Oh, dear. It looks like I have to talk about masturbation again.
Last week, I called Christine O’Donnell a “masturbation socialist.” A chorus of political theorists—Will Wilkinson, Kevin Williamson, and now Ross Douthat—has descended on me, protesting that O’Donnell does not, in fact, advocate government control of wanking.
It’s heartening to see conservatives become so precise about defining socialism. Two months ago, under the headline “Obama is a Socialist …,” Williamson wrote this:
But is it kooky to call Obama a socialist?Sure, if by socialist you mean Lenin or Kim Jong Il, or even Proudhon or Eugene V. Debs. If you mean somebody who believes that the government should exert significant political control over the commanding heights of the economy—such as finance and energy–and engage in some kind of economic central planning—such as a massive bureaucratic effort to reduce health-care spending as a share of GDP—whose ethic is basically redistributive, etc., then maybe it does not sound so kooky. And he does love him a good five-year plan.
But now that the accused socialist is O’Donnell, Williamson’s definition has undergone sudden shrinkage. He writes: “Socialism is when The Man comes to your house with a gun and tells you that you are going to serve the community.”
You guys crack me up.
Socialism can be defined in many ways, and not just in Williamson’s head. It can mean “state ownership of capital,” “common ownership and cooperative management of the means of production,” or “any of various political philosophies that support social and economic equality, collective decision-making, and public control of productive capital.” There are many schools of socialism, including “libertarian socialism.”
The common thread in these definitions is that the target of collective control is industry. So except in places where masturbation counts as an industry—the U.S. Senate, for example, or political commentary—it’s a stretch (and, I admit, an ironic one) to call O’Donnell a socialist. But that isn’t what O’Donnell’s defenders object to. Their objection is that she doesn’t favor the government as the agent of social control. As Williamson puts it:
One can think all sorts of things are bad, or selfish, or undesirable, or otherwise to be discouraged—without also believing that there should be laws against them. … For instance, one may believe that marital infidelity is wrong, immoral, and to be discouraged, and believe that this is an important public issue, to be addressed by both public and private means, without believing that we should revive the adultery laws. (I do, in fact, believe there should be sanctions against adultery, but I prefer a breach-of-contract model to the criminal code, taking, as I do, a contractual view of marriage as a public institution.) One can believe that pornography is a destructive force in modern life, campaign against it, argue for social sanctions against its producers and consumers, but still reject the idea that government should censor it.
Indeed one can. And here, beneath the masturbation jokes, we have a big, serious disagreement. I don’t think the absence of government is sufficient to define freedom. I think social control over individuals can be exercised not just by the state but by other agents of what’s described broadly, in definitions of socialism, as the “public,” the “community,” or the “collective.” In the context of another moral issue, abortion, I wrote a whole book about this disagreement. Short version:
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: