Every society places some kind of restriction on personal conduct, and limitations are usually most visible in the areas of sexual behavior and the use or abuse of particular foods or intoxicants. Restrictions might be formal and legal, perhaps enforced by a specialized morality police or vice squad, or there may be informal social sanctions resulting in stigma or derision for the individual foolhardy enough to indulge his vice in a public context. Often, the informal sanctions serve as an essential preliminary for a codified legal prohibition, either years or decades afterward.

Some societies change slowly with regard to what is considered morally and legally tolerable, while others are subject to far swifter developments in the direction of either more or less permissiveness. America in particular is vulnerable to quite sudden and thoroughgoing reversals that almost amount to revolutions in public morality, and future historians will certainly regard Neo-Puritanism as a hallmark of the times in which we are presently living. However, they will also be struck by the paradox of this particular outbreak in public righteousness, which differs from its predecessors in its conspicuous lack of overtly moral or religious foundation—which is not to say that the underlying agendas may not reflect religious assumptions. It is not self-evident that society or the state has either a right or an obligation to interfere in an individual’s right to do as he chooses, to go to hell in his own way. When the rhetoric used to justify such interference is as spurious as that currently employed, the presumption has to be that now more than ever, the balance of proof is firmly on those who would restrict or prohibit, rather than on those who merely wish to live their own lives. Is some kind of inverse-proportion law at work here, that morals legislation increases as public morality decreases?

Since the early 1980’s, efforts to regulate personal behavior have grown apace in the United States, and changes are evident less in specific legislation than in the general social atmosphere and the imagery of the mass media. The change might be illustrated by a hypothetical time-traveler to our own days from the I940’s, the time of the great war won by a population that habitually used and over-used alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, and benzedrine. In our own world, the traveler would watch films and dramatic presentations in which characters are allowed to smoke only to indicate their moral turpitude, in which anything more than the lightest alcohol use is a clear omen that the plot will shortly address issues of addiction and recovery, and in which a friendly male hand laid upon the shoulder of a female colleague probably betokens a theme of rape, abuse, and harassment. “Flirting,” “social drinking,” and “light smoking” have all become euphemisms for sinister forms of exploitation or self-destruction. All have gone the way of the “funny drunk,” who used to be a stock comic character, rather like the boss with his secretary on his lap: imagine either image as a source of humor today. So far, our visitor would recognize the areas of concern and sensitivity, though not the reasons why they have become so explosively contentious. More difficult altogether would be the novel concern over food and the way in which cholesterol and saturated fats have each in their way become prominent on the roster of deadly sins.

On the news programs, the visitor from the past would learn about the networks of community groups that disseminate the propaganda of the New Puritanism through schools and colleges, seeking to keep all under the age of 21 free of any knowledge or experience of alcoholic drink, regardless of the likelihood that such ignorance is probably the best means of insuring serious overindulgence in later life. He would learn of the ceaseless competition to find ever more stringent restrictions to place upon the smoker, to go as far as possible in the direction of outright prohibition without actually banning either the substance or its use. And while amazed at the frankness with which this generation discusses condoms and “safe sex,” the time-traveler would also note the presumption that virtually any unprotected extramarital sex is not merely immoral, but a likely ticket to plague and painful death.

Everything would indicate the triumph of a severely puritan ethic, based on the ideas of the sinfulness of pleasure, the collective enforcement of virtue, and the certainty that pleasure leads to severe punishment, if not in hell flames then in the hospital wards treating cancer, heart disease, or AIDS. Moreover, puritan attitudes and assumptions are by no means confined to rubes and backwoodsmen, but have become the orthodoxy of educated elites. Among the medical profession, for example, the visitor from the past would find a radical reversal of the opinions of his own day. While modern doctors have a widespread and well-founded awareness of the vast health benefits of occasional wine-drinking, virtually none dares advocate so pernicious a policy, which would blatantly flout the ideology of temperance. The same doctors know that for an aging community with high cancer rates, the effective relief of pain is to be found only in the extensive use of heroin and morphine, as in every advanced European nation today and in the America of bygone days; but the modern profession refuses to offer the necessary pain relief in sufficient quantities because of the irrational fear of drugs in any guise. Nor will it campaign for governments to relax their savage and cruel prohibitions on such treatment or in any way challenge the self-appointed medical expertise of the drug enforcement bureaucrats. While neither the doctors nor the bureaucrats actually declare that agony is a necessary trial sent by God, their practical conclusions are indistinguishable from the puritan presumption.

Mulling over his distressing observations, the man from the 1940’s would have no doubt that America had experienced a religious and moral “Great Awakening” akin to those of the previous century and had almost certainly replaced its republican government with a form of theocracy. This would explain the widespread erotophobia, the Comstockery, the obsession with Temperance, and even the food faddery, which has so often coincided with waves of evangelical reformism. (At least the mid-Victorian revivals bequeathed us the pleasant legacies of graham crackers and Kellogg’s cereals.) Our visitor’s conclusions would be quite logical, and of course they would be utterly wrong. The would-be mullahs of televangelism have contributed far less to the rise of the New Puritanism than have mainstream and relatively liberal groups, generally acting in the name of “social responsibility” and “the community” and virtually never invoking any supernatural or indeed moral basis for their policies.

