In Defense of Social Conservatism

If you'd told my hardline libertarian, militantly atheistic Objectivist self of the past that I'd be ever write a defense of socially conservative political views, I'd probably have called you crazy in between fits of laughter and remarks about how that particular group of people was a roadblock to human evolution. Which goes to show that everyone must sometimes eat crow.

There's been a lot of talk about how Governor Sanford's recent scandal impugns the authority of social conservatives to discuss how terrible infidelity, abortion, homosexuality and post-1960's sexual morality are. The usual suspects have already got in their obligatory sneers, but what's more surprising is how quick various members of this website have jumped on the bandwagon. No accounting for taste, but they're wrong.

As I never tire of reminding people, most of the conflicts on the Right today have happened before. The desire to rid our side of social conservatives is no exception. Frank Meyer actually wrote an essay entitled "A Rebel in Search of Tradition" in which he savaged Russell Kirk for being culturally authoritarian and thus socialist by proxy. Friedrich Hayek leveled the accusation that "conservatism has compromised with socialism and stolen its thunder" at traditionalists. In the end, Meyer's fusionism resolved the dispute, but the tensions remained, to the point that Murray Rothbard and Russell Kirk both tried to write each other out of the movment in the same issue of the same magazine. Kirk accused Rothbard's libertarians of being "chirping sectaries" who could never agree and were Satanic in their opposition to authority, whereas Rothbard wrote that fusionism was really a "libertarian manque" intended to keep those stupid traditionalists quiet. And even though any time social conservatism was dumped, it resulted in disastrous political alienation (see also the rise of the New Right in response to Gerald Ford), and anytime fiscal conservatism was dumped it resulted in political failure and division on the Right (George W. Bush), people still try and write both sides out.

But enough about history. Let's deal with the question at hand - why should the infidelity of Mark Sanford merit the expulsion of social conservatives? Perhaps I'm being willingly obtuse, but I can't remember a single time when any socially conservative Senator, Representative, Governor, President or dog-catcher has suggested that adultery be made illegal. I've also never heard a single Democratic Representative, Senator, Governor or President advocate adultery as a social good - in fact, unlike Sanford, some of them will even put themselves at the risk of impeachment to avoid admitting to it. Hypocrisy? You bet. But if we threw out every political idea that had a high profile hypocrite advocate it at some point, then we'd have nothing left to advocate at all.

The impulse to throw hypocrites out is a healthy one. The impules to throw out everyone but the hypocrites is not - it is a symptom of desperation. Suppose the Republican party followed the advice of all the people who said abandoning social conservatism because of the Mark Sanfords of the world was a good idea. Imagine the message that sends - "Alright, you've got us, husbands can't keep their pants up and we're not going to claim they should." Imagine the fun Robert Gibbs would have with that. Imagine how many voters, both socially conservative and otherwise, we'd never be able to get on our side again.

The mere fact that Sanford's so-called "hypocrisy" is getting so much airtime is the best argument for believing in a politics of morality one could ever want. As Rush Limbaugh pointed out yesterday, "Hypocrisy does two things, both at the same time: Hypocrisy shows -- and you're not going to want to hear this. You're not going to want to agree with me on this.  I know you're not.  But hypocrisy shows that there are moral values in a culture.  Without moral values in a culture, it would not be possible for anybody to be a hypocrite.  The fact that we are calling Sanford a hypocrite is the proof that there are still standards of dignity and morality that apply in our society." Or, to put it even more bluntly, hypocrisy is the one thing which liberals have not been able to turn into a lifestyle choice. 

It's true that social conservatism puts us in a difficult position. You never hear about the pro-choice Democratic "hypocrites" who forbid their daughters from getting abortions. You never hear about the college professors who are rich and still say property is theft. Even when you do, it doesn't do anything. You don't see the Democrats arguing that they should drop opposition to corporate corruption because Chris Dodd got caught. When Bill Clinton cheated on Hillary or when Elliot Spitzer paid to become "Love Client Number Nine", you may notice there was just as much outrage, if not more, than what has accrued in response to Governor Sanford. Whatever we may do on blogs, putting partisan spin on a personal tragedy alienates average people because it looks cynical, heartless and petty. Making partisan spin on a personal tragedy the basis for a massive philosophical shift is politically and philosophically counterproductive because it makes your party look like a collection of gutless wimps who allow the worst members of their party to dictate moral standards.

