From the founding well into the 1950s, marriage law reflected the interest of society in the protection of the family as a unit and the welfare of children, which stood in clear tension with the liberty of individual citizens to act however they wished. Then “no-fault” divorce laws applied the Lockean logic more consistently to the institution of marriage. The devastating impact of the collapse of stable marriage on the well-being of children throughout the West has been documented exhaustively by social scientists in subsequent decades. The children of divorce are much more likely to get pregnant out of wedlock, commit crimes, go to prison, earn lower incomes, suffer depression, be afraid to commit to relationships, and use illegal drugs. Locke’s ideas did for the Western family what Stalin’s did for Soviet agriculture. That alone should be enough to prove that Locke is not enough — and that in chemically pure form he can be poisonous.
A rigorously libertarian society that allowed abortion and deregulated marriage should also, logically, remove the state from every economic transaction among adults. No minimum wage or workplace safety laws could morally be imposed to block the pure autonomy of workers and employers; racial discrimination and every other form of bias would have to be protected as part of the absolute freedom of contract. People would be free to enter into slave contracts and gladiatorial games. No unemployment insurance, welfare, or other paternalistic programs would be funded by the taxpayer, who would pay a flat rate for basic services such as police protection — that is, if the anarcho-capitalists now dominant in libertarian circles had not convinced the citizens to disband the state itself, in favor of competing private enforcement agencies. Surely, the absolute liberty to redefine existence also implies the right to reject the state structure that currently exists and start up an independent alternative mode of protecting one’s rights. Why should the state we have inherited from our parents enjoy an arbitrary monopoly of deadly force?
Here is where irony grabs the steering wheel. No society has ever even tried to apply Lockean liberty consistently throughout every realm of life. Indeed, even as the West has become more morally atomistic, the role of the state in directing economic and social life has vastly increased, in part because the pathologies that arise from the breakdown of the family and other natural units of social order cause so much harm that worried citizens invoke the state to repair the damage. The troubled children of broken homes are placed in state-sponsored after-school programs and kindergartens in an effort to make them more productive citizens. The unemployable teens who drop out of school find themselves on the public dole, or else end up as part of America’s ever-burgeoning prison population. Single mothers whose “baby daddies” have abandoned them find in the government a generous absentee father. Even as the rhetoric of freedom (wrongly defined) is used to break down nongovernmental sources of authority — such as churches or families — the power and price of coercive authority grows. Modern Westerners have seen the grave deficiencies of radical liberalism, and instead of rectifying them by reasserting what natural law actually means, they have chosen to fill in the void by asserting an equally radical notion of equality. Citizens, then, must be free to live as solipsistic and self-destructive hedonists; but not all of them have the talent, wealth, or wit to pursue such a life. Some of them will flounder and fail. So it is our job as taxpayers to underwrite their lifestyles, to fund their lives and pursuit of happiness by surrendering some of our liberty — but only in economic matters. We are still free in the bedroom, which is where the “intimate and personal choices” all take place (according to the U.S. Supreme Court, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey), and that is what really matters.
Radical libertarianism would do less damage, of course, if the welfare state were abolished, and people were forced to sink or swim based on the outcomes of their own decisions. In such a starkly Darwinian order, people who used drugs, got pregnant out of wedlock, or otherwise failed to develop the basic bourgeois virtues, would quickly starve to death, or die from the lack of medical care they could not afford. A rough, reality-based code of self-reliance would emerge, while any charity offered would come from voluntary agencies such as churches — which would be free to demand that the people who took its benefits hew to a higher standard of conduct, make better choices, and develop the skills required for self-reliance. That is exactly what private Christian charities used to demand, with results that were far more transformative and respectful of the needy as full human beings than today’s value-neutral government handouts.
What the modern welfare state offers instead is the modern version of bread and circuses, but something worse. Even as destructive egalitarianism (which Tocqueville warned could be the downfall of democracies) promotes the growth of government as the wiper of every runny nose in society, the logic of radical individualism dismantles every structure aside from the state. We are left as isolated atoms, bereft of the support once provided by churches, families, and other institutions of civil society, completely dependent on ourselves or the agencies of the state.
Jason Jones is a producer in Hollywood. His films include Bella, Eyes to See, and Crescendo. Learn more about his human rights initiatives at www.iamwholelife.com.
John Zmirak is the author of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism. His columns are archived at The Bad Catholics Bingo Hall. This column is adapted from Jones’ and Zmirak’s upcoming book, The Race to Save Our Century (Crossroad, 2014).