The paradox deserves emphasis, as does the contrast with most of recorded history. One of the most plentiful sources available to historians of almost any previous society is the record of attempts to suppress vice and immorality, variously defined but almost always placed in some religious or supernatural context. In the English-speaking world, right up to the late 18th century, most citizens were subject to the complex network of church courts, which had wide powers over questions of both property and morality. Apart from the “obvious” vices such as incest, sodomy, fornication, and adultery, church courts dealt with an amazing range of what we would consider purely private vices or problems, including drunkenness, masturbation, swearing. Sabbath-breaking, and religious dissidence. Cases might involve disputes over matters as intimate as a spouse failing to fulfill his or her sexual obligations or children being born a suspiciously short time after wedlock.

In 17th-century England or colonial America, such intrusions could readily be justified by the sanction of religion. If a given society was attempting to live up to the role of God’s new Israel, then it was justifiable to enforce appropriate standards on every individual in that community. It was obligatory for every neighbor to assist in that effort by whatever means necessary, including what we would describe as eavesdropping or sheer prying. Though justified in metaphysical terms, moral enforcement also had a utilitarian component, in that the moral and natural laws reinforced one another. A society that permitted vice or immorality laid itself open to divine wrath in the form of plague, famine, war, or climatic disaster: the Byzantine Emperor Justinian prohibited homosexuality on the logical grounds that the behavior was well known to incite earthquakes. Whatever we may think about such a worldview and its consequences, it did at least have the virtues of clarity and consistency, and there was a straightforward answer to the question of why certain prohibitions were sought or enforced. God willed it and expressed His views clearly through both His Scriptures and the traditions of His church.

In the last decade, by contrast, the overtly cited justifications for control and prohibition have invariably stressed the utilitarian element of the argument, citing the real or imagined harm of the behavior in question, while the religious foundations of the movement have slipped into the background. This appears to be a thoroughly secularized puritanism. In the early 1980’s, the foci of concern involved behavior in which there was at least arguably an element of harm and public danger, drunk driving being the most conspicuous example. MADD (“Mothers Against Drunk Driving”) has been one of the most effective pressure groups in modern American history, and its appeal is obvious: opposing the group or the measures it advocates invites the question of whether the critic is either hostile to bereaved mothers or supportive of drunk drivers, scarcely a tenable rhetorical position.

Drunk driving unquestionably can cause real social harm and physical damage, and the consensus on this issue provides the basis for what social scientists sometimes call “convergence” or “domain expansion.” The terms may sound technical, but the concepts are straightforward enough. In essence, pressure groups take advantage of public acceptance of a known and accepted problem by expanding the scope (“domain”) of the problem to include other behaviors that had not hitherto been viewed as dangerous or threatening. However, placing the lesser issues in this threatening context makes them appear sinister and lethal, especially if extreme claims can be buttressed with frightening statistics (and they invariably can). Thus drunk driving is a deadly menace, and so are behaviors associated with this, such as teenage drinking of any kind, or heavy drinking in bars, or perhaps even the sale and advertising of hard liquor of any kind. The domain of the problem expands, and the groundwork is laid for legislative change and for new social attitudes. Our hypothetical man from the 1940’s would be sure to believe that he had misread the increasingly common bar notices insisting on a two-drink maximum. Shouldn’t that read minimum, as in his own day? By no means. The signs generally declare that, to prevent excessive drinking, no customer will be served more than two drinks, and that patrons should not embarrass servers by requesting more. If it is suggested that this might be an intrusion into the liberty and presumed personal responsibility of the individual, the answer is clear: liberty does not extend to causing harm by an act as heinous as drunk driving, and this is “really” part of the same problem.

Under whatever name we choose, the idea of domain expansion goes far toward explaining the construction of contemporary vices and problems, which are consistently portrayed in the context of some generally accepted danger or evil, such as rape, child abuse, or AIDS. It explains why a country music label withdrew a song in which a woman declared, “Sometimes I say no when I mean yes.” (The logic runs as follows: Rape is an unquestioned evil. The attitude expressed in the song supports male assumptions that lead to rape. Ergo the song is part of the rape problem.) It explains why looking at “dirty pictures” is no longer wrong because it leads to the sin of Onan and the condemnation of God. (The pictures treat women as objects, supporting attitudes that lead to rape. Ergo. . . . ) Sexual propositioning or teasing is harassment, which is part of the rape problem. Reacting to a hostile Nation review of her bizarre and badly argued book on pornography and free speech, feminist ultra Catharine MacKinnon has now declared that the review itself is morally equivalent to a direct sexual assault upon her person. The logic of such arguments is often so contorted that a term like the “New Puritanism” appears woefully inadequate. If historical analogies are sought, why not the New Scholasticism, or Neo-Casuistry?

