Monday, June 16, 2003
Jonah Goldberg has written one of those columns that I want to agree with but that, instead, drives me up the wall.
One of Goldberg's hobby-horses is how "the culture" should be used to solve this or that problem rather than relying on the market or the government. He worries that the "organic society" is getting short-shrift, and that the Right is increasingly divided between libertarians (who think any problem the market can't solve isn't a problem) and right-wing statists (who think we should ban spam because it's annoying). He wants conservatives to go back to "trying to improve the culture and uphold the authority of tradition" rather than only debating whether government should or shouldn't act in a given instance.
I think Goldberg is saying is that rather than try to ban activities we don't like, we, through our private actions and organizations, should enforce the moral standards that conservatives favor. For example, he wants the local Rotarians to shun pimps and drug pushers, even if prostitution and drugs are legal. Nice idea. How about the landlady who wants to enforce her moral code by refusing to rent to unmarried couples? Or to individuals whom she is aware pursue an "alternative lifestyle"? I've got news for Goldberg: if she tried to enforce those particular moral codes, she'd be breaking the law, at least in New York City. It's illegal to discriminate on the basis of marital status or sexual orientation. Drug pushers, meanwhile, frequently operate out of public housing. And guess what: you can't evict them simply on the grounds that they are dealing drugs. There's a whole, complicated process to make sure they aren't being treated "unfairly."
In other words: if you want to empower the culture, you've first got a political fight on your hands to allow for private discrimination. Because that's what Goldberg is advocating: discriminating against individuals in things like, for example, club memberships because of moral decisions they make in their private life.
We all know the historical reason why this is a hard thing, politically, to advocate: once upon a time in this country, there was a widespread tradition of disciminating against people - publicly and privately - based on the notion that different races shouldn't mix. And eventually, enough of the country (and in particular, enough of the elite of the country) got so upset at this state of affairs that they not only banned public discrimination by race but established extensive new government powers to root out and eliminate this practice by "the culture." And once the precedent was set, as would be expected the categories of the protected grew. I have no reason to believe that pimps will not come under similar legal protection in the future.
Russ Feingold, Senator from Wisconsin, voted against the creation of a Federal Hate Crimes statute, because he felt that thought crimes were un-American and, in spirit, a violation of the principles undergirding the First Amendmenet. The law passed by huge margins nonetheless. And when it came time to vote on expanding the list of protected categories under the law to include sexual orientation, Feingold voted yes, saying that while he didn't think the law was a good idea, if we were going to have such a law, it should not discriminate against gays and lesbians by not including them in its protections. His logic was impeccable. And it's no different from the conservatives Goldberg implicitly criticizes.
Goldberg wants to "empower" the culture to "shame" the immoral and so forth. But that entails, minimally, going head to head with the whole moral and legal edifice that forbids private discrimination. It is very hard to argue that we should be allowed to discriminate on the basis of the conviction that "sex workers" are immoral but not on the moral conviction that, say, race-mixers are immoral. To discriminate between these forms of discrimination is, effectively, to have the government decide that, morally, race-mixers are OK while sex workers are not (or, at least, may not be, hence leaving it up to private discrimination). Either the government decides what moral convictions are acceptable to hold, and to act or, or it doesn't. In our society, it does. And therefore a lot the debate is about what those convictions should be.