How can I say this? Surely we know the Republican response: “Think of the grim alternative! Congressional committees dominated or chaired by radicals like John Conyers and Charles Rangel, by regulatory control freaks like John Dingell—who said he can’t tell the difference between Hezbollah and Israel—and by enemies of free enterprise like Henry Waxman. Imagine Maxine Waters’s anger and nutty conspiracy theories further unleashed in the halls of the Judiciary Committee. Imagine the King of Pork, Sen. Robert Byrd—whose goal is to empty the federal treasury into West Virginia—lording over appropriations; leftist totem Teddy Kennedy overseeing the welfare state; and elitist par excellence John Kerry legislating about small businesses. Imagine the national political agenda set by Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. And consider one word to frighten all: Hillary.”
Yes, indeed, it’s a scary prospect.
But could we be getting something similar under the Republicans, only at a more leisurely pace?
Many traditional conservative Republicans have rightly beaten up on the Bush administration for profligatespending and for instituting huge new welfare programs. Meanwhile, the public has lost patience with the White House’s seemingly incoherent foreign policy. Facing the coming election, many Republicans are panicking.
We expect shifting political fortunes whenever a party has been in power for a while. Yet the problems for the GOP are more than just temporary eddies in the political stream. That’s because its decades-old Cold War coalition of libertarians and traditional conservatives has broken down, and is being supplanted by a seemingly odd alliance of neoconservatives and social conservatives who explicitly reject the Goldwater-Reagan, pro-individualist, limited-government vision of America.
If the Republican Party continues to move in this direction, what’s left of its intellectual foundations will collapse, along with its political fortunes. What it needs urgently is a firm philosophical foundation based explicitly on the moral right of individuals to live for their own sakes—the principle that is the implicit ethical bedrock of the United States.
The Right Stuff
Political success depends on promoting the right ideas at the right time in the right environment. Sometimes, the right ideas are ahead of their time. But true leaders will articulate them even in the face of ridicule or short-term political failure, for if they remain silent, those ideas will never take root in the cultural soil and be ready to spring forth when the climate is right.
For the modern political right, it always begins with Barry Goldwater.
His 1960 book, The Conscience of a Conservative, served as the manifesto that propelled Goldwater to the 1964 Republican nomination for president. Yes, he lost that election, big time. But his ideas gave rise to the activists and think tanks that paved the way for his successor, Ronald Reagan.
To Goldwater Republicans, individual liberty was the end of political society.
Goldwater wrote that “the first thing…[a conservative] has learned about man is that each member of the species is a unique creature. Man’s most sacred possession is his individual soul.” Secondly, “the economic and spiritual aspects of man’s nature are inextricably intertwined. He cannot be economically free...if he is enslaved politically; conversely, man’s political freedom is illusory if he is dependent for his economic needs on the state.” And finally, “man’s development, in both its material and spiritual aspects, is not something that can be directed by outside forces. Every man, for his individual good and for the good of society, is responsible for his own development. The choices that govern his life are choices that he must make; they cannot be made by any other human being, or by a collectivity of human beings.”
These ideas found their way straight into the 1964 Republican Party platform:
- Every person has the right to govern himself, to fix his own goals, and to make his own way with a minimum of governmental interference.
- It is for government to foster and maintain an environment of freedom encouraging every individual to develop to the fullest his God-given powers of mind, heart and body; and, beyond this, government should undertake only needful things, rightly of public concern, which the citizen cannot himself accomplish. …
- Within our Republic the Federal Government should act only in areas where it has Constitutional authority to act, and then only in respect to proven needs where individuals and local or state governments will not or cannot adequately perform.
Despite philosophical imprecision and some implicit contradictions (which were to have dire long-term consequences for his brand of conservatism), Goldwater presented not just a concrete guide for public policy, but a different political vision of a good society. At its center: the individual.
