The brief Koch signed seeks to encourage that outcome. He’s not a convert like Barack Obama. He’s a thoroughgoing libertarian. Our personal lives should be as free as possible from moral intervention, just as our economic activities should be as free as possible from government intervention. Nice theory. But disconnected from social and political reality. More than any other approach to public life, social libertarianism will guarantee the expansion of government, not just in size but also in control over our lives.
In 1970, 40 percent of American households were constituted by married couples with children. In 2012, that figure had fallen to less than 20 percent. Meanwhile, “other family households” grew, along with men and women living alone. No-fault divorce, cohabitation, single mothers, and individuals living alone reflect and contribute to the weakness of the authority of the institution of marriage over the lives of most people. They also reflect and contribute to the declining influence of distinctly male and female social roles and other traditional norms governing personal behavior. These basic trends indicate what we all know: American society is being atomized by a cultural revolution that is dismantling traditional forms of life, especially the family.
A libertarian is right to say that this means more freedom. Now we can live as we wish rather than in accord with dominant social norms. But this greater freedom means greater scope for bad choices, many of which require government intervention to remediate the consequences (especially for children, as Putnam advocates in Our Kids). The dramatic rise in out-of-wedlock births among the general population over the past generation provides the most obvious example. We know the social costs of this trend in the black community: criminality, mass incarceration, low educational attainment, and high unemployment. The more recent collapse of marriage among working-class and middle-class whites may not produce all the problems that the black underclass has, but there are sure to be dysfunctions that will call for ever greater government intervention. There already are.
Moreover, our political culture will change. As traditional forms of life lose authority, demands for redistribution become greater. That’s because a libertarian world is one in which our identities are largely stripped down to private choices. In today’s world, that means our status is measured almost entirely in terms of money.
Under the old system, a man who is a good father achieves something honorable, something superior to that of the man who is divorced or who has fathered a child out of wedlock. Today, not wanting to be judgmental and fearing that we’re “blaming the victim,” we repudiate this moral hierarchy. The same goes for coaching Little League baseball or being a scoutmaster. These are private choices no more valid than watching TV or playing computer games.
Some will say that David Koch and the movement in support of gay marriage have no interest in weakening marriage. The amicus brief he signed claims that it will strengthen marriage. But saying it does not make it so. Gay marriage presumes social libertarianism, the conviction that people ought to have the freedom to make their own life choices, unhindered by traditional moral views. This undermines the authority of the old moral hierarchies, as the gay and feminist theorists recognize and champion. What they don’t recognize is that this freedom strips our social world down to the naked hierarchies of wealth and celebrity. Left with no other forms of status recognized by society, the economic losers are nothing but losers. This in turn leads any fair-minded person to say that we need to give them more money so that they can have a piece of the only currency of dignity and standing recognized in the libertarian world. In short, more redistribution.
All of which is to say that I’m afraid David Koch is misguided. As traditional norms recede, we will not get a libertarian paradise. Instead, government will fill the void. Marriage, strong norms of behavior, and constraining moral communities provide people with a sense of security, identity, and meaning. As they weaken, government must supply those goods. Over the long term, the conservative desire to limit government is impossible without a renewed emphasis on social conservatism.
All this raises a question about the future of the Republican party. Social conservatives and libertarians have been relatively united in their opposition to President Obama, but at some point their differences will come to a head. FiveThirtyEight recently published an article ("There Are Few Libertarians. But Many Americans Have Libertarian Views."), which mapped the American electorate based on their degree of social liberalism and their support for government social programs. What they found (see below) is that approximately 22% of Americans embrace libertarian views, while approximately 25% embrace socially conservative views. If this dichotomy accurately reflects a divide in the Republican party, then a battle may be looming for control of the Republican party. It's probably too early to tell, but it does raise an interesting question: Who will the Democrats root for?