At the same time, government itself becomes increasingly self-sustaining and no longer needs our active participation or vigilance.
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Is it any surprise, then, that where the mass pursuit of greater citizenship ends, the mass pursuit of greater sexuality tends to begin? Though almost any product can be marketed as offering sexual satisfaction, nothing beats the reality. No amount of video gaming or Internet porn has yet satiated all our pride, envy, greed, and lust—and if it did, we’d uncomfortably feel like we’d become, in some essential way, less than human. We have diligently cleared the decks to making sexual life a central feature of the full experience of individuality today. A great sex life, exceptionally well-tuned to our personal preferences, is very nearly our vision of the highest.
As we recognized earlier, however, ours is not the age of sybaritic abandon and Caligulan excess that we might have feared in 1972. Just as a capable sexual athlete delays and controls an orgasm, ours is, taken in the aggregate, a particularly well-managed form of excess. As with citizenship, we have learned an important lesson from the sexual revolution and the AIDS epidemic: to minimize harm while maximizing pleasure. But unlike the practice of citizenship, which seems less and less significant to living the good life, the pursuit of sexuality is something we like well enough to invest extra resources into cleverly pushing the limits even as we maintain them. We curb them to enjoy them more fully. And, barring any serious harm that results, we find ourselves only somewhat uncomfortably certain that individuals can and should push those limits in whatever way appeals to them. Whereas we are increasingly resigned to the continued shrinkage of our vestigial political member (the capability of citizenship), we all seem to agree that only ‘theocrats’ want to stop the burgeoning progress in our society of sexual capability-seeking—and that this theocratic project, because it is baseless and illegitimate, must be foredoomed.
Despite seeming so obvious and inevitable, these developments have created a subtle and perplexing dilemma. Constant cautioned that even a closely supervised representative government could make part-time citizenship a tempting offer. “The danger of modern liberty,” he warned, “is that, absorbed in the enjoyment of our private independence, and in the pursuit of our particular interests, we should surrender our right to share in political power too easily.” Even though curbing the pursuit of our capabilities as citizens is right and proper in modern times, doing so endangers our political liberty—not least by making it seem superfluous or an impediment to the pursuit of happiness. Yet Constant made his case for the continued relevance of political liberty in a problematic way. He defended it on the Millean ground that political liberty was indispensable to the pursuit, development, and fulfillment of our unique personal capabilities. “It is not to happiness alone, it is to self-development that our destiny calls us; and political liberty is the most powerful, the most effective means of self-development that heaven has given us.” Do we still believe that today?
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The evidence suggests not. Since libertarians are those presumably most opposed to the destruction of political liberty at the hands of the state, the state of libertarian opinion concerning sexual and political liberty should be especially indicative of what’s afoot in society at large. When it comes to attitudes about liberty, libertarians are our leading indicators.
As 2008 came and went, Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch proclaimed “The Libertarian Moment” in Reason magazine: “the dawning not of some fabled, clichéd, and loosey-goosey Age of Aquarius but a time of increasingly hyper-individualized, hyper-expanded choice over every aspect of our lives, from 401(k)s to hot and cold running coffee drinks, from life-saving pharmaceuticals to online dating services.” Gillespie and Welch enthuse over today’s world, “where it’s more possible than ever to live your life on your own terms,” and make no bones about who, or what, is responsible for it. “Due to exponential advances in technology, broad-based increases in wealth, the ongoing networking of the world via trade and culture, and the decline of both state and private institutions of repression, never before has it been easier for more individuals to chart their own course and steer their lives by the stars as they see the sky.”
So much for libertarian politics: Fighting oppression is out, fighting repression is in. Hippies, it seems, were libertarians the way the inventor of the abacus was a computer scientist. Professional libertarians, as they happily attest, are in fact following a general cultural movement that prioritizes personal and consumer choice as the master concept in our cognitive filter.
Examples of the rise of sexuality in private and public life are hardly necessary. The readiest metaphors that we reach for today, for a joke, an insult, or for explanatory power, are sexual: predating ‘nerd porn’ are recognized indulgences ranging from the demonic (‘torture porn’) to the delectable (‘food porn’). (None of these are to be confused, of course, with ‘actual’ porn involving nerds, torture, or food.) Respectable English-language comedy has hit below the belt since Twelfth Night, but the rise of the niche sex fetish as the only-half-joking ideal type of all personal capabilities pursued breaks new ground.
