A "dozen or so pages of ignorance and silliness". That’s how Andrew Norton describes Christine Wallace’s recent article for the Griffith Review — ‘Libertarian nation by stealth’. Wallace’s major offence is to confuse Robert Bork’s moralistic conservatism with libertarianism. She writes:
The all embracing sweep of the libertarian approach is, generally speaking, not well understood. US legal scholar and Reagan favourite Robert H. Bork spelled out in his influential Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline (HarperCollins, 1996), published the year Howard won office: “Culture eventually makes politics.” Bork wrote: “‘Culture,’ as used here, refers to all human behaviour and institutions, including popular entertainment, art, religion, education, scholarship, economic activity, science, technology, law, and morality. [It] seems highly unlikely that a vigorous economy can be sustained in an enfeebled, hedonistic culture, particularly when that culture distorts incentives by increasingly rejecting personal achievement as the criterion for the distribution of rewards.”
The libertarian logic is that, since personal freedom and the existence of free markets are inextricably entwined, and since – as Bork puts it – “vigorous” economies are vulnerable to being “enfeebled” by particular cultural practices, then the champions of personal freedom have a licence to police cultural practices – in the interests of freedom and economic vigour. Thus libertarians can reason that difference (for example, multiculturalism, homosexuality) must be eliminated so that the economy can function better – reasoning that is absurd, to say the least.
Bork may once have been a libertarian, but most libertarians now regard him as a menace to the cause. In Reason, Walter Olson writes that Slouching Towards Gomorrah finished off "any reputation that Judge Bork, who once studied economics at the University of Chicago, might have retained as even vaguely sympathetic to libertarian ideas and concerns." At the Cato Institute Robert Levy accuses him of undermining the free market by supporting the US Justice Department’s antitrust action against Microsoft. Bork is increasingly unpopular among libertarians.
Unlike culture warriors like Robert Bork, libertarians oppose censorship. Bork himself says that "libertarians are not to be confused, as they often are, with conservatives". Bork’s position on cultural issues is closer to that of neoconservatives like Irving Kristol and his wife Gertrude Himmelfarb. While libertarians have tended to orbit around think tanks like the Cato Institute, Kristol and his allies have attached themselves to the American Enterprise Institute and drawn financial support from foundations like Olin and Bradley. As James Piereson explained in an article for Commentary, these funding bodies "were more self-consciously conservative than libertarian." The neoconservatives "understood the moral foundations of a free society to be prior to and more important than its economic foundations." While they supported free market causes like law and economics (and even the Cato Institute), they moved beyond economics and into the culture wars.
Peter Saunders — now with the Centre for Independent Studies — has also argued that moral and cultural decay risks undermining the foundations of the free market society. In the last chapter of his book Capitalism he argues that we have "normalized and legitimized behaviour which was one regarded as abnormal and illegitimate, while stigmatizing and discrediting behaviour which was once normal and respectable." These ideas are not unique to the United States.
While Wallace has identified a real tendency in the American and Australian free market movement, it is wrong to call it libertarianism.