Jonah Goldberg

Until we were so rudely interrupted by President Bush's latest Supreme Court pick, we were having an illuminating squabble over Bill Bennett. And since Bennett's remarks on his radio show have already morphed into something of an urban legend in many quarters, I think they're worth revisiting.

A quick recap: Bennett got a call from a listener suggesting that Social Security was in financial straights because so many taxpayers had been aborted after Roe vs. Wade. The caller was making an ostensibly pro-life point. But Bennett, also a pro-lifer, objected. That's not the way you should look at abortion, he said. Such utilitarianism is a distraction and morally unreliable. He cited the book "Freakonomics," by University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt, which argues, among other things, that the increase in abortions since Roe vs. Wade has contributed considerably to the drop in the crime rate.

And then Bennett offered the infamous hypothetical, saying: "I do know that it's true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could - if that were your sole purpose - you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down. That would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down."

Now, many of you probably know all of this so far. But some probably do not because you've heard about this second hand. And Democrats and many liberals have been trying to distort what Bennett said. Former DNC chair Terry McAuliffe: "The point he was trying to make, I guess, he said, you know, if you were to go out there and kill the black babies, the crime would go down." Ted Kennedy and a predictably long list of others have called him a racist. Radio host Ed Schultz said: Bennett is "out there advocating the murder of all black babies."

There are too many ways in which this anti-Bennett backlash is cheap and tawdry to discuss here. (Though I should note that a considerable minority of liberal writers who loathe Bennett refuse to participate in the witch hunt.)

My first objection is more of a delicious irony. Notice how so many righteously offended liberals keep referring to fetuses as people. In The New York Times, Bob Herbert proclaims that Bennett considers "exterminating blacks would be a most effective crime-fighting tool." Schultz and McAuliffe say Bennett wants to exterminate "babies."

Funny, I thought the bedrock faith of pro-abortion liberals is that fetuses aren't babies. Isn't it interesting how this lynchpin of liberal morality evaporates the moment an opportunity to call Bennett a racist presents itself? Talk about utilitarianism.

Many Bennett stalwarts have spent a lot of time defending him on the grounds that what he said is actually true. Since black crime rates are disproportionately high, they reason, eliminating the next generation - as horrific as that would be - would reduce the overall rate. In response, some liberals have put on their Karnak the Magnificent hats and tried to rebut this by trying to predict what would really happen under the Bennett hypothesis. Tax rolls would go down, schools would close, etc., etc.

All of this is a grand exercise in futility and absurdity. Of course, no one knows what the real repercussions would be if you aborted every black baby in America. One repercussion would probably be civil war or revolution, as nearly the entire black population of the United States, along with large majorities of white pro-lifers and pro-choicers, righteously and legitimately took up arms to prevent the government from committing genocide. And, I should add, one of the guys shouting "Lock and load!" would undoubtedly be Bennett himself.

Which raises the point missed by so many Bennett detractors, often deliberately. His argument wasn't about race at all. His point was to discourage even pro-lifers from demeaning the cause by making abortion into an acceptable governmental tool for social policy.

Bennett was sincere when he said that aborting all black babies simply to lower the crime rate would be "ridiculous, and morally reprehensible." He could have just as easily said to the caller: "Hey, look, we could save a lot of money on skyrocketing education costs if only we aborted the mentally impaired and learning disabled. But you know what? Ends cannot justify the means of murdering the unborn." It would be silly to waste a lot of time trying to rebut him by saying, "Well, actually you wouldn't save that much money."

The former philosophy professor picked a hypothetical that he thought would make the horror of such utilitarianism obvious to everybody. Murder a whole generation just to lower the crime rate? Disgusting!

Bennett's real mistake was in thinking people would be mature enough to get it.


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the forthcoming book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
 
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