Today’s big viral buzz whipping around the web is, of course, the white-hot story about Elliott Spitzer. This story’s got it all: power, politics, arrogance, big money, sex. Now, Spitzer is not one of those fellows much on my radar screen — just another power-hungry prosecutor who hacked his way through people’s lives in his climb to the top: think Mike Nifong, only luckier — at least up until now. Can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs, now, can you? Perhaps there is truly Karma in this life…
But this post is not about Elliott Spitzer and his political boner at all; it is rather about a comment made regarding his transgression by Jon Henke over at QandO blog, to wit:
Perhaps this would be a good time for people in both parties to reevaluate the counter-productive, anti-freedom laws surrounding prostitution. I’m not sure what Gov. Spitzer was doing, but I would bet he wasn’t hurting anybody else. The question of legality should be distinct from the question of propriety.
Now, this little editorial by Jon put a bee under my bonnet.
The folks over at QandO — an excellent blog, written by bright, well-informed folks — are strongly libertarian. I find the libertarian position appealing in many regards, as I have seen first-hand how destructive the meddling hand of government has been in health care, and how increasingly intrusive it has become in so many other areas of our lives. Nor am I here to pontificate about the evils of prostitution or the wages of sin. I know full well that we all make horrible mistakes in life — myself included — and thus hiring a hooker, while less than noble, strikes me as a common enough failing of men, whether great or small. And visiting a prostitute is certainly not without risks — but that is a story for another time.
No, here’s what really bugs me about the above statement: “I would bet he wasn’t hurting anybody else.”
The notion — so common in libertarian circles — that our private behavior should be beyond the reach of social and legal constraint, because “it doesn’t hurt anyone” — betrays an extraordinarily narrow and parochial view of the impact of individual human behavior on other people and society as a whole.
So Elliott Spitzer visits a hooker — what’s the big deal? Aside from himself, has anyone been hurt? If it were legalized, none of this would be happening, you know. Because no one got hurt.
Well, let’s see:
I wonder if his wife, who presumably trusted her husband, and believed his vows of faithfulness to her, has been hurt by this “private behavior”? I wonder if her reputation has been damaged in any way? She will, no doubt, be forced to grovel and speak platitudes about her love and commitment to her husband, just to save his political hide and sullied reputation. Her integrity and dignity, of course, will not be besmirched in any way by whoring herself for his political career.
I wonder if his wife, who could easily have contracted an incurable venereal disease — such as HPV, which can cause cervical cancer, or AIDS, because of her husband’s indiscretion, might be hurt in any way by his “private behavior”? The herpes she might pass on to her next child, were she still of child-bearing age, might leave their baby blind — but, hey, no big deal. Nobody gets hurt, remember?
I wonder if his children, now exposed to a highly public and humiliating disgrace of their father, will understand that “nobody gets hurt by his private behavior.” Doubtless they will sail through life completely unfazed when their parents’ marriage shatters on the rocks because of this little dalliance. I’m sure they will not have learned anything about having a trustworthy and honest father, nor about a marriage committed to sexual faithfulness and lifelong commitment, and one can be quite confident that none of this will have any impact whatsoever on their success and happiness in life. `cause it wasn’t about them, remember? Private matter.
The prostitute, of course, got paid handsomely for a few hours of work. The money she made no doubt will help feed her drug habit which she likely supports through her prostitution. Of course, for the libertarian, drugs are another harmless personal pursuit, so the personal destruction they inevitably bring about in her life is of course none of society’s business. Prostitution is far and away the most dangerous profession a women may engage in, with an extraordinarily high rate of violence, murder, drug overdose, and HIV. Odd — since “no one gets hurt” in this “victimless” crime. Consenting adults and all that, don’t ya know.
She funneled a good chunk of that money to her pimps in the prostitution ring, who will no doubt use it for social good, by entrapping more desperate women in the white slave trade, paying bribes to police and public officials to keep their business thriving, and perhaps reinvesting their substantial profits into other criminal activities, drug running, tax evasion, and many of those other harmless private activities they no doubt pursue. I’m sure if prostitution were legalized they would donate the cash to a local charity, and hang out at the Rotary club.
This sort of tunnel vision permeates much of libertarian thought. What harm is done by smoking a little weed in the privacy of your home, or snorting a little coke at home before work? The fact that many drugs remain in your system for prolonged periods — even weeks in the case of THC — with the potential of impairing reflex times, attention span, and the decision-making process, makes your private recreational activity completely harmless when you climb into the driver’s seat of a school bus the next morning, doesn’t it?
It is well within society’s purview and government’s responsibility to place restraints, legal and otherwise, on private behavior which adversely affects others. The notion that removal of all such restraints will increase freedom and reduce vice is illusory. It would surely increase license, as those currently inhibited by the adverse legal and societal consequences of such behavior would be far more prone to indulge in it. The libertarian’s assumption is that the bulk of adverse consequences arises from the enforcement and prosecution of such crimes — far more than by the actual crime itself. This is a highly arguable proposition, and vastly underestimates the subtle but highly destructive nature such behavior permeates through a culture.
