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The Case for Conservatism (vs. Libertarianism)

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Anyone who attended the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last weekend knows that, although Republicans won big in November, the conservative movement is still facing an identity crisis.

There are many facets to this, but one way of looking at it is to say that libertarian ideas are encroaching on conservatism.

Of course, social conservatism -- which I would argue is an implicit component of traditional conservatism (though many Christian conservatives in America were politically dormant prior to the 1970s) -- has been, perhaps, the most vulnerable victim of the political times.

Most people view the arguments relating to conservative social policy simplistically. They hear the term "social conservative" and think only of Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. This perception ignores the fact that conservative social policy has been a fundamental component of traditional conservatism, an intellectual and philosophical movement going back to Edmund Burke (whom most view as the founder of modern conservatism).

You know the negative stereotypes: Conservatives who embrace both fiscal and social conservatism are either prudes who want to tell you how to live -- "bigots" and hate-mongers -- or people who derive their policy positions solely from the Christian Bible (which, depending on your views, may seem either admirable or dangerous).

But what is not widely understood or appreciated is the philosophical rationale for traditional conservatism, especially as it relates to creating a strong and vibrant society. (In may ways, this philosophy actually traces all the way back to Aristotle, whom many view as the father of political conservatism. Though he was a pagan, Aristotle argued that political life requires a moral foundation, and viewed the family as the fundamental political element.)

But before we get too deep into that, it's important to note what conservatism is not.

Liberals tend to set up equality as the highest good. Equality is the end goal of most liberal policy. The conservative asks, "Why does that idea become valued over all others?" Equality is certainly good, but as a highest end and goal, it can lead to devastating consequences.

Likewise, the pure libertarian (as opposed to those of us who have some libertarian leanings) sets up liberty as the highest good. Liberty is the end goal of all policy. The conservative looks to the libertarian and asks, "Why does that idea become valued over all others?" Liberty is obviously a great good, but as the highest end goal, it can also lead to devastating consequences.

The conservative argues that the greatest instructor on what laws should exist in a civil society is human experience. So, it would seem libertarianism hits its own walls when it ventures out of its world of make-believe theories and steps into the world of reality.

Alternatively, traditional conservatives believe the rise and success of Western society was not merely a lucky accident or the result of a couple Enlightenment period thunderbolts, but rather the product of diligent work, trial and error, and human experience -- and in may ways the result of Christian civilization.

As such, they argue that preserving a strong moral order -- an order that took shape over millennia -- is vitally important to a functioning society (including a functioning economic system).

The fact that we have a nation where contracts are honored -- where civilized men don't descend into the anarchy or the "law of the jungle," where payola and murder are acceptable norms -- was not a foregone conclusion but rather the product of a society that was carefully cultivated for centuries.

The late Harvard legal scholar Harold Berman noted that our legal system is a "secular residue of religious attitudes and assumptions which historically found expression first in the liturgy and rituals and doctrine of the church and thereafter in the institutions and concepts and values of the law. When these historical roots are not understood, many parts of the law appear to lack any underlying source of validity."

In some ways, this is humbling, inasmuch as it argues that Western civilization is not great because its people were inherently superior but that it evolved over centuries because its ideas were based on recognizing the realities of human nature.

Of course, the dire financial situation facing our nation has caused many people to become more libertarian. The argument is that we should put social issues on the back burner. But the traditional conservative would argue that a moral breakdown has financial repercussions.

After all, the packaging of rotten mortgage bonds -- and then betting against them -- seems to reinforce John Adams' notion that "Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."

Benjamin Wiker, an author and Catholic ethicist, asserts that "libertarianism is parasitic upon Christian civilization." He means that libertarians take for granted the social order of our current society but ignore the moral foundations of that social order. This order is the product of the accumulated moral wisdom of society -- a bond that is not immune to being destroyed when we become unmoored from these traditional values.

At CPAC, we saw a mixture of Ron Paul conspiratorial extremists and political entrepreneurs battling it out for financial and political reasons: GOProud, David Keene, Tony Perkins, Grover Norquist, etc. But there is no schism -- just people who are conservative and those who are not.

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roujoir

Liberty is the freedom from compulsion or coercion by the government. So how exactly does the author believe this will lead to "devastating consequences"? Is he an advocate for compulsion or coercion by the government? What compulsion or coercion would he advocate?

Also, when social-conservatives talk about 'morality', they're talking about altruism, ie. That self-sacrifice to others, or the sacrifice of others to others, is a virtue. I would however argue that this morality is inherently evil and destructive, simply because it's human sacrifice. There shouldn't be any human sacrifice, neither of your body, your mind, or the products of your mind.

