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Rhymes With YAF

August 21st, 2002 · No Comments

In the early 60s, a group called Young Americans for Freedom was formed at the instigation of conservative grand-don William F. Buckley, Jr. Conservatives and libertarians came together through YAF, primarily for the purpose of student activism in support of shared goals. But as the Vietnam War heated up, debates over foreign policy and the draft did as well, until finally, in 1969, the libertarians were purged at a St. Louis YAF conference.

Well, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Will Wilkinson has blogged about a similar development in the latest issue of Doublethink, journal of the purportedly ecumenical America’s Future Foundation. I still like their happy hours, but Will observes that, after an introduction stressing the need for a “debate” on the right on the issue of stem-cell research, the magazine presents exactly one side of that debate in abundance. Now, the arguments presented are so grotesquely bad that I’m tempted to consider this a subtle way of promoting the libertarian agenda after all, but barring that possibility, this is pretty shameful. If libertarian views are unwelcome in AFF’s flagship publication — when they differ from the conservative line, anyway — it would be nice, as Will says, if they let the libertarians funding it with their dues know in advance.

Will has a bit of sport with editor Justin Torres’s sillier arguments, but they beg so ardently to be lampooned that I’ve got to throw in a few obnoxious observations of my own. For example, the claim that having your genetic makeup chosen by parents makes you unfree seems to entail the highly un-conservative conclusion that we should reproduce via totally random, anonymous sex, lest people indirectly pick children’s genes via mate choice. And why is shaping the environment in which a child is raised less a denial of freedom than shaping her genetic code? Does that mean that conservatives should also reject attempts by parents to raise their children in some specific way? (The child, of course, can choose to accept the parent’s values or not — but has no choice about whether to be influenced in some way or another by that parent-chosen environment.)

Then there’s an interview with Leon Kass, about whom I’m never quite sure what to say. Journalists tend to identify him as a philosopher, but I’m not sure what qualifies him for the title. His specialty seems to be, not the construction of arguments, but the articulation in refined prose of the irrational squeamishness of politically powerful folks like GWB. Finally, we’ve got Sam Crowe, who cooks up a familiar soup of vague allusions to “dignity” and “higher goods” which, like lots of Alan Bloom’s work, sounds awfully profound unless you make the mistake of thinking about it for a minute. Though Crowe bashes the liberal fixation on rights, he doesn’t actually argue for an alternative. Hell, he doesn’t even clearly assert his alternative, or explain why the fact that rights are not the end-all and be-all of morality (something most liberals would concede) is relevant to the function of rights as trumps for the purposes of determining enforceable obligations. Not every morally unattractive thing is illegal, nor should that be our goal.

In retrospect, I may have been too harsh at the start. Given the quality of the anti-research and anti-cloning arguments, an issue that included the libertarian position would have come out seeming pretty one-sided as well. Still, the next time he calls for a “debate” between the various groups AFF comprises, it might behoove Mr. Torres to make at least some token effort to supply one.

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