The banners and prohibitors have their own systematic patterns of logic and rhetoric, but the true motivation of the movement remains uncertain. Why did matters begin to change so sharply in the early 1980’s? It might be suggested that there were objective changes that led to the social environment becoming more dangerous and requiring greater caution. AIDS was a newly recognized phenomenon at this time, and the social use of cocaine probably did reach unparalleled heights around 1980, with penetration into upper- and middleclass white circles. It was also about this time that scientific evidence of the deleterious effects of passive smoke inhalation had accumulated to the point where it had to be taken seriously.

On the other hand, it is difficult to avoid the impression that the media at least were already looking for such menaces to terrify people into sobriety. In the two or three years before the immense publicity accorded to AIDS, exactly the same rhetoric had been developed on the subject of herpes (“uncontrollable,” “incurable,” “imminent epidemic”), and the cocaine panic had already been preceded by a scare campaign over the deluge of nearly pure heroin that was allegedly about to sweep the country in the 1980’s. Does anyone today remember either heroin or herpes? Both problems were briefly used as ideological terror weapons to encourage sobriety and sexual restraint before the appearance of the still more effective moral deterrents of AIDS and cocaine. MADD, founded in 1980, achieved an instant respect that had not been accorded to the cranks of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union since the collapse of their favored panacea of Prohibition in 1933.

Rather than a considered or rational response to newly perceived problems, the recent wave of puritanism can more plausibly be seen as a revival of deeply entrenched attitudes within American culture, ideas that are ultimately religious in their origins but that survive vigorously after the decay of the overt religious and moral contexts that would earlier have been used to justify them. Without such explicitly religious warrants (“The Bible says it’s wrong”), prohibitions have had to be justified in utilitarian terms that become ever more questionable as definitions of “harm” are stretched to their limits and beyond. Attempts to formulate secular warrants for moral enforcement have led advocates to profoundly antidemocratic and majoritarian conclusions, which neglect long-accepted assumptions about the right of the individual to pursue his or her own moral course.

Observers of contemporary social conditions will find much that is familiar in the circumstances that gave rise to John Stuart Mill’s 1859 tract On Liberty, which remains the classic defense of individual rights in the face of morality laws. During the mid-19th century, there had developed a vigorous movement to use the criminal law to enforce public morality in matters like sexuality, literary censorship, and the consumption of alcohol. Then as now, this puritanical movement originated in the United States but spread throughout the Western world. To reinforce resemblances to our own day, the Victorian plague of righteousness to which Mill was reacting was also fueled in large measure by feminist sentiment and rhetoric.

Though Mill’s work is far more complex than a simple attack on attempts to prohibit alcohol, it is the political aspirations of the Temperance movement that provided him with his most effective ease-study of majoritarianism. His conclusion is well known: that individuals should have the right to do what they wish, as long as this behavior does not adversely affect others in the community, a distinction that leads Mill to support laws that restrict public drunkenness or that require the registration of poison sales. On the same grounds, this celebrated libertarian might have favored gun control in contemporary conditions, but that is debatable.

What is less well known about On Liberty is that the work offers one of the finest accounts available of the psychology of the would-be morality police, a complex of attitudes and prejudices that Mill dissects with superlative skill. He focuses special venom on the doctrine of “social rights,” the claim by Temperance advocates that there were secular philosophical grounds for prohibiting behaviors such as the drinking of alcohol. In this view, the private vice of another person “destroys my primary right of security, by constantly creating and stimulating social disorder. It invades my right of equality . . . it impedes mv right to free moral and intellectual development.” For Mill, this implied a claim “that it is the absolute social right of every individual that every other individual shall act exactly in every respect exactly as he ought: that whosoever fails thereof in the smallest particular violates my social right and entitles me to demand from the legislature the removal of the grievance.” The principle is “monstrous”: “there is no violation of liberty which it would not justify; it acknowledges no right to any freedom whatever, except perhaps to that of holding opinions in secret, without ever disclosing them.” It may be superfluous to add that the “social rights” doctrine has now achieved near-canonical status in American political orthodoxy and is applied ruthlessly not merely to matters of substance abuse but to relations between genders and ethnic groups. Over a century before “political correctness” became a cliche, Mill had isolated and described the virus. “The doctrine ascribes to all mankind a vested interest in each other’s moral, intellectual and even physical perfection, to be defined by each claimant according to his own standard.”

Mill was addressing not merely the flaws of legislation but “the limits to the authority of society over the individual [my emphasis].” He well recognized the stultifying power of social pressures to conform, even if they were not actually codified into law. In our own day, it is a nice question whether the greater dangers to individual liberties come from legislatures and bureaucracies or the pressure groups that demand universal conformity to their particular interests, all in the name of “social rights,” “social responsibility,” “communitarianism,” the “politics of meaning,” or whatever Clintonesque cant is devised to impose the fads of the New Puritanism. As the 20th century ends, do we really have to refight the libertarian battles of the mid-19th?