What is the alternative to respect for responsible authority? If we assume that all foods, recreations, forms of music, and manners of life are equal, then Liberals are right to demand social, political, and tax neutrality on traditional sauerkraut and on every other issue that might involve government control, including same-sex marriage, abortion, and the celebration of holidays—so long as we observe the non-aggression principle.
Admittedly, Libertarians are sometimes hard-pressed to defend seducers, pornographers, dope peddlers, and abortionists as non-aggressive purveyors of desired services, but thank heaven—or some other place—for Walter Block and people of his stripe, because they do not hesitate to defend the indefensible and in so doing reveal the moral, spiritual, and intellectual vacuum at the heart of their ideology.
If we are not spoiled children, porn addicts or heroin users, we know that human life involves hierarchies of values of better and worse, superior and inferior. It may not always be possible to establish such a hierarchy or, once it is established, to find consensus, even among reasonable people of good will. Even to admit the possibility of aesthetic and moral hierarchy opens up the charge of snobbery, but so be it. In a culture where all values are inverted, where "bad" may be a term of praise and "gay" be appropriated by depressing sociopaths, opprobrious epithets can be liberating.
When I ridiculed a youngish conservative friend of mine for listening to disco music on his earphones, he made the inevitable libertarian response: "I like what I like. What gives you the right to dictate musical taste." I made my inevitable response, namely, that is what Jack the Ripper's mother told people who disapproved of the way he treated his sister's dolls. Defend, by all means, your bad taste with the best arguments you can muster, but do not try to defend your right to have bad taste. Even in pop music, one can distinguish between Carl Perkins and Elvis and between Elvis and the Bee Gees, and the Gibb brothers and Kanye West.
There is one obvious flaw in the Libertarian theory of subjective value. Naturally, having no taste in food, music, or literature, they insist that taste is subjective but they change their tune when it comes to their own hobby, namely economic theory. Libertarians have no problem in denigrating anyone who adheres to what they regard as a false economic theory, whether traditionalist Catholics or Marxists, and what is sauce for the economist's goose should be sauce for the aesthete's gander. If Mises is righter than Hayek and Hayek righter than Marx or Samuelson, then it is possible that Brahms is better than Sir Arthur Sullivan, who is better than Sir Elton John.
Of course, the Libertarian will respond that what he believes in is pure science—despite the obvious fact that in real sciences, they are not still debating the phlogiston theory or phrenology. Economics is only scientific to the extent it can be quantified and abstracted, but as soon as economists begin using the language of right and wrong, "ought" and "ought not," as soon as they start recommending one policy over another, they have entered the realm of ethics.
Besides, even classical liberal economists have a better theory than their rivals—as they certainly do—how have they come to the rational conclusion that scientific economics trumps good taste in wine or music? The opposite seems obvious to me. We all eat, most of us drink, and even I can "whistle every air from that infernal nonsense Pinafore, while only a small number of people can read a balance sheet much less study theories of exchange. In any sensible hierarchy of value, one would ridicule anyone who was a whizz at Austrian economics but eat at McDonalds and preferred Gershwin to Gluck. To call such a person an "idiot savant" would be a compliment.
But, supposing that we could construct a hierarchy of aesthetic and moral values, that hierarchy would not lead, necessarily, to a policy of social encouragement or government subsidy. In some cases, it is because some superior activities are comparatively trivial or of no social significance. It would be hard to justify tax support for my preference for Haydn over Beethoven or Virginia ham over Swedish sweet ham, but it would not be too difficult to draw up an argument in support of teaching traditional music or literature or morality in schools funded by the community. Wise rulers and creative societies have always subsidized the arts that elevate man above the beasts.
Our problem today is not that government funds the arts, but that it supports evil, stupid, and destructive arts, because neither our people nor our rulers are wise or even very human. A wholesome-minded dictator would eliminate pop music along with public education and most of what passes for literature and journalism in a country where the designated poet at the next presidential inauguration was chosen precisely because he is A) Latino and B) Cuban. We are not likely to enjoy the blessings of a philosopher-tyrant—any tyrant we get will reflect the degraded character of our people--but no good can come from any discussion predicated on the vacuous and puerile assumptions of classical liberalism.
Questions of tax policies and subsidies cannot be reduced to the oversimplifications of Marx and Mises. Other principles intervene: not only the principle of hierarchy but also the deeper question of what we live for. Can parents really be neutral on even pop-cultural questions when they see the morals and tastes of their children being corrupted? As a child, my parents forced me to take piano and violin lessons, though I did not have one scrap of dexterity much less talent. In my elementary school in the socialist state of Wisconsin, I was forced to take part in regular singing classes that had us louts warbling on pitch in four-part harmony by the fourth grade. God bless my communist piano teacher and those German and Swedish socialists who tortured me into being a lover of good music.
My children grew up with a piano in the house, and they all took music lessons, which I paid for. We took them to concerts and bought recorded music. Yes, they all got sucked into one form or another of pop music, as I did in my teens, but even there they had distinctive tastes.
Well, so what, asks our friend Ludwig von Steinbrunnen, returning (like the communist ideologue he so much resembles) to the only argument he has? You spent your money on what you like and the parents of inner-city Utes bought their kids ghetto-blasters and centuries worth of R&B and hip hop. What can one say to such people except that they have to choose whether they wish to be regarded as fools or liars?
Thomas Fleming is the former editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of The Politics of Human Nature, Montenegro: The Divided Land, and The Morality of Everyday Life, named Editors' Choice in philosophy by Booklist in 2005. He is the coauthor of The Conservative Movement and the editor of Immigration and the American Identity. He holds a Ph.D. in classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Before joining the Rockford Institute, he taught classics at the University of Miami of Ohio, served as an advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, and was headmaster at the Archibald Rutledge Academy. He has been published in, among others, The Spectator (London), Independent on Sunday (London), Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times, National Review, Classical Journal, Telos, and Modern Age. He and his wife, Gail, have four children and four grandchildren.