The Independence Institute’s Jon Caldara recently hosted a debate on social conservatism on his PBS KBDI 12 show Independent Thinking.
His two guests were State Sen. Ted Harvey, a Republican representing the south Denver suburb of Highlands Ranch, and Kevin Miller of the National Freedom Initiative, a new think tank.
Miller’s argument, also presented in a November newsletter of the Centennial Institute, held that the national scene was not the proper venue for social conservative policies.
Harvey proved more sophisticated than Miller. In a discussion of prayer in schools, he zeroed in on the contradiction in a libertarianism that would have the federal government forbid localities from acting as they see fit.
Miller floundered at this point, departing from his initial federalism to argue against the specifics of school prayer. This made clear his individualist stand on some local matters as well.
Jon Caldara, a libertarian himself, sniffed out Miller’s superficiality by asking for specific instances of social conservatism on the federal level.
This led Miller to attempt to associate anti-drug laws with social conservatives specifically. Harvey parried by defining that position as a social issue that has broad appeal.
Miller, noting that people disagree on the definition of virtue, simply asserted a principle of freedom except in cases of harm to person or property.
Of course people disagree on the definition of virtue, but they disagree on the definition of “liberty” and “harm” as well. The harm principle risks creating a split between a libertarian public persona and a conservative private life. At worst, the public persona overtakes private conservatism to the point where, as the joke goes, your morals are so private you don’t even impose them on yourself.
One weakness for principled thinkers is a tendency towards ridiculous extremes. One is always ready with an answer, even when one should take into account the particulars of a situation or the possibility that one’s principles are incomplete. Miller tended towards this error, an inevitable risk for a viewpoint capable of full description in an e-mail signature.
For his part, Harvey became stuck repeating the obvious fact that every law is a moral law. This was useful in parrying someone like Miller, but substantial defenses of individual matters are also necessary.
All involved in the discussion were too quick to claim social conservatives as natural allies of fiscal conservatism. They should read Lydia McGrew’s doubts about the existence of social liberals who are fiscal conservatives.
The Independent Thinking disputants seemed only half-conscious of the dominance social conservatism once enjoyed across party lines. Capitalist ideologues’ hatred for the traditional family is likely unknown to the parties.
The association of social conservatism with the Republican Party is in some ways an accident of history. Had feminists decided to stay with the Republicans, or had they not established dominance in the Democrats, social conservatism could have had better bipartisan prospects.
Miller’s National Freedom Initiative will work to keep social conservatives subordinate to libertarian concerns. This may be good for short-term Republican political prospects. However, this will hinder the long-term prospects for social conservatism.
Miller was more eager to make converts. Sen. Harvey’s hands-off attitude towards localities is useless if no one is willing to make positive arguments in favor of conservative ideals and customs.
Harvey himself realized this, saying “The reason why we have the problems we do is because the left has been successful in their virtue politics and the right has been… absent.”
Among the standard libertarian arguments repeated by Miller was the idea that social conservatives’ desire to “legislate virtue” provides an opening for left-wing attempts to give their own views the force of law. His Centennial Institute essay even suggests that the attempts to ban homosexual counterfeits of marriage could be a trap that allows “secularists” to pass laws branding “opposite-sex marriage as a ‘hate’ institution.”
This naïve libertarianism is an abdication of reason and politics. The fanatical secularist must be opposed on his own terms. Conservative laws may make secularists more zealous to overturn them, but they also create an obstacle to their progress. If they were still fighting public obscenity laws, they would be too distracted and powerless to shut down Catholic adoption programs.
The decline of social conservatism, not its non-libertarian principles, created the opportunity for leftist expansion. The collapse of the family and the decline of religion have taken place alongside the growth of the welfare state and the inability to self-govern.
Libertarians were accessories to these lamentable happenings, part of their long tradition of political obliviousness.
Some now support same-sex civil unions, or even “marriages,” as extensions of personal liberty. This allows liberals to pass a non-discrimination law at the city level barring government contractors from refusing benefits to civil partnerships. Then a few years later at the state level, they mandate that all businesses provide benefits to these civil unions.
In response comes a paltry libertarian protest, without the self-awareness that they helped bring this predictable government expansion to pass by rejecting conservative objections.
Without conservatism institutionalized in private organizations, businesses and governments, there are few bases of power to capably oppose cultural leftism. Harvey, though often a fine advocate for his cause, showed little awareness about building this institutional conservatism.
Miller showed strong, if unwitting, dedication to eroding its foundations. He has proposed that conservatives self-limit themselves when their liberal opponents show no such willingness. That is unilateral disarmament and a recipe for continued defeat in the culture wars.
Twitter: @joncaldara @TedHarvey @kevinjjones