Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Bill of bads

An alarming number of our countrymen are bent on self-destruction. They have abdicated responsibility for themselves to “experts,” over-credentialed technocrats who see in America’s breadth and diversity an equation that can and should be simplified for the sake of “efficiency.” Paradoxically, they are also seduced by libertine sketches of morality that presume to cast off the chains of an authoritarian past. Taken together, they are a bill of bads: on the one hand, reduction of the human spirit into a managed system, dense with self-righteous regulators and apparatchiks; on the other hand, a lifestyle unthreaded from nature and virtue by a vicious, undiscerning relativism.

I’m sympathetic to the libertarian argument, which recognizes the futility of “legislating morality.” But then I’m reminded that my neighbors’ poor choices affect not just him, but also me. Living in isolation is no answer, at least not for those among us who aren’t survivalists; “no man is an island” applies to most of us. As long as people still provide goods and services that I am able to buy, I am still better off despite suffering my neighbors’ sin and stupidity.

What to do about the foolish neighbor? As autonomous as these apartment walls and fenced-in yards make us feel, outsiders’ poor choices reach in and affect us all the time. The law does, and should, play a role here. Law by its nature is coercive. A society without an enforcement mechanism, like the law, to maintain some degree of cohesion will die out. To paraphrase James Madison: If men were angels, they would need no law.

There is no bridging the gap between coercion and freedom; we can only escape it, hopefully to new provinces where opinion is settled on the ends worth putting freedom to work for. As I argued in “Herem,” ancient Israel drove the Canaanites out of the Promised Land because the Canaanites practiced sexual idolatry and ritual human sacrifice, incompatible with the God’s commandments. Such radical disagreement isn’t tolerable from either perspective. There may come a time when we reach that level of disagreement in America. Crime itself does not endanger a culture, but absence of consensus on what is crime does.

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