We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Guardrails

Last Sunday, David Brooks conceded in the New York Times that modern conservatism has abandoned the the last vestiges of liberty and freedom from the Reagan-Goldwater movement. Instead, Brooks writes, today’s right is all about authoritarianism. In a fit of candor that’s either refreshing or appalling – I’m not sure which – Brooks writes that not only is he okay with this, he embraces it. Brooks writes:

In the 1970’s and 80’s, conservatives felt the primary threat was the overweening nanny state. Ronald Reagan tried to loosen the structures that restricted individual initiative and led to national sclerosis. He and Margaret Thatcher deregulated, privatized, cut tax rates in order to liberate entrepreneurs. The dominant formula was simple: less government equals more freedom. “Government is the problem,” Reagan declared, expressing the organizing conservative principle of the day.

Times change. Now the chief problem is not sclerosis but disorder. The biggest threats come not from nanny states but from failed states and rogue states. There is less popular fear of bureaucrats possessing too much control than of ungoverned forces surging out of control: immigration, the federal debt, Iraqi sectarianism, Islamic radicalism, Chinese mercantilism, domestic rage and polarization.

According to Brooks, the remedy for these “isms” is state-imposed order. He dismisses market order as a “libertarian myth” from the 1980s, and calls for more of those ever-popular moral “guardrails” many on the right feel are necessary to keep society from sliding into social decay.

This is consistent with a lot of what’s come out from the big government right of late, many of whom not only pay little heed to what they derisively refer to as the “lifestyle libertarianism” or “leave us alone” crowd, but who actually see advocates for individual liberty as a threat. For a particularly absurd example, look to the conservative publication Human Events, which recently polled 15 “conservative scholars and public policy leaders” on the “most harmful” books of the last two centuries. Mill’s On Liberty garnered an honorable mention, ahead of Rachel Carson and Ralph Nader.

The threat of terrorism is real, of course. And reasonable people can disagree about what amount of government authority is appropriate to confront it. But beyond terrorism, I’m not sure what other trends or developments Brooks sees that cry out for government correction.

On the contrary, just about every social indicator over the last 15-20 years is pointing in a direction Brooks ought to find favorable: Teen pregnancy is down. Juvenile crime is down. Crimes against children are down. Incidence of rape is down. Overall crime is down. Divorce is down. Teens are waiting longer to have sex. High school dropouts are down. There are fewer abortions. Life expectancy in America continues to reach all-time highs. Unemployment remains low.

Pick a statistic. Odds are, it’s moving in the correct direction.

Oddly enough, all of these trends have been improving since at least the early-to-mid-1990s, the very period over which the family values crowd has been decrying the “coarsening of American culture.” Homosexuality has increasingly gained mainstream acceptance over that period. Unmarried couples have grown more likely to live together. The Internet has made pornography, gambling, and just about every fetish and taboo imaginable readily accessible within the privacy of one’s home, removing the barrier of public stigma. Satellite radio and cable television have brought South Park, the Sopranos, and raunchy comedy to the masses. And of course, strikingly realistic video game consoles have given us those infamous first-person shooter games and Grand Theft Auto. Finally, as any good Brent Bozell disciple will tell you, the last 15 years have also brought us Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction, Howard Stern’s meteoric rise, gangsta’ rap, and Will and Grace.

So what gives? Seems to me that technology, relaxed public attitudes, and consumer choice have given Americans more lifestyle freedom over the last 15 years than we’ve ever had before. Yet not only is our national moral fabric not unraveling, it appears to be as durable and fibrous as it’s ever been.

So why exactly do we need more moral guardrails from the government aimed at restricting behavior?

(Interestingly, the one trend that hasn’t significantly declined over the last 15 years – or at least hasn’t receded as quickly as the others – is drug use. And that’s the one vice the government has been most aggressive about policing.)

Frankly, I think these statistics speak for themselves. We handle our liberty just fine, thanks. The vast majority of Americans don’t need government-imposed “guardrails.” Family, friends, churches, and other support networks more than suffice.

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