Politically speaking, taking sexual progress as the template for all progress sets politics itself on a walk of shame. Though desire after desire is apparently ‘politicized’, the satisfaction of any desire is increasingly treated as something to be placed firmly beyond the reach of politics. Typical of the prevailing attitude is a working paper by Daniel Klein and Jason Briggeman of George Mason University. “Conservatives,” the authors remark, “say they are for small government and individual liberty, but a content analysis of leading conservative magazines shows that most have preponderantly failed to take pro-liberty positions on sex, gambling, and drugs.” Rather than the attitudes of those magazines toward the liberty to seek pleasures (which vary, as the authors note), the issue is the vision of politics captured in the authors’ attitude. From their libertarian perspective, being ‘pro-liberty’ does not mean politicizing sex, drugs, and gambling; it means legalizing them. Political speech is simply the necessary means to taking our personal pursuit of idiosyncratic pleasures off the political table. Though often we confuse politics and law, the libertarian attitude today reveals their latent antagonism. In the liberaltarian world of John Stuart Mill, likewise, Constant got it wrong: Rather than political liberty being the most powerful and effective means of self-development that heaven has given us, the rule of law is the most powerful and effective means that the state has. One might argue that the serial legalization of pleasures is itself an exercise of citizenship. But all too often, this appears to be promoted as the only reason to exercise it. The libertarian agenda is dominated accordingly—at political liberty’s expense.
Some libertarians do resist this rather grim view, blaming the collapse of political libertarianism on inevitable and unpredictable market fluctuations. “The ‘shift to the left’ that we seem to observe on economic policy,” David Boaz admits, “is depressing to libertarians. But that’s mostly crisis-driven. When the results of more spending, more taxes, more regulation, and more money creation begin to be visible, we may see the kind of reaction that led to Proposition 13 and the election of Ronald Reagan at the end of the 1970s. Meanwhile, this cultural ‘shift to the left’ is far more encouraging.” Yes, we may see such a shift—if citizenship survives the next 10 to 20 years intact. Consider how often federal power has dissipated itself over the past two centuries and ask yourselves, libertarians: Do you really believe in a snapback effect that will one day rejoin political to cultural liberty? Or is this but a dream deferred?
Though conservatives and libertarians have long agreed that government functions well when laws are clear, concise, and few, the erotic allure of a life freed even from politics distracts us badly from the possibility of a tyranny of law over political judgment. When liberal legal scholars like Ronald Dworkin talk about “Law’s Empire,” they set libertarians off on a technocratic vision of enlightened judge-economists and bureaucratic whiz kids who will give you unfettered access to the desires of the day so long as you accept national health care and comprehensive government regulation. Except on the very rich, who know the point of money is to spend it on goodies, these benign magistrates won’t even impose heavy tax burdens to achieve this bargain. Statism, yes, but with the state as cool parent.
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Every political theory has its tensions and weak points. The steady replacement of civic republicanism with imperial legalism, in the name of endlessly expanding individual capacities, is a theoretical problem not just for libertarians. The same is true for modern liberals—and, insofar as they take themselves to be critics or correctors of liberalism, for conservatives too. In the world that we live in, the fracture lines in all our popular political theories tend to cluster at the places where their ideas about human dignity collide with their ideas about human nobility.
The traditional libertarian’s vision of nobility is that of the emancipated individual responsible enough to bear the costs of his or her own freely chosen actions. But libertarian nobility is threatened by its longtime frenemy in the social-progress business—liberal dignity. Liberals tend to see political liberty as hostile to human dignity in two ways. First, negatively, citizens enjoying political liberty can choose to refrain from voting dignity-enhancing social services into law. Second, citizens can cast their ballots for measures that affirmatively deny equal dignity, institutionalizing hierarchies of status and stigma. In the liberal vision, the ethics of nobility unjustly puts the onus on the individual to suffer indignities. Like Constant, libertarians tend to think that even latent political liberty is an important indicator of our ability to pursue and fulfill the development of our human capacities, including the capacity to seek and enjoy whatever pleasures we prefer with consenting counterparties. Under liberal pressure to legally guarantee and enforce universal dignity, however, the laissez-faire attitude toward political liberty may be converted into tacit consent to the rule of moralizing law—especially if many libertarians are already culturally predisposed to be fixated on securing and enjoying their erotic liberties. So long as the official morality to be enforced is one that rules erotic liberty a fundamental human right, who’s to complain?
Such is the logic of the Sex Vote—the population of practical liberaltarians for whom the exercise of erotic liberty in fulfillment of their capabilities far outweighs in importance any exercise of political liberty, so content are they with a government that delivers sexual freedom (and perhaps some minimum of attendant social services). For the Sex Vote, eliminating the day-to-day drudgery of citizenship itself counts high among social services: outsourcing the detail and difficulty of governance to distant, centralized experts is a feature, not a bug, of ‘unaccountable’ government. In its liberaltarianism, the Sex Vote would solve once and for all Wilde’s paradox (the trouble with socialism is it takes too many evenings). In the world that we live in, captivated by erotic liberty, such is the destiny of ‘smart citizenship’ and representative government.
