I’m a classical liberal, but I support ultraconservative causes. Why is that? The problem is that the view which currently passes for liberalism is actually nihilism, a militant denial of all values. Worse, this is not just the nihilism of cynics who simply postulate that there are no values around worth following. Modern nihilism is a springboard for utopianism, an attempt to create a blank-slate society in order to inscribe utopia on it.
Philosophers from Plato to Rousseau to Lenin realized that a blank slate is a must if one wishes to create a utopia. But they all lacked the ability, or even the vision, to create a blank-slate society, so instead they concentrated on a radically egalitarian society in which all people would be forced to share the same values. Mass media, legal activism, and raging democracy (as opposed to value-based republicanism) made the blank slate achievable.

A complex society of myriad values, views, and opinions is impossible to understand, forecast, and reengineer. Some eagerly embrace agendas which others revolt against. Social engineering, a hallmark of leftism, just does not work in a complex society. Thus, a society must be made as simple as zero.
That approach underlies modern “liberal” battles. Under classical liberalism, it is enough to abstain from persecuting gays; we need not award them the benefits reserved for demographically productive and therefore socially important families, but most certainly no one could be forced to recognize their families or abstain from protesting them. Classical liberals recognize that almost everyone is entitled to his own set of values. Homosexuality is a value, but homophobia is a value, too. As long as one creed does not interfere too often with another, each must be able to express itself to some extent.

Modern liberals recognize only negative freedoms, those which run against societal preferences. But there is a fundamental right to live according to one’s values. Anti-abortionists think (mistakenly, if the Torah is any guide) that abortion is murder. How can they possibly coexist with the promoters of abortion? It is their duty to prevent abortions just as most people would try to prevent murder. It is not a live-and-let-live situation. In a more benign example, imagine a person urinating publicly in front of a street cafe; should bystanders not reprimand him? Don’t they have the right to eat without someone urinating in front of them?

Human consciousness is balanced between individual and communal ethea. In times of danger, a man’s communal nature prevails and he joins the war against the perceived enemy. In time of affluence, when communal attachments are not necessary for survival, people become individualistic. But they are always a bit of both. Freedom, therefore, must not only be about individual values, but communal values, as well. It is not that society needs those values; perhaps it does, but we are not concerned here about a societal supra-organism which is more than a sum of its parts, the individuals. Communal values are tied to self-consciousness for most members of society, and negating those values offends them no less than restricting their personal freedoms. An individual’s right to live in a certain cultural environment is no less fundamental than his right to live in a house which he has decorated according to his own tastes. If the right to property is deemed fundamental, then all the more fundamental is the right to ideology, which people value above property—as demonstrated by their willingness to go to war over it. If citizens are entitled to public property, then they are all the more entitled to public ideology, culture, and values.

Consider this example: a person approaches you at the airport; mistaking you for a Russian, he starts blaming you for everything from the Gulag to Afghanistan. Probably you would take no offense. But if you are an American and he blames you for Vietnam and Iraq, you would feel defensive regardless of your attitudes toward those wars. In both cases, the fact that he assaulted you as an individual is irrelevant: only your communal values matter. In the first case, you do not belong to the community in question and his allegations pass beyond you, but the opposite is true in the second case. Even the most radical liberal individualist would not escape this feeling.

That brings us to the old adage that one man’s freedom to swing his fist ends at the other man’s nose. What is important here is distance. A fist can be offensive from three feet away, a urinating person from a hundred yards away, and an abortion clinic perhaps within a hundred-mile radius. No sane American would be offended by gay marriage in Holland or abortions in Sweden. People protect their values inside their cultural milieu, within their sphere of visibility, not across the universe.

But how can values evolve if traditions are protected? Just as they have evolved throughout history. The burden of proof is on the challengers. The presumption must be that a time-tested tradition is right. Challengers must bear social reproach, perhaps even ostracism and jail, and by their perseverance and common sense slowly persuade others to change their values. Large-scale advertising is a big no-no in this game. First, it greatly offends the bearers of traditional values. Second, it cheats the evolutionary mechanism of the mind, which presumes widely held opinions to be correct. But challengers can advocate their views in Internet forums, brown-bag magazines, and similar devices which allow consensual readers nearly unhindered access while protecting others from offense.

