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Commentary

Genteel Anarchism

Politics, as the saying goes, makes strange bedfellows, and perhaps the strangest in American annals is the nearly half-century marriage of convenience between libertarians--the most hard-core of classical liberals--and conservatives. In large measure, this unnatural union can be explained by a cobelligerency grounded in a fervent opposition to state socialism and a correspondingly deep suspicion of the expanding welfare state and the increase in the power of the federal government. But now that socialism has been discredited and, as President Clinton put it, "the era of big government is over," we can expect a renewed battle for the soul of the American Right.

One figure sure to play a role in this conflict is Charles Murray, author of Losing Ground, a book that helped to redefine the welfare debate, and co-author of the infamous The Bell Curve, whose recently published manifesto, What It Means to Be a Libertarian (Broadway Books, 178 pp.; $20), seems intended to put a kinder, gentler face on libertarianism. Murray is significant not primarily as a representative of that movement but far more so as an influential spokesman for the anti-government ideology that is increasingly popular outside the restricted ambit of libertar-ianism--particularly in conservative Christian circles.

Murray's shtick is to exaggerate the all-too-real consequences of misguided government intervention while underplaying the benefits of constructive government action. The extent to which he is willing to go in this regard was pressed home to me a few years ago at a small conference at which Murray was the main speaker. The basic thrust of his argument, now quite familiar, was that certain types of social assistance, particularly AFDC, encouraged illegitimacy among the poor, as well as sexually irresponsible and even predatory behavior among young men--an argument that I found plausible then and continue to find plausible now.

But in the course of a discussion over what should ...

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