To Goldwater Republicans, individual liberty was the end of political society, and the core purpose of government was to protect the freedom of the individual. This was in keeping with the philosophy of America’s Founders. The Declaration of Independence speaks of individuals, not of collectives or communities, “endowed with certain unalienable rights.”
Goldwater was both behind the times and ahead of them. Most Americans living during that period would no doubt give a nod to those general sentiments. But during the 1960s and early ’70s, many also believed that problems in society—poverty, crime, racism—were caused by alleged free market failures. If governments could just intervene here and there, they could correct those problems and still leave us relatively free and prosperous.
The Johnson-Nixon era of “big government” programs, however, proved to be a practical disaster: they slowed the economy, tied up businesses in regulatory red tape, over-taxed the middle class, and created social problems even worse than those they sought to cure. The time was right for new ideas.
Americans didn’t turn to more of the same, as did so many Europeans, because Ronald Reagan articulated a bold vision consistent with that of Goldwater and America’s Founders: “Government,” he said, “is the problem, not the solution.” Rather than promise more government programs for a public too addicted to them, Reagan spoke of rolling back the state—for example, shutting down the Departments of Education and Energy.
After its preamble outlining the failures of the Democrats, the 1980 Republican Party platform offered a ringing Reaganesque affirmation of the party’s individualist foundations:
Free Individuals in a Free Society
It has long been a fundamental conviction of the Republican Party that government should foster in our society a climate of maximum individual liberty and freedom of choice. Properly informed, our people as individuals or acting through instruments of popular consultation can make the right decisions affecting personal or general welfare, free of pervasive and heavy-handed intrusion by the central government into the decision-making process. This tenet is the genius of representative democracy.
In 1980, the threat to freedom did not come only from the federal government, however, but from Soviet Communism as well. The weakness of the Democratic Party in countering that threat only encouraged it. For Reagan and the Republicans, Soviet Communism was both evil and aggressive. Like the overly intrusive federal government, it too had to be opposed and rolled back. This principled vision, articulated with the exceptional skills of the Great Communicator, brought Reagan a rousing victory.
The Winning Coalition
How was that victory achieved? Political philosophy is one thing. Translating it into a winning political coalition is quite another. Yet that’s just what happened, starting with Goldwater and culminating with Reagan. During those years, three factions competed for supremacy within the ideological coalition that made up the Republican Party.
The first element could be loosely described as libertarians. These were optimistic children of the Enlightenment who, with Jefferson, saw the potential of free minds and free markets. They regarded the protection of individual liberty as the goal of government, especially in the economic realm, though most strongly favored personal liberty as well. Their thinking drew upon great economists such as Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, and Milton Friedman, philosopher Ayn Rand
, and the Natural Law tradition of America’s Founders. This libertarian element saw the rule of law, and constitutional governments limited by individual rights and by checks and balances, as the best means to secure individual liberty.
“Government is part of the problem, not the solution.” –Ronald Reagan
The second element, the more traditional conservatives, tended to acknowledge the importance of the individual, but were motivated primarily by fear of power and the unrestrained individual ego, and by what they saw as the limits of human reason. They regarded the abuses of a Hitler or Stalin as manifestations of the same evil: unbridled human arrogance. Traditionalists found inspiration in Edmund Burke, who envisioned religion, customs, traditions, and non-governmental institutions (e.g., families, fraternal organizations, private property, and churches) as ways to restrain the ego, and to provide a nurturing environment in which individuals could develop their virtues and live productive lives.
Most libertarians also acknowledged the importance of such private institutions, though with an emphasis on the adjective “private.” Traditionalists and libertarians thus could agree upon the rule of law and constitutionally limited government as institutional barriers to the abuse of power. These shared premises provided the basis for a winning—if at times uneasy—political coalition.
But a third element within the Party consisted of social conservatives, who believed that governments should actively promote private virtue and morality. In truth, the boundary lines between social conservatives and traditionalists were murky. Often, the same conservatives who favored limits on government in economic affairs also harbored social conservative attitudes regarding personal moral issues, as well. They wanted government to limit free speech, censor books, and ban certain sexual practices and other personal behavior—especially abortion—that they believed to be morally wrong.