There can be little doubt, for example, that an intact, heterosexual marriage provides the best environment for raising emotionally healthy, responsible, and productive children in society. Kids from such environments do better in school; have far lower incidence of criminal and disciplinary problems; are more likely to avoid early-onset sexual activity, teen pregnancy, promiscuity, and unwed motherhood; are more likely to do well economically; and more likely to enter stable, enduring marriages themselves. All such advantages are highly beneficial to society as a whole. Would legalized prostitution, with resulting increased utilization, risk endangering the marriages which provide such substantial societal benefits? Perhaps not for many, but most certainly for some — and the ripple effect over several generations is incalculably large, evident daily in the extant cultural erosion of marriage already long underway in Western society, through liberalized divorce laws, normalization of unwed motherhood, and tolerance and promotion of sexual license and promiscuity. The sins of the fathers truly are carried down to the third and fourth generation — and beyond.
Likewise with legalizing drugs: there is no doubt that the illegality of street drugs creates and sustains a vast, violent, multi-billion dollar international crime network, and our current war on drugs, though enormously expensive, has little to show for these billions spent in restraining the abuse or the crime network which feeds it. It is tempting to put an end to this waste through legalization of street drugs — but again the perceived benefits — financially starving the drug cartels and dealers — seems illusory at best. Will a black market in drugs simply disappear when they are legalized? What will the societal impact of increased use of newly-legalized street drugs have on the behavior of individuals, employment history, domestic violence, marriage stability, child neglect and abuse? The downward spiral so characteristic of addiction will not simply go away because the substances they abuse are now legal — nor will the social and behavioral destruction their use so often engenders.
What we are witnessing here — that which the libertarian finds (somewhat justifiably) so onerous — is an excellent example of the Law of Rules: as inner moral restraint deteriorates (through erosion of religious influences; fewer stable marriages and families to teach children moral standards; the perpetual onslaught against social and moral restraint by an aggressively secular, materialistic and hedonistic society; etc. etc.), there must be a multiplication of rules, laws and enforcement to mitigate the destructive consequences of increasingly narcissistic individualism. The outcome must ultimately be either anarchy or tyranny, for without inner self-control, the only alternatives for continued societal stability and function are the forces of external control — the nanny state, slouching ever forward toward totalitarianism and the police state. The alternative is bleaker still: chaos and societal collapse.
When we do away with laws — even those increasingly encroaching on our freedom — without reestablishing, sustaining, and nurturing our inner moral compasses, the results will invariably be not more freedom, but far less.
3 thoughts on “Hold Harmless”
Excellent observations, Dr. Bob. I have the same misgivings about the indifference of doctrinaire libertarians to the consequences of bad choices that ricochet far beyond the immediate “scene of the crime.” It was Thomas Paine who said “That governmnet is best that governs least” which is a sentiment everyone can understand. But taken to its logical conclusion we have: That governmnet is best of all that governs not at all, which is another way to describe anarchy.
My heart aches more for children than for the adults in all these cases. It is well and good to condemn, even prosecute, those who argue that “no one got hurt” but what is best for those who looked to them as role models? And when can we expect children growing up in those situations to select and follow better examples?
I don’t have good answers to these questions, but I know that at some point external constraints on what we like to call “private” matters are not only appropriate but necessary. Only two weeks ago I heard an elderly lady sweetly advancing the argument that if someone owned a restaurant and wanted to serve only blue-eyed people it should be their right and no one should tell them whom they should or should not serve. (We were talking about Lester Maddox, the famous segregationist restaurant owner and former governor of Georgia whom we both knew.) I haven’t heard that kind of thinking since before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but there are people alive who still believe it in their hearts.
I rather like the notion that America is made up of many states. If prostitution (or gambling or smoking dope whatever stripe of moral terpitude you like) is legal in one place but not in another I don’t like it but I’m not prepared to make those matters federally normative. In other communities or states those values (or lack of values) aren’t acceptable so Americans have choices. If people come here from all over the world for whatever reasons, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that those wanting a better place to live find a place they like better and move there or, failing that, define and protect boundaries in their local church, school, neighborhood or community.
In the end we will stand or fall as a society not because of laws crafted by politicians but according to values transmitted by our respective family units. If you think about it, some of our “best families” somehow grew from disreputable roots.
I think you’ve completely misapprehended me. At no point did I suggest there should be no social rejection or approbation for his conduct. In fact, I think that’s precisely what should occur. The libertarian position is not that private behavior is beyond reproach, but that private behavior that does not hurt others (as in, “violate the rights of others”, not “make them feel bad”) should not be illegal.
I’m quite sure his adultery hurt his family emotionally, but we don’t imprison people for adultery. The fact that he paid for it, however, was not harmful. But that is what we have criminalized.
This idea that, because we don’t want something criminalized, we must not think it is bad is a frustrating misperception of libertarians. It’s doubly frustrating, because it’s not a difficult distinction to make.
Spot on, Dr. Bob, as usual!
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