“What people do in their private lives is their own business.” That from erstwhile candidate Ross Perot, when he switched gears and said he would not bar homosexuals from his Every election year the same question comes up: Does a politician’s private life have anything to do with his public life? Does it matter if he has committed adultery or smoked pot?

Do these things affect his performance in office?

Perot’s answer—that one’s private life has no effect on one’s public policy—reflects the current political consensus. Democrats said it when questions were raised about Bill Clinton’s “Gennifer connection”; Republicans said it when allegations were made about President Bush’s possible “Jennifer connection.”

While media moguls occasionally stoop to tabloid journalism—the public has a “right to know,” sleaze and all—they, too, maintain editorially that private behavior has no public consequences. Even the usually sensible editor of the National Review, John O’Sullivan, joined the pack, claiming he’d rather be governed by a free-market rogue than a socialist monk.

The argument is admittedly appealing, given today’s obsession with privacy rights. But the distinction between private life and public policy is not always so neat and simple. When a person regularly lives a certain way, habitually makes certain choices, over time that affects the way he or she thinks about things.

Rousseau’S Sad Little Secrets

The consequences can be far-reaching, as one historical example illustrates. Consider Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wrote in 1762 the classic treatise on freedom, The Social Contract, with its familiar opening line: “Man was born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”

But the liberty Rousseau envisioned wasn’t freedom from state tyranny; ...

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