In his article, Max Borders argues that while cheating on one's wife is a morally disastrous act, "there are egregious moral acts the discovery of which no politician should survive...legal bedroom behavior between consenting adults ain’t one of them." It is lucky, therefore, that nobody on the Right, Left or anywhere in between is suggesting government rationing or regulation of sex. They simply suggest that sexual habits and character may be linked. It may be true that, as Mr. Borders says, Jerry Falwell's form of public moralizing has caused the GOP more harm than good. This is not an argument for abandoning one's argument. It is an argument for changing the rhetoric and presentation of it, because we no longer live in the age of moral panic that characterized the 80's. Pro-choice advocates do not abandon their argument because Margaret Sanger once took their side on the grounds that blacks should be exterminated. One can be right for the wrong reasons, and there are plentiful examples of more "libertarian" Republicans who are anti-abortion or even anti-gay marriage who are not cheating scum.

In short, it is political suicide to abandon social conservatism at a time when our most zealous supporters are socially conservative, and when a good majority of even the fiscal conservatives hold socially conservative views. It is also logically fallacious to suggest that because one person violates a set of standards, the standards are therefore invalid. Finally, it is philosophically disastrous to conflate a refusal to regulate certain things because they are not capable of being regulated with abandonment of the moral arguments against them as reflections of an individual's character.

The GOP needs libertarians more than libertarians need the GOP right now

Republicans need libertarians more than libertarians need Republicans.  It's time for libertarians - fiscally conservative, socially tolerant people who advocate limited government and individual freedom - to start fighting back. - Jon Henke

There are all sorts of self-described libertarians out there: Ron Paul libertarians, Libertarian Party libertarians, Club for Growth libertarians, Cato libertarians, Reason libertarians, Next Right libertarians, Neal Boortz libertarians and Lew Rockwell libertarians.  There are also millions of people who don't even know they are libertarians.

During the Goldwater-Reagan years, Republicans knew they needed libertarian votes to win the White House.  After George H. W. Bush disregarded his "read my lips" pledge, libertarians felt pretty isolated until the Republican Revolution.  Once the Republican Party gained control of Congress, libertarians and the goals of the Republican Revolution were simultaneously flushed down the commode of win-at-all-costs politics.

Republican leaders were warned time and time and time and time again that they would pay a price for dismissing potential libertarian supporters. Republicans did pay a significant price in 2006, but continued on as if nothing had changed.  Immediately after it became apparent that John McCain was going to win the 2008 Republican nomination, the Libertarian Party sent a funeral wreath to the RNC.

There are a lot of senior Republicans who apparently wish for this downward spiral to continue, as they continue to bash libertarians to this very day. 

Why fusionism makes sense

A lot of people ask whether fusionism -- libertarians and social conservatives joined in a political movement -- makes sense. It does, and there's a behavioral/sociological basis to it that Michael Gerson alludes to in his review of Robert Putnam's new book:

At a recent conference of journalists organized by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Putnam outlined the conclusions of "American Grace," based on research still being sifted and refined. Against the expectations of hard-core secularists, Putnam asserts, "religious Americans are nicer, happier and better citizens." They are more generous with their time and money, not only in giving to religious causes but to secular ones. They join more voluntary associations, attend more public meetings, even let people cut in line in front of them more readily. Religious Americans are three to four times more socially engaged than the unaffiliated. Ned Flanders is a better neighbor.

It doesn't stop there. Religious poeple live longer. Married people live longer too and make more money. I am not arguing causality, but co-occurence, which is all you need in a lot of political contexts.

Basically, religious people, on average, live lives more compatible with a libertarian economy message and system than others. Note the directionality on this. If a libertarian views their economic message (that is, they are what Europeans call "right-liberals", versus "left-liberals" who focus on social freedoms), then their most fertile ground for builing coalitions is with church-goers.

Thus fusionism.

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