But most mainstream Republicans—even some who shared such views—were more pragmatic and “moderate.” They regularly paid lip service to the narrow policy concerns of social conservatives, but rarely tried to implement their moral agenda into law. The most militant social conservatives, who opposed individual liberty outright, remained on the margins of the Republican Party.
Such was the broad “conservative” coalition that, in 1980, spearheaded the electoral victory of Ronald Reagan.
Clouding “the Vision Thing”
Reagan’s presidency was a success—certainly when gauged against the disastrous Carter years. Under his administration, taxes were cut, spurring nearly a decade of economic expansion. Employment jumped from 99.5 million in 1982 to nearly 119 million by 1990, with GDP growth averaging nearly 4.5 percent annually in real terms. Inflation, out of control under Carter, plunged and was held in check. Furthermore, beginning in 1989, communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions, with a strong push from Reagan’s rearmament program and moral leadership.
But sadly, the rollback of communism abroad was not accompanied by a rollback of the size and scope of the federal government at home. Overall federal spending and deficits soared during the Reagan years.
Many Republicans thought initially that the next president, George H.W. Bush, would simply be a less articulate version of the Gipper. After all, while campaigning, Reagan’s vice president had learned enough from the master to announce, in no uncertain terms, “Read my lips: No new taxes.”
But, in retrospect, Bush’s admission that he never really understood “the vision thing” helps to explain the unprincipled pragmatism that was to follow. Bush broke his no-tax pledge. He unleashed a torrent of new government programs and restrictions: the Clean Air Act amendments, the American with Disabilities Act, and a “wetlands” protection policy that put the welfare of swamps, mud, and mosquitoes before the property rights of individuals.
Too bad that swamps, mud, and mosquitoes couldn’t vote in his 1992 re-election bid. Bush’s lack of any principled vision engendered disgust in the Republican coalition. Reduced to lame pleas for a “kinder, gentler America,” Bush was defeated handily by Bill Clinton.
Contracts and Coalitions
The first two years of Clinton’s administration saw a fight against socialized medicine that re-energized Republicans and refocused them on their limited government values. Their candidates ran as a national party in 1994, rallying around the “Contract with America.” This document was developed by House Republicans led by Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, and Tom Delay, and much of its content came from Reagan’s 1985 inaugural address. By and large, it was a list of policies to rein in an irresponsible, out-of-control Congress and federal government. (Full disclosure here: As a Joint Economic Committee staffer, I worked on the part of the Contract that became the Job Creation and Wage Enhancement Act.)
While few parts of the Contract were put into law, most were voted on, and significant congressional reforms were enacted. Further, gridlock with the Clinton administration and a pragmatic president—who stated, disingenuously, that the “era of big government is over”—actually slowed the growth of some federal spending.
During the 1990s, Grover Norquist—the head of Americans for Tax Reform, a top Republican strategist, and a skilled alliance-builder—articulated a winning limited-government vision for his party, in the spirit of Goldwater and Reagan. He called it the “leave us alone coalition.”
Libertarians saw the potential of free minds and free markets.
It’s easy to see how libertarians and pro-free marketers would fit into a coalition to constrain government power. Even traditional conservatives who feared “big government” could find such a movement appealing. But what of social conservatives, the “religious right,” and those whose main concerns were value issues? One way they were wooed to participate in the coalition was through efforts to eliminate tax policies that discriminated against married couples. Another was through combating interventionist policies especially harmful to families. For instance, trade restrictions that drive up the costs of shoes and clothing more likely harm families with lots of kids than they do Gucci-clad yuppies, while dairy programs that drive up prices literally deprive babies of milk.
