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.