Society isn't Government
by Tibor R. Machan
David Brooks, The New York Times's conservative columnist, gave us a good example (in his Sunday, October 15 column) of a widespread confusion, especially among pundits, wonks, those too close to Washington. Let me quote his non sequitur for you. Presumptuously speaking for us, he states: "We don't think government can be neutral on values issues," like social libertarians do. "Nations are held together by shared beliefs. People flourish because they have been encouraged by society to adopt certain habits and behaviors. It's a chimera to believe individuals come up with solutions to moral questions alone: human beings are social creatures whose actions and views are profoundly shaped by the social fabric that binds them." OK, do you notice the problem?
Why on earth does Brooks assume that government's neutrality about values—and of course social libertarians mean personal moral values, not the character of law and public policy, which all libertarians claim ought to favor individual rights and thus aren't neutral about at all—implies that society, which is to say all those others with whom we all associate in our lives, should not encourage us "to adopt certain habits and behaviors?" Nothing like that follows from the idea that government's business is with a very narrow set of values, namely, as the American Founders put it, "to secure [our] rights."
Consider this: Social libertarians do not believe government ought to cook our meals, devise our exercise regime, select for us our careers, determine whom we date, decide how we should amuse ourselves and so forth. None of that is the job of the government in a free society. Yet these libertarians certainly don't have the utterly absurd idea that the people with whom we are close should have no say about any of this. Our friends and relatives and even colleagues and neighbors do and certainly should encourage or discourage us in how we act and in our behaviors. Society is very much part of the life of free men and women—society is where one learns to flourish, with the advice and encouragement of all those whom one respects.
What does government have to do with any of this? Why is the sheriff, who has a big enough job keeping the peace in the village, become not only the peacekeeper but also the dentist, preacher, teacher, editor, and whoever else influences our daily lives for us? By getting all entangled in what is a job for "society," which is to say for all those civilians who surround us, a very dangerous shift occurs. Instead of focusing on the difficult task of keeping the peace, and keeping it in a civilized rather than barbaric fashion—with what is called due process of law—the busybody sheriff will neglect his proper duties and employ his forcible means to try to shape our lives. That, I submit, is the road to totalitarianism and the only reason we haven't quite gone all the way there is that the social libertarian attitude is still live and kicking in much of our culture.
It won't be long, however, if the likes of Mr. Brooks get their way. Their careless equivocation between government and society is just what has fueled the totalitarian temptation throughout the world, whereby government takes over the totality of the lives of the citizenry and refuses to stick to what it could do well, namely, deploy its unique tool of physical force and its threat only where it is required—where crimes are being committed.
It is a sad thing that conservative pundits like Mr. Brooks have forgotten the main thing they are supposed to conserve in this country, namely, the principles of a free society. Once they start drifting in the direction of conservatives elsewhere around the globe—where the past that's to be conserved does not include the classical liberal or, if you will, social libertarian ideas of the American Founders (who believed in limited government)—they will steer government astray. They will, instead, encourage, in their capacity as vocal members of society, very bad actions and behaviors on the part of both government and the citizenry.