The “leave us alone coalition” also argued that, at minimum, governments shouldn’t use the force of law to push values or activities that social conservatives find morally offensive, or that undercut or discriminate against their own personal values. For example, public schools that propagandize for gay rights and acceptance, but ban recognition of Mother’s and Father’s Day, or of Christmas, were not “value neutral,” but were attempting to undermine the values of conservative parents. Parental choice in education and home schooling could address those concerns.
Abortion was and still is an issue that seems to allow for no compromise: either you favor a woman’s right to choose whether or not to terminate her pregnancy, or you don’t. But in a leave-me-alone world, governments at least wouldn’t use the dollars of taxpayers to promote a procedure that many of them find morally repugnant.
So “leave us alone” appeared to be a prudent premise upon which to forge another winning political coalition. The only question was whether Republican candidates would embrace that premise.
In His Father’s Shoes?
During the 2000 election campaign, it looked for a while as if George W. Bush had learned from his father’s political mistakes. He courted traditional conservatives; indeed, he considered himself one of them. Appealing to libertarians, he didn’t merely promise not to raise taxes; he promised to cut them. Appealing to social conservatives, Bush emphasized the importance of religion in his personal life: Asked in a debate about his favorite philosopher, he cited Jesus.
Still, concerns remained for libertarians and traditional Goldwater-Reagan conservatives. Chief among them, candidate Bush had called himself a “compassionate conservative.” Was this simply a clever way to sell education vouchers and tax credits, or was this an altruistic echo of his “kinder, gentler,” big-government dad?
Unlike his father, George W. Bush kept his word and cut taxes, which kept the economy humming along. He even adopted, as a major policy goal, the creation of tax-exempt private retirement accounts, into which individuals would be allowed to divert about one-sixth of their tax dollars that normally would go into Social Security. Had this been enacted into law, it would have been an important step towards true Social Security privatization; it certainly would have been the most important domestic achievement of his administration.
But the terrorist attacks of September 11 changed the national priorities and focus, and gave the Bush presidency a new, all-consuming moral mission comparable to Reagan’s assault on communism: fighting the evil of Islamo-fascism. Bush’s strength in the face of attacks and his willingness to bring the war to the enemy initially won him strong public support. However, his administration’s subsequent intelligence errors in judging the WMD threat from Iraq, and blunders in managing Iraq after Saddam’s downfall, have brought about his plunge in the polls.
Now, on the eve of the 2006 elections, pollsters and pundits say that things look grim for the GOP, largely because of what’s been happening in Iraq. But more important for the future of the Republican Party, and for the last party remnants upholding the more individualist aspects of the Goldwater-Reagan legacy, is what’s happening on the domestic front.
“Big Government” is Back
Traditional conservatives as well as libertarians have increasingly criticized President Bush for his “big government” programs. (Their target actually should be unlimited government: it is not the size of a program, but its scope—i.e., its infringement of individual rights—that poses the real threat to liberty.) In contrast to Reagan, who wanted to abolish the federal Department of Education, Bush foisted on the country the “No Child Left Behind” program, giving the federal government even greater power over local educational matters. Bush also created the largest new welfare-state entitlement in decades: the prescription drug benefit. That program’s initial estimated cost was $400 billion, spread over its first decade; but within a month of its enactment, the estimate promptly soared to $650 billion. Domestic spending—excluding defense-related items—grew faster during George W. Bush’s first term than has spending by any president since Lyndon Johnson.
Some might argue in Bush’s defense that elected officials often must hold their noses and support things they don’t like. After all, Reagan inveighed against government spending, but let many spending increases go through. Still, Reagan didn’t initiate a lot of new government programs, and—this is crucial—he did still inveigh against them.
Bush has not voiced anything resembling Reagan’s battle cry against unlimited government.
By contrast, President Bush has given no evidence of holding his nose while approving massive government growth. He has not voiced anything resembling Reagan’s battle cry against unlimited government. He has not exercised his veto power against a single governmental spending program—except for stem cell research. Instead, he has served up a hash of contradictory policies and expansive programs meant to sate the appetites of diverse interest groups—none of them part of the “leave us alone coalition.”