This is a predicament to which libertarianism has always been somewhat exposed. But today’s libertarians seem uniquely underprepared to face it. Conservatives, for their part, attempt to argue, with Jonah Goldberg, that liberaltarianism is doomed because its “first principles simply aren’t aligned.” It is true, as John Hood claims, that under liberal rule “the private sphere must give way as costs are socialized and power is centralized.” Or, as David Frum asserted, “It will be hard to afford much lifestyle freedom as payroll and income taxes rise to pay for the Obama administration’s hope and change.” Yet if we have learned anything from the mainstreaming of porn and the democratization of amateur celebrity, it’s that you don’t need to earn like a rock star in order to party like one—especially if the government is willing to cover the costs to keep you healthy enough to party on. Ask yourself: How many hipsters are too poor to party? The liberaltarian bargain, with the state as cool parent, does align its first principles: Erotic liberty shall expand as costs are socialized and power is centralized. No contradiction there. It is the allure of this promise, already planted wide and deep within the popular culture, that’s inspiring many of the young to grow more libertarian—but only as they grow more liberal.
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But there is a deeper question raised by the emergence of the Sex Vote. Unlike the liberal, democratizing attitude toward the open-ended pursuit of erotic liberty, the traditional libertarian attitude at least recognizes that the arena of the erotic is as competitive as any other status-conferring activity and will foster the inevitable rise of a sexual elite. Indeed, in (dare we say) Randian fashion, it celebrates it as the whole point. Charlotte Hunt-Grubbe has reported in the London Times on the rise of highly professional and exclusive sex parties. In an erotocracy, much like a capitalist meritocracy, there will be winners and losers—those who are able to thrive given the basic currency of life, and those who are not able. In a society of sweeping erotic liberties, not everyone can rise to the top, but, more importantly, not everyone can cope successfully with their freedom. Some will be born at a disadvantage, too unattractive or introverted to avoid daily misery.
The poster boy of those on the losing end of the erotocratic stick is to be found in Michel Houellebecq’s 2001 novel The Elementary Particles. “Concerned only with her own pleasure,” as Adam Kirsch details in his World Affairs review, “Janine has no interest in mothering her children, literally abandoning the infant Michel in a pile of his own excrement. No wonder he grows up to be incapable of love or sexual connection; or that Bruno, similarly maltreated, becomes a loathsome pervert, obsessed with pornography and public masturbation, prevented only by his own cowardice from becoming a child molester.” Losers like this, perhaps very many of them, are inevitable in an erotically free society, just as the poor are inevitable under economic freedom and the disgruntled under political freedom. At the extremes, the self-actualized nobility of the sexual elite requires their tolerance of a perhaps large sexual underclass—not deprived in their ability to exercise erotic liberty, mind you, but in their ability to integrate it into a life worth living.
The traditional libertarian can accept this inequality of outcomes; not so the liberal. Where the unfettered “market”—in this case, the space of sexual liberty—does not correct for inequalities and externalities, they will conclude the state should step in. The state is the only institution capable of helping all citizens make responsible erotic choices, and the only one capable of making those choices both socially acceptable and individually affordable. But recourse to the benevolent tyranny of the state brings us full-circle back to the tension that has kept libertarianism and liberalism apart for the past 50 years.
Instead of a night watchman who will patrol the streets but stay out of your home, the government of the future will not only own your home but install the stripper pole in your basement! How are libertarians to turn back this uncanny vision of soft despotism? With the rise of anti-political traditionalist movements on the right and the Republican party at low ebb, it is no longer clear that conservatives will do it for them. If the attitude of PayPal founder Peter Thiel, writing in Cato Unbound, is at all representative, libertarians are in danger of abandoning political liberty altogether. “In the face of these realities,” writes Thiel, “one would despair if one limited one’s horizon to the world of politics. I do not despair because I no longer believe that politics encompasses all possible futures of our world. In our time, the great task for libertarians is to find an escape from politics in all its forms—from the totalitarian and fundamentalist catastrophes to the unthinking demos that guides so-called ‘social democracy.’” That escape is no escape at all. It is a flight into bigger cages and longer chains. Political libertarianism—the very heart of libertarianism itself—cannot survive even an open marriage with an ideology that seeks freedom from politics above all. For we are political animals, and the only way yet devised to free ourselves from the human condition is to enlist ourselves in servitude.
James Poulos blogs at Postmodern Conservative. Art by Joe Oliva Ganoza.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Lance Lamberton