If the Right Doesn’t Stand Against Porn, What Will It Stand For?

In America today broken families are the norm, weed is everywhere, and drag queens even read stories to children in school libraries. Despite these developments, many in the “conservative” camp continue to defend or impotently and helplessly throw up their hands in exasperation in response to the predictable, destructive fruits of liberalism. In the name of “liberty,” they insist, there is nothing we can do.

A new debate on pornography has affirmed this growing divide between conservatives and their increasingly unfamiliar cousins, the libertarians. As the libertarians see it, conservatives who want to ban pornography are proposing “tyranny” for contravening the sacred commitment to government non-interference. As bad and unhealthy as porn might be, there’s simply nothing that conservatives can do on the policy level to promote a healthy, moral culture.

Conservatives doubtless face a monumental challenge in seeking to rebuild American society from its shattered state, and skepticism of State power is a natural conservative tendency. But objections about the “how-to” obscure a more meaningful distinction. Libertarians, unlike the social conservatives who favor a porn ban, are more than just skeptical of the utility of political power. They recoil in horror at it. They are dogmatically wedded to the notion that conservatives are destined to lose. That progress is inevitable and inevitably leads to a loosening of and turning away from traditional morality.

If we’re going to ban porn, then where does it end? Are we going to ban our overly sexualized pop music as well? What about gay marriage? Are we going to go back to the days of anti-sodomy laws? How are you going to convince people to follow your anti-porn laws? These are not unreasonable questions, but behind them is a resigned attitude that has been hobbling conservatives for generations.

One could just as well ask, if conservatives won’t ban pornography, then what will they stand for? If that is beyond the pale, then what lengths are conservatives willing to go to stop abortion?

Social conservatives find themselves in a difficult situation: the culture is slipping away from them fast, partly due to a loss of faith but largely because of the propaganda and activism of a host of hostile institutions controlled by the Left. While conservatives are enjoined to apologize for their values, faith, and (for whites) their skin color, the enemy unapologetically embraces political power to mold society and culture in their image. They’ve been doing this for decades and, until recently, no other scenario was even thinkable.

Retreating From the Common Good

But is this a political weakness of libertarianism, or an expression of its principles? As libertarians and their protégés within “Conservatism, Inc.” go out of their way to defend porn and drag queen story hour as part of the “blessings of liberty,” one is left with the impression that they are more wedded to liberalism and its values than they are to the traditions that conservatives say they want to conserve.

An attitude of skepticism towards the state is inherent in a conservative disposition, but to confuse the maintenance of a moral order with support for “big government” is self-defeating, especially under the present circumstances. To leave questions of morality aside as though they are somehow beyond the scope of politics, as libertarians tend to do—insisting, as they do, that the only conservative moral obligation is to pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps—is nonsensical. What makes a porn ban beyond the pale for this sort of “conservative” appears not to be that it involves the state, but that it uses the state to promote the “wrong,” that is conservative rather than liberal, ends.

The laws of every society reflect its culture and morals. Ours bear the imprint of liberalism and its hyper-individualist focus. In such a setting, even the most spirited efforts to preserve traditions must fall by the wayside of an ugly, vacuous culture of narcissistic indulgence. Libertarians say that it’s the responsibility of parents, not the state, to protect children from accessing porn, but in a declining and ugly culture, parents can only shelter their children from the world for so long, and even that is no formula for a healthy or happy life.

Libertarians may privately sympathize with the conservative desire for cultural renewal, but in practice their fear of public power makes such a renewal impossible. If conservatives are not willing to embrace political solutions to public problems, then the Left will gladly fill the void. Would conservatives rather live in a culture that reflects their understanding of the good, or as aliens within an enemy regime that regards them with hostility and suspicion?

Utilitarianism and a Culture of Indifference

Too many conservatives with libertarian leanings profess a traditional private morality, but disagree with the procedural aspect of using government to promote conservative social policies. The result is not public policy that is neutral regarding morality, however, it is a public policy that leans decidedly to the Left. As the personal right to indulge in some vice  inevitably comes into conflict with the obligation for society to maintain order, libertarians and their duly schooled conservative brethren generally side with the former, which is to say the Left. When it comes down to the nitty gritty, libertarians will defend abortion, gay marriage, porn, and drug consumption and betray their fellow conservatives, piling on the condemnation from the Left as they denounce us for wanting “theocracy.”