Bush’s wholesale abandonment of individualism and limited government signals the disintegration of the old Goldwater-Reagan coalition of libertarians and traditional conservatives, and, in its place, the rise of a neoconservative/social conservative alliance hostile to individualism.
The Rise of the Neocons
Neoconservatives have lurked in Republican circles for several decades. While some of their specific public policies may overlap with those of the two historic pillars of the Republican coalition, the traditional conservatives and libertarians, they differ with them on fundamental principles.
Irving Kristol, the godfather of the movement, says of neocons: “They are impatient with the Hayekian notion that we are on ‘the road to serfdom.’ Neocons do not feel that kind of alarm or anxiety about the growth of the state in the past century, seeing it as natural, indeed, inevitable.... People have always preferred strong government to weak.... Neocons feel at home in today’s America to a degree that more traditional conservatives do not.” That is why in the neocon pantheon of political heroes, men like “Barry Goldwater are politely overlooked.”
This attitude shouldn’t be surprising. Many of the philosophical fathers of the neocon movement began as disillusioned Marxists of the 1940s and ’50s, and as liberals of the 1960s. These leftist intellectuals never abandoned the altruist-collectivist “ideal,” or the government policies that embodied them: policies meant to deal with what they saw as “market failures”—poverty, crime, racism. To their credit, by the time Reagan took office, the neocons had recognized the practical failures of many of these policies. But they never came to share traditional conservative and libertarian hostility toward the power of government in our individual lives. Quite the contrary.
In fact, neoconservatives are the social engineers of the right. While they might favor particular policies that are more pro-individual than those of the left, the neocon view of government is fundamentally anti-individualistic.
Many neocons ground their view of government in the political thought of German immigrant Leo Strauss. As Irving Kristol explained, Strauss and his followers took many of their cues from Plato and Machiavelli:
Strauss was an intellectual aristocrat who thought that the truth could make some minds free, but he was convinced that there was an inherent conflict between philosophic truth and political order, and that the popularization and vulgarization of these truths might import unease, turmoil and the release of popular passions hitherto held in check by tradition and religion with utterly unpredictable, but mostly negative, consequences.
Kristol added: “There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn't work.”
Can you say “philosopher king,” boys and girls?
Many Republicans argue that it is completely unrealistic to present to the American people a utopian vision of a country with no government welfare—no Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, unemployment insurance, etc.—and actually expect to get elected. Perhaps people can’t handle the truth about laissez faire capitalism, and must be eased into it.
Neoconservatives are the social engineers of the right.
But the neocon outlook is not based on gradualist accommodations to political realities: it is a pro-interventionist worldview. We see that most obviously in the neocon approach to foreign policy. It’s not just the idea of opposing Islamo-fascism—or of striking first if there is strong evidence that America is about to be attacked—or of declaring that it’s morally appropriate for individuals to live under governments that do not torture and kill their own people—or of maintaining that it would be better to have friendly, pro-Western governments in the Middle East. Rather, the neocon approach is based on the arrogance of assuming that the American military (led by neocon planners) can simply impose “democracy” in countries and cultures thoroughly lacking the values, institutions, and attitudes that are the prerequisites to stable, free societies.
Holding democratic elections in a society whose populace does not respect reason and individual aspirations, but which is dominated by religious fanaticism, tribalism, and envy, will not produce individual liberty, the rule of law, and free markets; rather, it will produce the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah.
That arrogant outlook is the hallmark of the social engineer. And, given the neoconservative premises as outlined by Kristol and others, they aim to bring that same attitude of engineering society to American politics.
The Rise of Social Conservatives
This brings us to the other emerging element in the Republican Party.