Positive freedoms are not all alike. Belief systems vary in their number of adherents, the fervor with which those adherents hold their beliefs, and the degree of recognition society affords them. Some nuts may proclaim that erecting a building in a city will prevent Martians from landing to save us all from some terrible fate. Extreme vegetarians may be offended by their neighbors who eat carrots, thus depriving worms of food. On the other pole stand religious Jews, who are deeply offended by gay parades in Jerusalem, but not in San Francisco. In a still more poignant example, compare race-based bus segregation in Alabama with sex-based bus segregation in the ultra-religious neighborhoods of Jerusalem. While the first is obviously ugly, the second is a consensual matter based on recognized religious beliefs. And even the first example is less than straightforward: few whites would be offended by being unable to board black-only buses, and there is next to no liberal justification for banning segregated private buses.

Numbers alone are no guide in ascertaining positive freedoms. A Holocaust cartoon on billboards in America would be extremely offensive to 1.2% of American citizens while tasteless to mildly offensive to most others. The strength of offense inflicted on Jews would justify banning such a cartoon.

The demography of Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood, where all people are religious Jews, fully justifies the closing local roads for driving on Shabbat. But leftists stage incessant provocations by renting apartments there to bug their religious neighbors. This does not even stop at driving, which is a public activity: it is enough for the leftist to play music on Shabbat or turn on his TV so that his neighbors see flickers through the windows to greatly offend the community. It is not only that the Torah establishes a communal religion where good Jews must guard their neighbors against relapse. More generally, people are simply offended by the sight of someone whose values are radically different. By his very existence he challenges the validity of their values. Imagine that renegades and leftists were to rent 5% of all the apartments in Mea Shearim, or even 35% of the apartments—would that justify forfeiting the others’ right to live in the environment prescribed by our religion?

Any argument based on land ownership or public subsidies is doomed. In Israel, Jews cannot refuse Arabs the right to buy property even in gated Jewish communities (in fact, those communities are not merely gated, but electronically-fenced against those very Arabs). On the other hand, Mea Shearim’s land is public, its residents heavily subsidized by the government, but only a zealous atheist would deny them the right to live according to their religious preferences without offensive dissenters. The tax argument is also hard to follow in practice: every town receives government subsidies, but that same town pays taxes to the government; the long-term balance is never clear.

The current problem of compliance with community standards versus the protection of personal freedoms stems from the government’s usurpation of force a century ago. Before that, citizens dealt with deviants on ad hoc basis, usually with minimal violence. Delegating the resolution of all disputes to the police created at least two problems. First, citizenry became alienated from the law. Before, when people proverbially took the law into their own hands, they exercised civil responsibility. When government took the power of enforcement away from them, they became less interested in participation, and the number of active voters dwindled. The Torah enjoins Jews to participate in executions, a cruel but extremely efficient way to build a civilly active population. The second problem with allowing government to have police power is that many offenses which are hard to codify either become unenforceable or are overzealously enforced. The later category includes such things as marijuana possession, while the first category comprises offenses related to values. Decriminalizing vagabonds—a totally sensible move—allowed dirty and smelly professional vagabonds into our towns with no restrictions. A famous example is the recent history of anti-pornography legislation. Everyone would agree that the industry has to be substantially regulated, but the world’s most eminent jurists, the US Supreme Court, struggled for decades and ultimately failed to define pornography. But everyone knows pornography when he sees it. This is a perfect example of an offense which should be left to vigilantes to prosecute, if and only if the offender moves out of a permitted zone or advertises his activity, whether by reading a porn journal on a bus or placing a XXX sign outside his shop. A society which wants police to prosecute undefinable offenses must abandon the rule of law in dealing with them and allow community judges to rely on their common sense.

A still simpler way would be to allow community charters to ban offensive activities once they escape privacy in the least. Such charters could only be repealed by majority, or even, in conservative communities, a supermajority vote. The emergence of majority consent to the contrary would show the values to be outdated and unworthy of preservation. In the meantime, dissenters would be welcome to move to more permissive communities.