Ten years ago, the Wall Street Journal ran a now-famous unsigned editorial by Daniel Henninger (search) entitled "No Guardrails." The editorial iterated many of the worries and concerns cultural conservatives had had about our society's moral compass since the 1960s, but took the unique approach of relaying them through the story of Michael Frederick Griffin, the man who murdered abortion doctor David Gunn in Florida.
"No Guardrails" basically blamed society's elite — and the leftist elite in particular — for adopting the ever-sliding mores, values and morals that cultural conservatives blame for most of modern society's maladies.
Elitists can afford to lack values, "No Guardrails" thinking says, but the underclass can't. So single motherhood may be fine for Murphy Brown, who is wealthy, well-connected, and educated (not to mention fictional), but fatherless child rearing is a devastating example to set for low-income communities.
Perhaps elites can afford to flirt with drugs, with indiscriminate sex, and with excess personal liberty, the editorial explained, "but for a lot of other people it hasn't been such an easy life to sustain. Not exceedingly sophisticated, neither thinkers nor leaders, never interviewed for their views, they're held together by faith, friends, fun and, at the margins, by fanaticism."
"These weaker or more vulnerable people, who in different ways must try to live along life's margins, are among the reasons that a society erects rules. They're guardrails."
"No Guardrails" was a blockbuster of an editorial. It inspired a torrent of mail to the Journal, and follow-up op-eds and commentaries throughout the chattering class. It has since become a buzz phrase in conservative circles. Culturally right-leaning pundits can insert "guardrails" phraseology into a commentary or magazine piece, and most fellow-traveling conservatives will pick up the reference.
This brings me to two stories we've seen in the news of late — the controversy surrounding Sen. Rick Santorum's (search) remarks about privacy and sodomy laws, and the Washington Monthly article published last week about William Bennett's gambling habit. Both stories carry significant "No Guardrails" implications.
Santorum of course intimated that a Supreme Court-created right to privacy that protects sodomy would open the door to all sorts of other deviant sexual behavior, such as incest, bestiality, and adultery. It wasn't an out and out "No Guardrails" argument, but the response to Santorum's remarks from notable conservatives was.
Writing in National Review, Stanley Kurtz went to great lengths to explain how acceptance of gay and other non-traditional lifestyles at the elite level would, in the end, destroy the institutions of marriage and family Kurtz and others believe are vital to a healthy, functioning society.
"Above all, marriage is protected by the ethos of monogamy — and by the associated taboo against adultery," Kurtz writes, "The real danger of gay marriage is that it will undermine the taboo on adultery, thereby destroying the final bastion protecting marriage: the ethos of monogamy."
Kurtz's reaction to Santorum's comments is typical to responses from other cultural conservatives. It's also a to-the-letter "No Guardrails" approach to morality — tolerance for bad behavior at the elite levels will inevitably trickle down to the Joe Lunchbucket crowd, with calamitous results. "The married commune next door might invite the two of you over for some fun," Kurtz writes, "with potentially problematic results for your marriage."
Now comes William Bennett (search). The Washington Monthly revealed last week that America's morals czar — a man who has written several best-selling books on virtue and vice — has wagered as much as $8 million on video poker and slot machines over the last 10 years.
William Bennett is unquestionably an "elite." He's a former Drug Czar, a former secretary of education, a best-selling author, an A-list pundit, and a top-dollar draw on the lecture circuit. And he spent the kind of time and money at the casinos that would (and does) reap unquestionably devastating results were it imitated by people from society's not-so-elite.
Here, it would seem, is the ultimate test for cultural conservatives to prove that "No Guardrails" isn't a partisan excuse to snipe at Hollywood and academic liberals, but rather is a serious commentary on the importance of elitist example-setting.
They failed. With a few notable exceptions from religious right advocacy groups, conservative pundits generally rushed to Bennett's aid. Most, in fact, outright dismissed "No Guardrails" thinking as it applies to Bennett, and instead actually embraced the very type of "elites are allowed to sin, because they can afford to" excuses the Wall Street Journal was so critical of.
National Review's Jonah Goldberg is a fine example, both because of the way he so articulately laid out this position, but also because of his unofficial position as a mouthpiece for younger conservatives.
"Bennett can afford his sins, too," Goldberg writes. "But just as a glutton would be a moral fool to champion gluttony to someone with a heart condition, Bennett understands that a gambler would be a moral fool to champion gambling to people who cannot afford it."
In other words, Bennett — as a rich man and an elite — is subject to a different set of rules than are the common folk. He can gamble all he likes, because he's rich, so long as he doesn't recommend the practice to those less fortunate.
Contrast Goldberg's words to the original "No Guardrails" editorial. In criticizing the slide toward more personal freedom, the Wall Street Journal wrote:
"...the personal virtue known as self-restraint was devalued ... [elitist demonstrations] were merely one part of a much deeper shift in American culture — away from community and family rules of conduct and more toward more autonomy, more personal independence. As to limits, you set your own."
Seems to me that Goldberg's defense of Bennett is as thorough a repudiation of "No Guardrails" as you might find.
As a libertarian, I really don't buy into the "No Guardrails" way of thinking. I don't believe in collective rights (affirmative action, for example), or in collective morality. I think that left to their own devices, people will generally make decisions that are in their own best interests. Let each pursue his own happiness, so long as he doesn't hurt anyone else.
But if conservatives are going to toe the "No Guardrails" line, it seems to me that they ought to be consistent about it. It's preposterous to argue on the one hand that two adults engaging in nontraditional sex behind a closed door will lead to a breakdown in heterosexual marriages across the country, but that America's foremost spokesperson for virtue and morality spending millions at casinos across the country bears no influence on the 5.5 million people his own organization has identified as "problem gamblers."
If the elites do indeed set the guardrails the rest of us need to stay the course, as conservatives often insist, then they ought to admit that William Bennett just tore one of those guardrails down.
Radley Balko is a writer living in Arlington, VA. He also maintains a Weblog at www.theagitator.com.