Altruism isn't about giving a beggar a dime; it's about whether you have the right to exist, if you don't give him that dime; that you have to keep buying your life, dime by dime, from any stray vagrant.

Libertarians lack a moral base, and I can understand the author's concern. But let me tell you that there is an alternative - Objectivism.

Objectivism has a moral code (of rational egoism) and has an entire developed philosophy (epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, politics & aesthetics) for living on Earth.

Yes, there is an "objective morality" based upon reason, and this is what Objectivism can offer you Conservatives and Libertarians who crave a moral code, but who have to settle with an evil morality, which at its root is the sacrifice of man to man.

In comparison, Christianity's moral code is one that says "Sacrificing man to man is a virtue, because God said so and Jesus did it" - This is not a rational argument for morality! It's one based on faith - which is the antithesis of reason. So how are you meant to persuade rational individuals to become Conservatives, when irrationality, or some despicable compromise between rationality and irrationality, is all you can offer? And worse, you consequently leave any claim to reason, in the hands of your political opponents - The liberals and progressives.

February 17 2011 at 8:09 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Vern

To make the case for conservatism you have to go beyond establishing the value of the "social order" and it's moral foundations. You must argue how the force and power of Government helps to build and uphold these moral foundations.

Libertarians like myself do not take the social order for granted. We see Government as a threat to the social order, not as a means to build one. All Government has is the power threaten the population with imprisonment and fines and other scare tactics. The more society is based on power and fear, the less of a moral foundation it has.

America in particular has developed such a strong moral foundation precisely because Government has had such a small role (by comparison to other nations) in the development of American society. Americans have been left free to cooperate, to mutually, voluntarily build our our social fabric without any group being able to use the threat of coercion behind their one set of ideas (at least, not for very long). That kind of mutual cooperation is essential to moral foundations, and it is the very last thing Government strong arm tactics will promote.

February 17 2011 at 8:08 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
smarterthanlibs1

How about some Thomas Jefferson quotes?

"I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it."

"An equal application of law to every condition of man is fundamental."

"Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add "within the limits of the law" because law is often but the tyrant's will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual."

"To unequal privileges among members of the same society the spirit of our nation is, with one accord, adverse."

That last one is as if he were talking about Affirmative Action, Jim Crow and same sex marriage directly. When those great legal minds wrote the constitution they wrote it knowing that their current society was still bound by tradition and assumption that was in stark contradiction with it. They did this knowing that over time these contradictions would be, MUST be addressed. Over 200 years later we are still reconciling some of those contradictions. Specifically the right of people to enter into contracts of thier choosing ie: health insurance mandate and same gender marriage. One, the health insurance mandate, seems to be an effort by our federal government at back tracking on freedom and the other, same gender marriage, seems to be a step forward towards more freedom. There is no threat to society from increasing the freedom to create MORE "legal" families rather than fewer. The only agument against it is based in religious tradition not held by all. I seem to remember they addressed passing laws based on religion in the constitution somewhere...

February 17 2011 at 3:08 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Sam

There's another type of a right leaning philosophy that is often ignored. It's called Federalism. It's actually how our country is set up. Let things succeed or fail at the state level. The rest of the states will follow the good ideas and reject the bad ones. It works every time. Unfortunately, people in DC want to apply the same standard to everyone. It just doesn't work.

February 16 2011 at 10:37 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
efleishman

ginione2 [REPLY] HOW DO YOU DEFINE CAPITALISM? IS YOUR CAPITALISM THAT SAYS NO REGULATION OF ANY KIND. ERADICATE UNIONS. ERADICATE PUBLIC EDUCATION SO THAT
WE CREATE AN UNDERCLASS THAT WILL WORK FOR CONTROLLING CORPORATIONS TO MAKE YOU RICH? BACK TO CHILD LABOR? BACK TO HIGH INFANT MORTALITY? UNLIMITED PROFIT TO THE RICH...NOTHING FOR THE POOR. AT THE END OF YOUR PHILOSOPHY WHO BENEFITS MOST?
WHO BENEFITS LEAST? I AM A CAPITLIST. I OWN STOCK IN MAJOR CORPORATIONS. BUT I SEE THE WORLD IN WHICH EVERYONE DESERVES A GOOD LIFE. WHO DEFINES WHAT HARD WORK IS?

February 16 2011 at 12:23 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to efleishman's comment
rob000000

Ummmm...hard work is defined by people who work the hardest. Lots of unhappy emotion in this post--hard to discern the point. To address a "proto-point": I think that you overstate the case by your word choice of "eradication". Me and other conservative-capitalists I know don't want to eradicate education or unions or most anything else. We do, however, want the federal government to be minimized in these things.

