pornRecently former Canadian political advisor Tom Flanagan came under fire for comments that suggested support for the decriminalization of viewing child pornography. Speaking to a University of Lethbridge audience, he stated: “I certainly have no sympathy for child molesters, but I do have some grave doubts about putting people in jail because of their taste in pictures… It is a real issue of personal liberty, to what extent we put people in jail for doing something in which they do not harm another person.”

This comment was made in response to a question he was asked about a 2009 statement in which he had said: “That’s actually another interesting debate or seminar: what’s wrong with child pornography — in the sense that it’s just pictures?”

In the ensuing outrage, Mr. Flanagan was disinvited from the prestigious Manning Conference, dropped by the CBC as a commentator, disavowed by the conservative governments he once advised, had his retirement from his job with the University of Calgary announced (although apparently that had been decided before the controversy broke), and was roundly condemned in virtually every media outlet in Canada.

He later apologized for the remarks, saying that: “I absolutely condemn the sexual abuse of children, including the use of children to produce pornography. These are crimes and should be punished under the law. Last night, in an academic setting, I raised a theoretical question about how far criminalization should extend toward the consumption of pornography. My words were badly chosen… I apologize unreservedly to all who were offended by my statement, and most especially to victims of sexual abuse and their families.”

Despite his apology, it is impossible to dismiss what he said about child pornography for the simple reason that we have no grounds to conclude that his original statements were anything less than sincere. In political speeches there are two kinds of mistakes. The first is saying what you do not mean to say nor believe, and the second is saying what you really believe but do not mean to say. While Flanagan’s few defenders (for example here, here and here), many of whom I otherwise deeply respect and admire, are twisting themselves into mental pretzels to make the case that his remarks fall into the first category, all the evidence points squarely to the second.

Flanagan was regarded as one of a group of “conservative professors” at the University of Calgary, but his remarks betray a philosophy which, while entirely at odds with traditional conservatism, has crept into the movement through the backdoor. They also betray either a wilful blindness or staggering disregard for the realities of what child pornography is and how it is produced.

To take the second point first. Child pornography is a $3-billion a year industry which represents 20% of available pornography and, according to the UN, may involve up to 100,000 children. It has expanded hugely in recent years. In addition, the images created are getting worse and more abusive. According to a report by the Internet Watch Foundation as reported by “The fastest growing demand in commercial websites for child abuse is for images depicting the worst type of abuse, including penetrative sexual activity involving children and adults and sadism or penetration by an animal.”

The US Department of Justice in a 2010 Report to Congress found that: “The children whose abuse is captured in child pornography images suffer not just from the sexual abuse graphically memorialized in the images, but also from a separate victimization, knowing that the images of that abuse are accessible.. The shame suffered by the children is intensified by the fact that the sexual abuse was captured in images easily available for others to see and revictimizes the children by using those images for sexual gratification. Unlike children who suffer from abuse without the production of images of that abuse, these children struggle to find closure and may be more prone to feelings of helplessness and lack of control, given that the images cannot be retrieved and are available for others to see in perpetuity. They experience anxiety as a result of the perpetual fear of humiliation that they will be recognized from the images.”

To state or imply, therefore, that the consumption of child pornography is a victimless crime is patently false. Not only does the existence of those images cause ongoing trauma for the victims (this New York Times article goes into considerable detail about this trauma from the perspective of two victims), the financial return generated by the consumption, either through direct purchase or advertising dollars, incentivizes and therefore causes further abuse.

The second point at issue is the philosophical one, the libertarian idea Flanagan put forward that: “It is a real issue of personal liberty, to what extent we put people in jail for doing something in which they do not harm another person.”

Notable libertarian commentator, John Stossel, defined libertarians this way: “We want government to largely leave us alone, protect our personal security, but then to butt-out, leave us free to pursue our hopes and dreams, as long as we don’t hurt anybody else.”

Without accusing him of concurring with Flanagan’s conclusions, it is a splendid and succinct definition of the philosophy that led to them. It results in blindness to the unintended — though highly probable — consequences of “looking at pictures”. More fundamentally, it supposes that society cannot exclude any behaviour until its harm is irrefutably demonstrated — a process that can involve interminable studies and arguments over the evidence, and often leaves children the hostages of adult desires.

A genuinely conservative approach to the common good finds a balance between personal liberty and some non-negotiable principles, especially regarding human life and dignity, that would prevent harm.

The growing tendency for conservatives to adopt a libertarian stance on moral issues is fraught with danger for the most vulnerable members of society. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, leader of the country’s Conservative Party (and formerly advised by Tom Flanagan) has been reluctant, for example, to address issues such as abortion and gay marriage, despite the hope of many who elected him that he would attempt to put limits to liberties claimed under these headings.

Yes, not everything that hurts, or could hurt, or contributes to the hurt of someone rises to the level of criminality. However, the claim “it doesn’t hurt anybody else” is often a chimera that cloaks real harm, and complicity should not be exempt from legal consequences on the grounds of “personal liberty”.

Flanagan’s defenders need to stop making excuses for him, and face up to the fact that his attitude to child porn is a consistent, if extreme, outworking of libertarian principles.

Rebekah Hebbert is an economics student living in Ontario, Canada.

Rebekah Hebbert is a Canadian student and writer. Home-schooled all her life, she is now embarked on the wonderful world of accelerated distance learning as an economics student, while...