Michael Gerson
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Libertarians often cover their views with a powdered wig of 18th- and 19th-century philosophy. They cite Locke, Smith and Mill as advocates of a peaceable kingdom -- a utopia of cooperation and spontaneous order. But the reality of libertarianism was on display in South Carolina. Paul concluded his answer by doing a jeering rendition of an addict's voice: "Oh yeah, I need the government to take care of me. I don't want to use heroin, so I need these laws." Paul is not content to condemn a portion of his fellow citizens to self-destruction; he must mock them in their decline. Such are the manners found in Paulsville.

This is not "The Wealth of Nations" or the "Second Treatise on Government." It is Social Darwinism. It is the arrogance of the strong. It is contempt for the vulnerable and suffering.

The conservative alternative to libertarianism is necessarily more complex. It is the teaching of classical political philosophy and the Jewish and Christian traditions that true liberty must be appropriate to human nature. The freedom to enslave oneself with drugs is the freedom of the fish to live on land, or the freedom of birds to inhabit the ocean -- which is to say, it is not freedom at all. Responsible, self-governing citizens do not grow wild like blackberries. They are cultivated in institutions -- families, religious communities and decent, orderly neighborhoods. And government has a limited but important role in reinforcing social norms and expectations -- including laws against drugs and against the exploitation of men and women in the sex trade.

It was just 12 years ago -- though it seems like a political lifetime -- that a Republican presidential candidate visited a rural drug treatment center outside Des Moines, Iowa. Moved by the stories of recovering young addicts, Texas Gov. George W. Bush talked of his own struggles with alcohol. "I'm on a walk. And it's a never-ending walk as far as I'm concerned. ... I want you to know that your life's walk is shared by a lot of other people, even some who wear suits."

In determining who is a "major" candidate for president, let's begin here. Those who support the legalization of heroin while mocking addicts are marginal. It is difficult to be a first-tier candidate while holding second-rate values.

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Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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