Rather than focus on restrictions or threats to their own liberty from an intrusive government, social conservatives generally advocate restrictions on the freedom of other individuals. Understandablyfrustrated by the moral decline in civil society and its institutions, they seek to impose their beliefs and values on others by force.
Consider their preoccupation with the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. Now, many Americans view the Pledge as a salute to the country and its greatness, and they hear the words “under God” not as government-endorsed religion, but simply as stirring, patriotic language. For many parents who feel frustrated and helpless over the lousy public schools their kids are forced to attend, and over the relativistic values shoved down their throats there, the Pledge also has become a symbolic issue—a way to assert their desire for more parental control of schools.
But social conservatives insist on keeping the words “under God” in the Pledge, and to compel children to recite it in school, for a more specific reason. Because they believe that religion is a bulwark supporting society against social decay, they often favor government-backed religious indoctrination rather than individual liberty.
This, despite the fact that there is no evidence that forcing students to recite or hear the magic words “under God” each day will help restore the Republic or improve our schools. After all, those words are often repeated by kids so poorly educated by their public schools that they can’t even grasp the Pledge’s meaning.
To focus on keeping a reference to God in the Pledge—or even to compel students to recite it at all—does nothing to address the more basic problems plaguing public education. Teaching children the basic tenets of the Declaration and Constitution in those schools would go much farther toward ensuring the future of individual liberty, limited constitutional government, and the rule of law. But these are not high on the social conservatives’ list of priorities.
Similarly, consider the controversy generated by Alabama State Judge Ray Moore, who set up a display of the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the judicial building in Montgomery. A federal court eventually ordered Moore to remove it, and he was fired when he refused.
Since the rotunda was not Moore’s private property, it was no surprise that limited government supporters thought that he should stick to his courtroom. Social conservatives, though, were outraged by the removal of the Ten Commandments. Some cited “states’s rights” arguments, and voiced frustrations over general abandonment of federalism and Constitutional divisions of powers among the various levels of government. But it is hardly realistic to hope that a religious display in a government building in Alabama will begin the restoration of the Ninth and Tenth amendments.
Again, militant social conservatives have another agenda: not to return us to the rule of law that protects individual liberty, but to impose on all of us their own particular religious doctrines.
Another hot-button issue for social conservatives is same-sex marriages. They cite a litany of supposedly practical worries: that gay partnerships will undermine the family, spread sexually-transmitted diseases, and encourage out-of-wedlock births and broken homes, leading to increases in crime and other social pathologies.
There is no empirical support for such claims. Over past decades, during which there have been no same-sex marriages, the divorce rate among heterosexual couples has jumped to over 50 percent. And whether same-sex marriages are recognized or not, that will not keep homosexual couples from living together, and certainly will not address some of the real causes of broken marriages among heterosexual couples—including no small number of conservative Republicans. Those causes more obviously include a culture that promotes the unthinking indulgence of one’s desires over rational thought, and that relieves individuals from personal responsibility for their own actions and lives.
If gay individuals choose to make a legal cohabitation contract, and to mark their relationship with a ceremony, this does not in any way limit the liberty of other Americans. How are straight couples adversely affected if two gay individuals stand up before family and friends and declare that they are exclusive partners with one another? In fact, encouraging gay monogamy would on its face seem to be a big step towards social stability and slowing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
Traditional conservatives fear the unrestrained individual ego.
Once more, social conservatives seem to be placing symbolism over substance. But again, they do so for a reason. The real issue for them is to define “marriage” by law
in a way consonant with the Bible—and, as a corollary, to withhold legal recognition and protection
from any form of contractual cohabitation incompatible with the biblical definition of marriage.
In short, this is just another effort by social conservatives to write their own religious views and values into statutes, thus imposing them on non-believers by force of law.
Like all Americans, social conservatives have the right to their moral beliefs. But to be consistent, they cannot demand legal protection for their own private beliefs, and yet demand the right to impose their beliefs on others. They cannot consistently claim, for example, that the government must not interfere with the private decision by the Boy Scouts to bar gays from membership, but then simultaneously demand that the government interfere with the private sexual practices of individuals. Either the right to privacy exists for all, or it exists for none.