Libertarians share with the Left a deep suspicion of morality—to be more specific, a suspicion of any morality that seeks to promote itself over the ethic of personal “liberation.” Of course, every culture maintains a code of morals and prohibitions on behavior, but the libertarian ethic is unique in that its only moral absolute is that there are no absolutes. The only moral is the freedom to “choose.” So porn might be harmful, but its consumption can’t be regulated. By the same rubric, one might “personally” find abortion to be an atrocity and yet bifurcate the brain justifying it as a “choice” others should be permitted to make.

These days, debates over moral issues tend to focus on effects rather than principles. What’s right and wrong is less important than whether something is easy for society. A utilitarian mentality, coupled with a deep sense of indifference to society’s overall wellbeing, has taken over. This mentality can be plumbed to justify virtually anything with the right “data.” Some progressives earnestly cite scientists to argue that abortion is good, for example. As conservative play this game, they’ll lose. Conservatives should want to promote a moral and healthy society for its own sake, not because the data say that X is bad.

Libertarians may believe that porn is harmful in some utilitarian sense, but if you think porn is bad, you should probably be at least open to its prohibition or mitigation.

Culture and the State

Unlike the Left, conservatives have lost sight of a basic truth: the law derives from morality. Otherwise, how is the law justified? The Left understands this, and seeks to shape the law in accordance with their own moral system.

Whenever conservatives express a real desire to return to a more moral culture, they are decried as wanting “theocracy,” but the truth is that we already live in a theocracy of sorts—one in which the only sin is to judge another person’s “lifestyle.” What was the norm yesterday is considered “repressive” today, and what was once taboo is now the cultural and legal mainstream. Gay relationships were once considered taboo; today it is taboo to criticize gay marriage and “diversity.”

How did this happen? It wasn’t magic. As some social conservatives have argued, the state can shape culture, not just through fear of its penalties but through respect for its authority. Can anyone dispute that the country has become vastly more progressive since the Supreme Court unilaterally forced gay marriage on the nation? How quickly things have changed from “we just want equality” to the present. Or to go further back, how much have things changed since no-fault divorce became the law of the land?

Changes in positive law affect cultural attitudes, and vice versa. The Left, by taking the levers of power, molded culture in the image of their own idea of the good. It might be  practically difficult for conservatives to reverse this, but to shrink from the task at the outset is to guarantee failure.

Libertarians balk at using state power to promote the public good, but what is the purpose of government, if not the public good? Conservatives are well-acquainted with the damage done to the family by the welfare state, but libertarians in general don’t appreciate the ways government inaction can undermine society and culture as well. The opioid crisis is a tragic and obvious example. Another is the decline of the breadwinner wage. Open borders and neoliberal trade policy gutted America’s manufacturing class, vastly reducing the economic power of working-class men. Many became less attractive and stable marital partners, and marriage has declined as a result.

Of course, many libertarians don’t see themselves as conservatives at all (as evinced by their commitment to personal liberation above all else). This is not exactly a secret. Libertarians who value the free market and individual “choice” as the highest goods, increasingly, are barely distinguishable from certain species of progressives who welcome neoliberal economic policy wedded to an agenda of aggressive libertinism.

With such derisive terms as “theocrat” and “authoritarian” for all who suggest another way, libertarians separate themselves from those who see society as having a higher good than the individual quest. Parental responsibility is seen as a substitute for any wider social responsibility to preserve communities and traditions. Individuals and families are left to fend for themselves, to swim upstream against the arrayed forces of woke corporations, mass entertainment, Big Tech companies, advertising, and other institutions glutting our culture with trash.

The porn debate is about more than porn. It’s about whether there exists a fundamental commitment to preserve a moral society. Libertarians have no response to the besieged cultural situation in which the Right finds itself, perhaps for the simple reason that they’re comfortable in most ways with the Left. Conservatives will have to consider this. If conservatives cannot commit to a moral society, then what are they conserving?

About Matthew Boose

Matthew Boose is a Mt. Vernon fellow of the Center for American Greatness and a staff writer and weekly columnist at the Conservative Institute. His writing has also appeared in the Daily Caller. Follow him on Twitter @matt_boose. ‏

Photo: Dmitry Mayer/Getty Images

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