Opinion

KNOWLES: The Porn Debate Isn’t Really About Porn

   DailyWire.com
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Over the past week, conservative think pieces about pornography may have surpassed porn itself as the most profuse stuff on the Internet. The debate began when my colleague Matt Walsh endorsed banning pornography and jailing pornographers, at which point classical liberals and right-leaning libertarians came to porn’s defense.

The Federalist’s Ben Domenech wondered, “Are the conservatives who think they can ban porn online purposefully ignoring the massive expansion of government this would require, or are they too stupid to realize it?”  The Washington Examiner’s Casey Given warned a porn ban would turn “America into the Christian version of Saudi Arabia.” A young man’s right to watch high-res footage of strange men doing strange things to desperate women is as American as apple pie, they seemed to say. Who but a Wahhabi theocrat could object?

Never mind that obscenity laws have always existed in the United States and that the federal government used them to jail a hardcore pornographer just ten years ago. Never mind that you need to show an ID to buy a Playboy. All those laws and prosecutions simply misunderstand the true purpose of America: unfettered individual liberty to pursue whatever tickles our fancy.

The porn dispute dominated conservative commentary this week as the latest episode in a broader debate between traditionalists and libertarians over the chief purpose of government. When Sohrab Ahmari declared independence from “David French-ism,” he identified the recent phenomenon of “Drag Queen Story Hour” in public libraries as evidence that you-do-you liberalism had gone too far, and he called for “a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.” David, an Evangelical Christian and accomplished religious liberty lawyer, dismissed Ahmari’s concerns.

“There are going to be Drag Queen Story Hours,” French explained. “They’re going to happen. And, by the way, the fact that a person can get a room in a library and hold a Drag Queen Story Hour and get people to come? That’s one of the blessings of liberty.” You might not like transvestites twerking for toddlers at taxpayer expense, but who are you to stop it?

For the past half century or so, despite all the partisan rancor, the Left and Right have accepted the same central premise about politics: namely, that the purpose of government is to maximize liberty. The Left has sought to expand social liberty by redefining marriage, decriminalizing prostitution—or “sex work“—and sacramentalizing abortion on demand. The Right has focused on expanding economic liberty through tax cuts, free trade, and deregulation. For decades the consensus has prevailed: the chief aim of American politics is to permit us all to follow our own appetites and desires, whatever they may be, with as little government interference as possible.

The Founders had a different idea. For starters, they distinguished between liberty and licentiousness. But more importantly, they understood that the chief purpose of government is justice, not liberty. James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, explained in Federalist 51, “Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.” Liberty plays an important role in justice, and there can be no justice without liberty, which is the power to do what one wills. But government exists first and foremost for the purpose of justice, which inclines the will to give each and all their due.

Edmund Burke, the conservative philosopher and champion of the American Revolution, explained the difference:

Of all the loose terms in the world, liberty is the most indefinite. It is not solitary, unconnected, individual, selfish liberty, as if every man was to regulate the whole of his conduct by his own will. The liberty I mean is social freedom. It is that state of things in which liberty is secured by the equality of restraint. A constitution of things in which the liberty of no one man, and no body of men, and no number of men, can find means to trespass on the liberty of any person, or any description of persons, in the society. This kind of liberty is, indeed, but another name for justice; ascertained by wise laws, and secured by well-constructed institutions.

Conservatives who defend libertinism as liberty misunderstand what our Founding Fathers meant. We all love freedom. But freedom has a higher purpose, as should conservatives.