Libertine socialism

By Jeremy Lott
web posted February 1999

Upon informing my Grandmother that my political beliefs are becoming more and more libertarian, I was sandbagged with the question, "Don't those people believe in more government?" I stood there dumbfounded for a moment. Thinking this misunderstanding might be a result of miscommunication, I attempted to clarify, "No, not lib-er-al Gram, libertarian." She made it clear that she hadn't heard it wrong the first time. Despite assurances to the contrary, she went away thinking her grandson had gone slightly batty.

After thinking long and hard about possible sources of her misunderstanding, I think I've found the culprit.

Q: What does Nadine Strossen, President of the American Civil Liberties Union describe herself as?
A: A Civil Libertarian.

Q: What does the ACLU do?
A: They sue companies, school districts and all levels of government into compliance with their agenda.

Q: Which is?
A: Good question. They are against the war on drugs, against restricting abortion, against the death penalty, against hiding pornography and against national ID cards.

Q: So they're militant libertarians/anarchists?
A: Not quite. They are also for racial quotas, for welfare as a "right" and for needle exchanges.

What I propose to demonstrate here is that the term "Civil Libertarian" is a misnomer. Strossen at al. are no more civil libertarians than I am a civil conservative or my good friend Chris Burlingame is a civil liberal or Paul Ehrlich is a civil environmentalist. And they're not exactly libertarian either. Just try to picture Milton Friedman, Walter Williams or James Glassman at an ACLU convention. The image doesn't wash for a good reason, they are natural enemies. They might have brief moments of agreement but each side could surely say of the other that, "even a stopped clock is right twice a day."

Let us first take a benign issue where the two sides would probably agree, campaign finance reform. Friedman et al are in favor of free speech and would thus oppose reform which stops Congressman Klug from soliciting funds in excess of a capped amount with which to buy airtime, posters and the like. It would not bother them that Klug's opponent, Mayor Muttonhead, was not as popular and thus could not raise as much as Klug to buy campaign paraphernalia. The marketplace of ideas, after all, is a marketplace. The fact that Muttonhead was elected because everyone in his town of fifty wanted to find some way of employing the blind/deaf/mute/quadrapelegic orphan is too bad and it may sure be a shame that he will get slaughtered by Klug but that, they say, is life.

Strossen et al would agree that Klug should be able to accept more than one billion dollars from the dairy industry while he sits on the committee-to-think-really-hard-about-and-almost-but-not-quite-decide-to-ditch-dairy-subsidies but this does not mean that they would let poor Mayor Muttonhead go down without exhausting one hell of a campaign warchest. I'm not kidding here. Ira Glasser, lawyer for the New York branch of the ACLU wrote a letter on the subject to the Economist. The ACLU, says Glasser, "favors establishing a floor of public financing for all qualified candidates that would provide them with adequate means to get their message to voters." They would pay for this with tax dollars.

Leave aside for a moment what would count as a "qualified candidate" or what constitutes "adequate means." Leave aside also the fact that this could give the federal government even more control than it now has over how elections proceed. These civil "libertarians" are endorsing welfare for incompetent, possibly fringe candidates. Friedman would rather his side lose the fundraising battle then that it go on the dole.

Onto a more meaningful difference, the ACLU's support of affirmative action even has theretofore civil libertarian and columnist for the Village Voice, Nat Hentoff, aghast. Specifically, the ACLU filed an ammicus currae brief on the side of the University of Washington Law School opposing one Kuturia Smith in her lawsuit charging racial discrimination because of quotas imposed by affirmative action.

During a lecture at said university, Hentoff asked the dean if, "considering her first name, she had been taken for black, would she.. [have] been admitted? The dean said she would have been."

This is a publicly funded university. Kuturia's fellow taxpayers foot a substantial portion of the bill so that less wealthy citizens can afford this kind of education (ask me in another essay if I think we should be subsidizing future lawyers). Hentoff notes that, "she had overcome poverty and worked at low-wage jobs throughout her education." In other words, she was exactly the kind of person Joe Taxpayer shells out the dollars for.

