Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Legislating morality

I got a note from a friend last night, in which she asked whether two talking heads thought "that one can legislate morality?" In particular, did these pundits think that the right set of laws would have prevented the mass-murder in Tucson last week? And the answer is, probably they do. As I've written before, one of the markers of the American left is the utopian belief in the "perfectability of the human condition," if only we can put the right laws in place. Naïve, of course, but there it is.

But what I want to address this morning is the phrase "legislating morality." It is the keystone of one standard piece of American rhetoric, that "you can't legislate morality." It's one of those things that many people will agree with eagerly, and with which others will generally acquiesce. After all, none of us wants our own particular morality legislated away. We don't want our vices or pleasures (which are so often the same thing) taken away because some, or many, or most of our fellow citizens don't share them, or approve of them.

In actuality, the objection to "legislating morality" turns out to be, much like the current call for "civil discourse," not a general principle, but a political weapon that the left can use to cudgel the right. It isn't "legislating morality" that the left is opposed to, it's "legislating morality" with which they don't agree. Restrictions on sexual behavior or personal conduct with regards to drugs are the kind of "legislating morality" that are abhorrent to them. Other things, well, not so much. Many of them are all for "legislating morality" when it comes to guns or speech.

It turns out, moreover, that when you exam it philosophically, the whole facade of objection to "legislating morality" crumbles. The fact is, we legislate nothing but morality. What is a budget other than a moral statement? It is a statement that we, the people, believe that the work and wealth of some citizens are best used by the state for purposes which the state wishes but the citizens wouldn't necessarily support voluntarily. It is easy to see that laws against adultery or drug use are "legislating morality." But what about restrictions on access to guns? What about civil rights legislation? Child labor laws? How are the National Endowment for the Arts or National Public Radio or the National Park System not statements of morality? When has there been a bigger legislation of morality than the "Affordable Care Act" (Obamacare), in which it was determined that it was practical or efficient or praiseworthy or desirable, i.e., right, for the government to take away from some (many) and coerce many others in order to provide benefits for a few?

All politicians couch all legislation in moral terms. They want support for doing the "right" thing. Sometimes because they believe that it's the right thing, sometimes because they merely think that it will benefit them politically. In either case, you never see someone pushing legislation which cannot be supported as the "right," i.e., moral, thing to do. And that goes equally for politicians politicians on the left pushing for gun restrictions and on the right pushing for abortion restrictions. It goes for tax increases and tax decreases, welfare programs and welfare reform, funding for the arts and cuts to funding for the arts. Yet somehow, the cries to avoid "legislating morality" tend to be aimed only at those on the right. It tends not to be a good-faith criticism, and when someone uses it, he ought to be challenged to point to a single law that doesn't "legislate morality." He won't be able to...

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