TCS Daily

The Libertarianism of Broken Noses

By Douglas Kern - April 30, 2004 12:00 AM

My years as a prosecutor made me a connoisseur of broken noses. Every Monday, a battery of battered women would trundle into the grand jury room, full of reasons why their loutish husbands and brutal boyfriends should get counseling, not jail time. Week after week, I placed victims in the witness chair and asked the same tired questions and endured the same old lies and rationalizations. Sometimes I stared at my victims' noses. They had twisted noses and flat noses; noses skewed to the side and jacked up to a point; noses with irregular planes and sudden drops and unlikely facets; noses that had been broken before, and would be broken again. And who were we to say differently? It's a free country, the women reminded us, and they had the right to love whom they pleased, and to live as they pleased, and to be beaten as they pleased.

One woman who repented of her choices told me about her wedding day. Her soon-to-be husband had beaten her about the face on the night before the wedding. When the loving couple arrived at the judge's office in Kentucky, he laughed out loud. "Lord, he thumped you good last night!" the judge exclaimed, as he examined her black eyes and swollen cheeks. Then he married them. They had a right.

Libertarianism permits free men to ennoble themselves through the exercise of those rights that permit civilized discourse and allegiance to profound convictions. But those same rights permit us to degrade ourselves, and to degrade the culture of freedom from which citizens spring. No nation can be neutral as to the question of "Shall we survive as a free nation?" The answer must be yes, or our freedom is just a lullaby for the dying.

Insofar as the culture of freedom must be protected from those abuses that hasten its demise, some form of paternalism -- however gentle, however constrained by tradition and prudence -- is not only tolerable, but essential. As a culture, we must choose to live, or we will die. Neutrality on the question of life or death is a suicide pact in disguise.

What exactly is the "culture of liberty?" Let me answer that question personally: the culture of liberty is what made me free. Tax cuts are great, but they didn't make me free. Ayn Rand novels are spiffy, but they didn't make me free. We recognize a host of rights -- to pornography, to alcohol, to government benefits, to due process under the law -- but these "rights" did not make me free.

The love of my parents made me free. Their discipline and moral guidance gave me the tools to discern right from wrong, and to reason clearly. That guidance helped me reject the stultifying faux-liberalism that my expensive "education" foisted upon me. Religion gave me the tools and traditions to reject the stranger premises of this era. The organizations and clubs to which I have belonged taught me how democracy really works -- not as an abstract Emersonian ideal, but as an imperfect vehicle for the management of grubby selfish people. These experiences taught me the value of human dignity, and how to think and act in a manner worthy of that dignity. I learned to love freedom enough to die in its defense, and perhaps more remarkably, to live in its defense. In short, I learned to be free.

The force that made me free was not a set of laws, or a strong economy, or an unbeatable military. A culture made me free. The learned, lived experience of wisdom in our society -- our history, our traditions, and all the rhythms and cadences of a free people living honest lives -- made me free. Laws, economies, and militaries serve man only insofar as they protect and nourish those cultural influences that make and shape citizens.

Cultures are fragile things. Every generation has to start over -- making the same mistakes, learning the same melancholy lessons, and dying just as they master the game. Even in the best of circumstances, cultures often fail. Sin, folly, and ignorance all breed their share of monsters in every generation. Consider the woman who was beaten on her wedding night. Consider that her small children watched her many beatings. Are you surprised to learn that those children later perpetrated petty crimes, and accomplished little in school? Our culture failed them, even in the midst of unprecedented peace and prosperity. And all the rights in the world will not confer upon those children any kind of "freedom" worth fighting for.

Those children were not given the tools for freedom that I was given. But they will be held to the same standards of responsibility when they become adults. Their vote will count the same as mine -- and as yours. Can we be neutral on this point?

At its best, libertarianism permits cultures to preserve themselves, through the choices of free citizens. Libertarianism presumes that rational people will make wise choices. Is rationality enough? Many of my victims made ostensibly rational choices about their beatings: these victims didn't want to work, and if it took the occasional pummeling to stay connected to a man with a steady paycheck, so be it. We know that such "rational decisions" are degrading and inhuman. We know that we can assign no price to the harm that such violence wreaks upon families, upon children, and upon our communities. But look at the words we use to express such common sense: "degrading;" "inhuman;" "communities." This language comes to us from traditions that greatly pre-date libertarianism.

The libertarian language of rights and rationality lends itself to a superb criticism of the suffering that states inflict. But that libertarian language speaks hardly at all to individual, existential suffering -- to the harms that evil, mortality, and loss wreak on every life, every day, everywhere. If libertarianism cannot speak to personal suffering -- the most definitive of human experiences -- ought we to enshrine it as our highest ideal?

An enlightened paternalism will not reshape the world, or re-make human nature; neither will it heal every hurt. But wise statesmanship will acknowledge that men, with all their flaws and shortcomings, will fall short of the libertarian ideal in certain specific areas, particularly relating to sexuality and reproduction. As these shortcomings may lead men to select degradation over ennoblement, and as such choices may endanger the future of a free society, a government may legitimately promote policies that favor families over the absence thereof; that favor children over sterility; that extol the value of freedom over the horror of oppression; and that prefer churches, benevolent societies, and all of Burke's "little platoons" over naked individualism. We must have a society in which judges may say: "It is grotesque that you have beaten this woman. Your marriage would be a mockery. I will not solemnize it." If such a society bruises our precious rights, then so much the worse for our rights.

Libertarianism is sometimes tempted towards the Promethean fallacy -- towards the belief that freedom will triumph forever, if explained carefully enough, often enough. I deny that libertarianism alone can sustain a free society. I believe that freedom is fragile -- exquisitely beautiful, easily abused, often broken, and much in need of protection. Like a nose.

Douglas Kern recently wrote for TCS about Peter Singer.


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