Yet such contradictions don’t appear to bother social conservatives. On many key issues, they don’t want to protect individual liberty or to limit government, but just the opposite—the opposite of the individualist inclinations of the Goldwater-Reagan coalition.
Santorum the Sanctimonious
Recently, social conservative sentiments have found their most unapologetic voice in Pennsylvania Republican Senator Rick Santorum.
Santorum has gained justified notoriety for rejecting any notion of a constitutional right of privacy, and for comparing gays to child molesters. His version of conservatism draws from the most toxic elements in the philosophical stew served up by the GOP: it’s an ideology that, at its ethical base (though certainly not in policy details) unites Santorum more with Karl Marx than with Adam Smith.
Santorum’s book It Takes a Family is meant to be an answer to Hillary Clinton’s It Takes a Village. But his goal is not to move us away from government or community interference with families. Rather, it is to move us away from government protection of individual liberty.
According to Santorum, “This whole idea of personal autonomy—I don’t think that most conservatives hold that point of view.” Specifically, “One of the criticisms I make is to what I refer to as more of a libertarianish right. The left has gone so far left and the right in some respects has gone so far right that they come around in a circle.” Confusing liberals with libertarians, he goes on: “They have this idea that people should be left alone, be able to do whatever they want to do. Government should keep our taxes down and keep our regulation low and that we shouldn’t get involved in the bedroom, we shouldn’t get involved in cultural issues, you know, people should do whatever they want.”
Santorum will have none of it:
They say “it takes a village” but really what their ideology is based around is the individual. We understand that the basic unit of society is the family, that the individual needs to be nurtured and supported and molded and shaped through this family structure, through the real village, which is the church, the community organizations….
He tops it off by substituting for the “freedom to be left alone” an Orwellian notion of “the freedom to attend to one’s duties—duties to God, to family, and to neighbors.” (In the same vein, Rousseau said we should be “forced to be free.”)
Santorum is a collectivist, only his collective (the family) is different from those of Marx and Hillary. Traditional conservatives and most libertarians acknowledge the importance of families in a free, stable society. But they don’t reject the centrality of the individual.
Santorum’s notion of individualism is, of course, a preposterous straw man. True individualists are committed to independent judgment and self-responsibility. They have such a profound love and respect for their lives and their capacities that they want only the best for themselves. Thus they realize the need for rational thought, self-discipline, integrity, and independence. They do not irrationally screw up their lives and then expect other individuals to take care of them and clean up their messes.
If Santorum thinks that Hillary’s “village” is an individualist haven, he’s clearly been smoking one of the substances he wants to ban. Try, as an individual in Hillary’s village, to opt out of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, and government schools, and to keep the money the government currently takes from you to pay for these things. You’ll feel, very quickly, the heavy boot of her village on your neck.
Worse still, Santorum sees the pursuit of self-interest as morally inexcusable, and holds that the only morally acceptable goal in life is to live for others, for something “higher” than one’s self. What an utterly anti-human—and, in fact, anti-American—doctrine. The United States was founded on the rights of individuals to their own lives, liberty, and pursuit of happiness; but according to Santorum, if they actually do exercise those rights and pursue their self-interest, they are to be condemned as morally reprehensible.
Santorum is just one politician, of course, and no doubt many Republicans don’t share his bizarre opinions. Those opinions are so far outside the intellectual boundaries of the old Goldwater-Reagan party (to say nothing of a morally sound philosophy) that we would expect more Republicans to denounce and distance themselves from him. But those voices are curiously mute.
True, Santorum has an 88 percent lifetime “conservative” rating from the American Conservative Union, meaning that on most votes in Congress he comes down the side of limited government. But certainly not because of any commitment to individualism. If the Republican Party is ever to reclaim its status as the pro-freedom, limited-government party, it would be best if Santorum became a defeated and fading ex-member of Congress, rather than remain a prominent voice for the GOP’s anti-individualist wing.
