If one is to believe the exit polling data from the recent presidential election, President Bush owes his victory in no small part to conservative Christians. This constituency is primarily concerned with the issues of homosexual marriage, abortion, and vulgarity in the media. While the president has not necessarily placed such issues at the forefront of his agenda (imperial wars and government handouts seem to interest him more), they most likely reasoned that a liberal from Massachusetts would be less inclined towards keeping the forces of hedonism at bay.
In order to abate the nation's cultural decline, these Christian Republicans have promoted an array of rather anti-libertarian measures for the federal government to take including a Constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, federalizing the abortion issue, and using the FCC to stamp out indecency. But is this truly the best way to secure cultural conservatism in America?
Leaving aside the practicality of the policies encouraged by the Religious Right — does anyone actually believe that getting the federal government involved will solve any of these problems? — is libertarianism really as incompatible with morality as the Robertsons and Falwells of the world believe? After all, in a libertarian society based upon localism and private property, everyone would enjoy the absolute right to freedom of association, which includes not being forced to associate with many of moral reprobates who are all too common in America today.
Interestingly enough, even in our nation's present socialist condition, there is demonstrable evidence that private property is the greatest bulwark against having ones own values undermined by external influences: Pensacola Christian College, a fundamentalist Christian school in Florida, which despite the fact that most of those associated with the school are probably Bush Republicans, is an excellent example of the virtue of private property rights over state coercion.
PCC has a strict code of conduct and a very conservative interpretation of the Bible. Obvious infractions against the school's policies include engaging in any sort of sexual conduct, use of alcohol, and displays of disrespect towards the college's faculty and staff. Additionally, skipping class, dating (outside of the school's strict parameters), and mixed swimming are specifically proscribed. Forget about revealing clothing on young ladies — Not only must they dress modestly, but pants are also considered unacceptable. On top of these (and numerous other regulations), students are constantly monitored and may only leave campus with PCC's permission.
Not surprisingly, these strict rules have earned the ire of many students (both current and former). However, the intent here is neither to offer approbation nor condemnation to Pensacola (personally I have little problem with many of their rules though some of the methods of enforcement seem a bit harsh) — instead, it is to evaluate the libertarian nature of the school's model.
One may question how a school with such an array of Draconian rules could serve as any sort of libertarian paradigm; however, if we recognize that libertarianism is value neutral, PCC demonstrates precisely what private property owners can do to defend their principles and way of life in a free society.
To begin with, Pensacola is a private institution which deliberately refuses to accept any public funding or financial aid (which would endanger its autonomy). Therefore, its existence is entirely based upon consumer demand (whether in the form of tuition payments or external offerings). Despite the objections some students and alumni may have regarding this institution, there is clearly some element of Christian America which desires there to be such a fundamentalist institution available to college undergraduate and graduate students. Were this not the case, the school would fold and one could logically conclude that because it could not be sustained in the market, there is no true demand for such a college.
While there is evidently a demonstrable inclination among fundamentalist students (or at least their parents) for the strict guidelines enforced by Pensacola, as the previously mentioned comments* indicate, there is some dissatisfaction among the school's customer base. However, while PCC's rules may appear excessive, no coercion is involved. Students and their families are free to make their own decisions regarding attending the school in the first place or opting to withdraw later on. Once a student does matriculate, he is subject to the Pensacola's code of conduct, but this is no different than agreeing to follow the guidelines of any other private institution once one is granted admission. For instance, you can't take a dip in the water traps at a golf course nor can you run onto the field at a baseball stadium.
Furthermore, the market is self regulating. Just as products are reviewed and excoriated if they are of inferior quality, colleges face similar scrutiny from a variety of sources. The “studentreview.com” certainly offers candid commentary about the pros and cons of PCC. Though there is no such thing as perfect information (neo-classical economic theories aside), information is more accessible today than ever before thanks to the internet. If your idea of a good time at college includes imbibing and fraternizing with coeds rather than Bible studies and chapel, there seems to be no dearth of information available to indicate that Pensacola might not be the college for you.
In fact, if you don't think you're exactly PCC material, the school doesn't really want you. Unlike state institutions (such as public secondary schools), Pensacola has limited interest in reforming wayward students. If one earns too many demerits or is responsible for a large enough infraction, he/she automatically wins a no-expenses paid trip back home (if the school's critics are to be believed). Apparently, Pensacola has decided to focus its attention primarily on fostering an environment that is hospitable to only the most obedient students. Permitting the perfidious to repeatedly defy the stringent rules would undermine the character of such a community.
As mentioned, for whatever virtues or faults PCC may have, no one is forced to attend (or even fund it), adequate information about the school is available, and if one just can't hack their standards, Pensacola will be sure to let him/her know. Given this, there seems to be little room to condemn PCC from a libertarian standpoint. True, the rules would probably seem harsh to most people, but what exactly would one expect from a fundamentalist Christian school? Of course, there may be those who don't care for the school's philosophy because they agree with neo-Evangelical, Reform, Catholic, Jewish, Mormon or no theology; however, these are personal preferences and the existence of Pensacola Christian College in no ways impedes others from disagreeing with their viewpoint (at least from their own private property).
Let us imagine, though, what the results would be like if the folks in charge of PCC were suddenly granted the power to govern the entire nation based upon their philosophical and theological contentions. If Pensacola has earned the ire of (at the very least) a vocal minority of its own student body over its authoritarian policies, one can only imagine how a nation replete with folks who believe abstinence until marriage is passé would respond to statutory proscriptions against women wearing pants.
First of all, just like any government program which forces individuals to behave in a certain manner, these public morality laws would create widespread resentment particularly towards devout Christians. This would probably endanger believers while also hindering their ability to witness to others.
Additionally, a PCC government would lose its most effective weapon for eliminating dissent: Expulsion. It would be unfeasible for a nation to deport every citizen who violates some arcane rule at the drop of a hat. This would lead to selective enforcement of the law, but more so, it would also require a massive police force, prison system, and possibly even wide scale executions — All of which would also be subject to internal corruption.
Furthermore this would constitute a vast waste of resources. Taxes would have to be levied or debt issued to pay for this monstrous police state while the effect on public morality would probably be nil.
Compare this with the current situation where students voluntarily contribute their resources to spend four years at an institution which does not have to compromise on its moral standards nor resort to brutality: Under the current system, Pensacola enters into an agreement with its students. The students have the right to expect a devout fundamentalist environment free of many of the distractions and stumbling blocks of the world while the school demands compliance with its policies. This voluntary situation allows those who do not appreciate such an environment to withdraw (or never attend in the first place) from PCC while permitting the college to engineer its student body the way it sees fit. Such opt out options are not available with a “one size fits all” federal government.
In fact, it is perplexing that any group really wants to use the state to achieve its ends. Does anyone really believe they can change the hearts and minds of individuals by force? While it is dubious that there are many registered Libertarians (or even lower case libertarians) at Pensacola, they have unwittingly made themselves a case study for the free market perspective. Imagine how much better off we would be if every group and institution rejected public subsidies, worried about maintaining its values without interfering with others, and simply disassociated itself with those it disagreed.
December 21, 2004