February 16 2011 at 1:30 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
efleishman

DESPITE HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES, MOST PROGRESSIVES [LIBERALS, ETC] EVALUATE CONSERVATISM THROUGH THE EYES OF MEDIA IDEOLOGUES. SIMPLISTICALLY STATED:
PRIVATIZATION OF FINANCE, SOCIAL BENEFITS [SOCIAL SECURITY, VET'S ADMIN., PUBLIC EDUCATION, HEALTH CARE,ETC]. NO REGULATION OF ANY KIND. ULTIMATELY, BENEFITS TO THE RICH, NOTHING FOR THE POOR, INCULCATION OF A "CHRISTIAN" SET OF VALUES OVER ANY OTHER, AND ABOVE ALL ERADICATION OF THE MIDDLE CLASS. ALMOST ALL EVIDENCE POINTS TO THE END OF LABOR UNIONS AND REDUCTION OF EDUCATION TO PRODUCE WORKERS
WHO ARE TOTALLY DEPENDENT ON LARGE CORPORATIONS. AT THE END...OLIGARCHY. THE
AMAZING THING IS THAT THE PEOPLE WHO WILL BE HURT THE MOST ARE THOSE WHO FEAR TO BE CALLED "UNAMERICAN" BY THE BECKS AND LIMBAUGHS. ITS A PITY.

February 16 2011 at 12:17 PM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply
Michael

Matt Lewis tiptoed around the problem with social conservatism. The dilemma is that many social conservatives have singled out a few issues which were previously not prominent and have imposed a narrowly religious interpretation on them. Abortion is only a recently widespread issue. For centuries it was a completely acceptible, although dangerous, method of eliminating unwanted pregnancies. And the danger came from the back-alley practices imposed by the "shame" of being pregnant outside of marriage. All of this was a narrowly religious point of view that really had nothing to do with longstanding moral values. (The church condoned abortion for centuries. It only became an issue when medical procedures caught up, making the process much safer. Then suddenly life became a reality at conception. Before that for centuries, life wasn't a reality until birth.) The same mindset is true of homosexuality which was tolerated, even celebrated in the highest councils of the church, until it began to be conducted openly. Suddenly homosexual couples became a threat to marriage. The original moral thesis concerning homosexual activity had nothing to do with men copulating with each other. It had to do with men doing so without also copulating with their wives (plural), which meant that the race would not be expanded. (In times when infant death rates were very high, propagation was a great concern. Again, modern medicine came along and made pregnancy much more sustainable. Therefore, homosexual activity no longer threatened propagation, and there was no social reason to oppose it.) Social conservatism needs to be sustained by its moral principles, not the vagueries of shifting religious posturing. The bottom line is that social conservatism finds its foundation, as Matt Lewis points out, in the fundamentals put forth by Aristotle. They should not be up for revision by whatever religious demagogue is determined to impose his/her own biases.

February 16 2011 at 11:48 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Michael's comment
jpthomosulo

"The church condoned abortion for centuries."

That's just plane false. Please don't site the tired, distorted claim that Aquinas' view of the Aristotelian soul allowed for it. It just isn't there -- at all. The Didache -- a document that dates to the first century of Christianity -- condemns abortion. That view was upheld from Augustine to the modern period.

February 16 2011 at 9:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
oldengineera2

I am comfortable with the concept of a much smaller, less intrusive, more responsive, and sustainable Federal government. I remain struck by the irony that so many who complain about the inadequacies of government clamor for yet more of it.

February 16 2011 at 10:03 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
indyattic

Stop already! The real problem is that the young libertarians are more conservative than the Republicans are these days!

We all know the libertarians are never going to win an election, much less rule the world. However, the SoCons have has their way with the the party for 20 years, and it's seriously leaning left these days. It's time to put that leg back on the bottom of the stool where it belongs.

The Goldwater wing of the party started CPAC, so it's really pretty funny to hear the Rockefeller Republicans crying that the definition of conservative now belongs to them, especially since it isn't the Libertarians running the show these days - it's the message from the FiCons that's drawing them in.

Yes there are a lot of young libertarians in the party, but history shows that they will turn into traditional conservatives as they mature. No point in running them off.

Additionally, they share a lot of the same goals that the SoCons do. I don't know a single Ron Paul supporter who isn't pro-life, which is more than Mitt Romney can bring to the party.

February 16 2011 at 9:50 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to indyattic's comment
tplapper

Indyattic Excellent post. These days Goldwater would be considered a Libertarian. Romney flip flopping on abortion is quite puzzling. I've never met a Mormon who wasn't pro-life from the start.

February 16 2011 at 3:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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