More important than the electorate’s rejection of Santorum at the polls, though, is his party’s rejection of what he represents. And that rejection couldn’t come too soon.
The Statist Alliance
There are signs that, despite their various differences, neocons and social conservatives are banding together informally, forming a statist alliance within the GOP.
Neocons and social conservatives are forming a statist alliance within the GOP.
For example, consider conservative attacks on Darwinian evolution, and efforts to politicize the matter by pushing the teaching of “creation science” and “intelligent design” in schools. (See my “What Are Creationists Afraid Of?” in the Fall 2005 issue of TNI.
) Ron Bailey, Reason
magazine’s science correspondent, points out that, in the past, only extreme Bible literalists denied—in the face of all evidence—that human beings evolved from lower animals. But in recent decades, neoconservatives, who tend to be a very secular group, have made attacks on Darwin a priority. Why this obsession to promote a silly superstition? Bailey offers Irving Kristol’s cynical pronouncement from nearly five decades ago:
If God does not exist, and if religion is an illusion that the majority of men cannot live without...let men believe in the lies of religion since they cannot do without them, and let then a handful of sages, who know the truth and can live with it, keep it among themselves.
Bailey suggests that neocons attack Darwin in order to preserve what Marx called the “opiate” of religion. Theirs is the mentality that would sacrifice truth to political expediency. But this goal allies neocons—however cynically—with social conservatives, who sincerely believe that no morality is possible if human beings evolved as part of nature, rather than being created by a god.
So, regardless of motive, secular neocons and religious social conservatives stand united in a common goal: to impose their own values on the rest of the nation through the power of government.
Which Way Republicans?
The Republican Party stands at a crossroads—not political, but philosophical. Its flagging, remnant army of Goldwater-Reagan traditionalists and libertarians is under attack from insurgent forces of neoconservative and social conservative statists. In beating back that challenge, however, traditionalists and libertarians face a dire problem: their stockpiles of moral-philosophical ammunition are bare.
Decades ago, in her essay “Conservatism: An Obituary,” Ayn Rand
outlined the futility of traditional conservatism. She repudiated those who would defend liberty on the basis of blind faith, or stale traditions—or the view that human nature is too inherently depraved to trust any man with power (an argument that, in logic, could be turned against allowing any man freedom
, too). Rand dismissed, as well, those whose libertarianism was rooted in a vacuous subjectivism or in pragmatic appeals to capitalism’s “efficiency.”
None of these arguments stand up to scrutiny. None of America’s cultural and political institutions can be rationally, consistently defended by appeals to the conventional ethos of faith, tradition, and self-sacrifice for the sake of something “higher” than the individual.
What Republicans need—what the world needs—is a case for individual liberty grounded in the rational nature and objective requirements of individual human life.
America is a nation based on the ethical premise of the self-actualization of the individual. That means the moral right of individuals to live for their own sakes. That ethical principle is the foundation of our political system of individual rights and limited government, and of our capitalist economic system and its underlying profit motive.
And that’s the moral principle that the better Republicans must grasp, accept, and articulate, clearly and confidently, if the Republican Party is to have a future.
Those “better Republicans” still can be found within the waning Goldwater-Reagan coalition that, in general, favors individual liberty and limited government. But they need to learn that their battles with the emerging neoconservative/social conservative coalition is not a series of mere political skirmishes. It is a moral war for the heart and soul of a political party that was founded to guarantee the rights of all Americans.
If the latter coalition prevails, then our political landscape and future will be dominated by nothing but statists, right and left: by those who wish to restrict individual freedom and run other people’s lives in accordance with their own grandiose notions of a “good society.”
Will the remaining individualists within the once-“Grand Old Party” allow that to happen? Time—and their own philosophical soul-searching—will tell.