Upon reading David Swindle’s response to my disagreement with his observations about conservatism and the culture, it’s clear that the gulf between our views is far smaller than it might have initially seemed:
It’s certainly important for those on the Right to continue to articulate these cultural values. What my statement from my post was intended for was the question of how conservatives pursue these cultural issues. I argue that it’s fundamentally at odds with the principles of the Constitution and the founders to utilize the force of government to try and shape the culture in our direction or any others.
Thus, Mary’s idea that marijuana should remain criminalized primarily so that the Counterculture does not win a victory to America’s detriment is misguided — well-intentioned and patriotic — but ultimately misguided. If conservatives want to argue that a life of perpetual intoxication to marijuana — or any other drug — is a dangerous idea then they’re on the right track. When they decide to defend locking people up and the government spending tens of billions every year in defense of a cultural value then I’m going to dissent, as should all who grasp our constitutional values.
David’s essential point—that it isn’t government’s job to enforce an ideal lifestyle or belief system on the people and that the force of law is not an instrument of social engineering—is absolutely correct. Liberty to do only what the majority approves isn’t liberty, and the whole point of limited government is that even if one leader really could be trusted to make such wide-ranging decisions for us, what happens when his the next guy in power isn’t so trustworthy?
(Drug legalization foes would argue that drug users harm others as well as themselves, thereby making legal intervention consistent with conservatism, but I’ll let David & Mary continue to duke that one out.)
That said, I’d like to take this opportunity to address potential grounds for confusion and articulate some ways conservatives should engage themselves in the culture that are consistent with our allegiance to liberty and limited government.
Policy may be the wrong weapon for some battles, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight them—we just need tactics appropriate to the terrain. We can’t legislate morality, but we can fight for it in the court of public opinion. Consider how the Founding Fathers approached religion. They insisted on a separation of church and state, promising that neither would control the affairs of the other and guaranteeing freedom of belief for everyone, but they also used every opportunity they could, from the Declaration of Independence to numerous public pronouncements, to remind the people of religion and morality’s centrality to a free society. Conservatives need to make the most out of every opportunity to communicate with the American people and do more than make policy arguments—we need to constantly inform and remind people of the pillars upon which America stands.
Unlike us, the Left has no qualms about using the state for values enforcement. From academia and K-12 education to countless government programs, they will use every avenue they can find to reshape society in their image and craft their ideal citizen. Unfortunately, the only real results have been brand new social ills. The leftist pursuit of social justice, with its policies of affirmative action and wealth redistribution, and liberal education, with its partisanship & historical revisionism and its poisonous moral teachings, breed perpetual dependence, class and racial resentment, and severe immorality. I would argue that recognizing and reversing the effects of such social conditioning by battling these programs, ideas, and teachings qualifies as a cultural pursuit every bit as much as fighting against abortion or marijuana.
Most distressingly, many today seem to hold a fundamentally distorted view of the relationship between social conservatism and economic or constitutional conservatism, insisting that real conservatives care only about getting government off our backs and dismissing social issues as something unrelated, or even somehow a violation of conservatism. In most cases, this dichotomy couldn’t be more wrong.
I have argued that American conservatism, properly understood, is faithful adherence to, and application of, the principles of the American Founding, especially our equal, God-given rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and social conservatism springs from the Founding just as clearly as judicial originalism and federalism.
Consider, for instance, abortion. As the killing of innocent babies for virtually any reason, abortion is wrong for the same reason that eminent domain abuse is wrong—both are clear violations of our natural rights, the former our right to life, the latter our right to our property. Religious freedom is another good example. As voices such as David Limbaugh and the American Center for Law & Justice have shown for years, discrimination against innocent religious expression in the public sphere is commonplace, and liberty-loving conservatives of all faiths should stand for the First Amendment’s free exercise clause and against left-wing distortions of its establishment clause.
Granted, there are some issues that don’t line up so well, such as George W. Bush’s faith-based initiatives, a misplaced fixation on evolution, and certain civil marriage benefits that are redistributive in nature. But on the whole, the differences and incompatibility between these branches of conservatism have been greatly exaggerated.
Establishing sound principles and philosophy is largely a matter of balancing competing considerations: liberty and security, self-determination and virtue, morality and practicality. In balancing politics and culture, there is a growing tendency to overcorrect in both directions, though giving culture too little consideration definitely seems more likely, and therefore more dangerous, right now than giving it too much. I wish that every conservative would make it their New Year’s Resolution to review and reflect upon the words of the Founders, Lincoln, and Tocqueville; and recognize in their wisdom the need to get past the false barriers that divide and dilute American conservatism.