Bottom line, "The ACLU has reinterpreted "equal protection of the laws" to exclude persons because of their color. This is Orwellian civil liberties."

In contrast, Messrs. Friedman, Williams and Glassman believe that, to the extent that government subsidizes something, it should not discriminate based on color. But the differences are more fundamental than that. At bottom, libertarians believe that government is a beast which must be restrained by constitutional bonds. Civil libertarians think that government is basically good but must be occasionally chastised.

This came out clearly when Nadine Strossen granted an interview with Reason Magazine's Cathy Young. Her contradictions were breathtaking.

First, sounding like the most strict constitutionalist, she proclaims, "We have to be sure that the people are going to support basic principles so that demagogues cannot be elected running against the Bill of Rights and the Supreme Court when it supports the Bill of Rights."

But how is one to know when the Supreme Court does or does not support the Bill of Rights. What yardstick should apply? How about taking the text of the constitution at face value? No, says Strossen, in response to a question about why the ACLU doesn't litigate for second amendment (gun) rights, "I don't want to dwell on constitutional analysis, because our view has never been that civil liberties are necessarily coextensive with constitutional rights… [T]he fact that something is mentioned in the Constitution doesn't necessarily mean that it is a fundamental civil liberty."

Here we have the selective myopic vision of the ACLU in full display. Those nasty right-wingers are trying to end abortion and put prayer back in schools. How DARE they! They want to trample on the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. Those left-wingers want to take guns away from everybody. Sure, the second amendment prohibits that sort of thing but who needs the second amendment anyway?

Strossen does not think that a rhetorical question. She concedes that "What it comes down to is the very strong belief that having a gun in your home is something that can ultimately fend off the power of a tyrannical government." She finds that, "really unpersuasive in the 20th-century context." It might have "made sense in the 18th century," but she, "would hope that's the kind of thing we do through words rather than through guns," and that, to her, "is the function that the First Amendment serves, not the Second Amendment."

Tell that to the Branch Dividians. Tell that to the loved ones of someone whose house was broken into by an armed intruder. Tell that to law abiding Jews who had nothing with which to resist the Nazis. Tell that to the men who wrote the second amendment. Perhaps they should have just negotiated with the Brits.

Further embarrassments from the same interview include her slick attempt to avoid the fact that the ACLU refuses to defend property rights, "People have rights. Property doesn't have rights" and her meaningless distinction between Pell Grants and vouchers, "The Pell grant is clearly constitutional because it's the government giving money directly to individuals… [whereas] in a lot of voucher programs, the money goes directly to the schools, not to the parents" (that the parents chose the school, and that the money will follow the kid to another school apparently hasn't occurred to her).

But her most telling statement concerns the very nature of civil rights:

"Our view is that there are certain fundamental individual rights which may not be intruded upon or violated. When our Constitution was written, the state was the only entity in society that had sufficient power to deprive individuals of fundamental rights. Now we have corporate concerns with far more power over people's lives than the state ever had in the l8th century. The market-liberal response is that if the individual doesn't like what their employer is doing... then the individual goes off and gets another job. Our view is that's unrealistic."

So if I am applying for a job at Target and they say that, in order for them to hire me, I first must pass a drug test, my civil rights have been violated. Say what you want about this belief, it can in no way be construed as libertarian.

But, if we grant that civil libertarians aren't, what should they be called? Allow me to coin a new phrase. They support abortion, drug legalization, absolutely unrestrained speech, legalized prostitution, and a whole host of other social ills. Then they want the rest of us to pick up the tab for it. They are not civil libertarians, they are libertine socialists.

Jeremy Lott is the Editor-in-Chief of The Lott Letter.

Current Issue

Archive Main | 1999

E-mail ESR



1996-2020, Enter Stage Right and/or its creators. All rights reserved.