Socialism, masturbation, and Christine O'Donnell.
Liberals tend to think that freedom belongs to the individual, whereas conservatives tend to think that freedom belongs to private or local institutions such as families, communities, and businesses. The debate over prayer in school, for example, pits individual freedom against community freedom. Child abuse laws pit the rights of children against the sovereignty of families. Consumer product safety laws pit the asserted rights of consumers against the freedom of businesses. In such disputes, liberals are more inclined than conservatives to distinguish the interests of the individual from the interests of private institutions and to enlist the government to protect the former from the latter.
Williamson illustrates this difference. He opposes criminal laws against adultery but favors "sanctions" against adultery based on "a breach-of-contract model." He believes you can oppose censorship of pornography while enforcing "social sanctions against its producers and consumers." He's right that nongovernmental sanctions enforced by the community are less onerous than sanctions enforced by the state. But they're still instruments of social control.
When I called O'Donnell a socialist, I relied not on a technical definition of socialism but on her own analysis of socialism's essence and its underlying error. "There is a fundamental flaw with socialism that makes it never work," she said. "And the fundamental flaw in socialism is that it reduces the human being to a cog in the wheel."
There are many ways you can be reduced to a cog in a wheel. The government can claim your money in the name of progress. The church can claim your sexuality in the name of procreation. You can be asked to stand at attention, as I was in my youth, for Christian prayers read over a school loudspeaker.
What O'Donnell and other leaders of the Savior's Alliance for Lifting the Truth preached about masturbation—that it's "selfish," that it's "toying" with instruments of procreation, and that learning how to please yourself undermines your need for others and your availability for marriage—is all about suppressing self-reliance, fostering dependence, and reducing the individual to a cog in a wheel. And she didn't stop at lecturing. Her political organization, Concerned Women for America, opposed Coors' offer of health benefits to partners of its gay employees because the company's policy, in O'Donnell's words, "legitimizes the homosexual lifestyle." What's wrong with the gay "lifestyle"? The same thing that's supposedly wrong with masturbation: It diverts us from forming procreative families.
That's the tricky thing about communitarianism, social control, and "sanctions" of the Williamson variety. They can blur into coercion. Pornography pickets? Boycotting gay-friendly companies? How about this proposal from Williamson's magazine, National Review, to stop the building of an Islamic community center near Ground Zero?
Americans should make their displeasure with this project felt economically and socially: No contractor, construction company, or building-trades union that accepts a dime of the Cordoba Initiative's money should be given a free pass—nobody who sells them so much as a nail, or a hammer to drive it in with.
Ah, but this isn't socialism. "We will not appeal to the official powers to use the machinery of government to stop this project,"NR says proudly. By Williamson's or O'Donnell's standards, that degree of self-restraint may pass for respecting freedom. I'd like something better. Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. William Saletan's latest short takes on the news, via Twitter:
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Photograph of Christine O'Donnell by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.