Printer friendly version

March 11, 2005

Government as Incentive to Chat

There's overlap within the cliques under the Republican Big Tent, of course, and there's theoretically broad footing for compromise and working together. Yet, disagreeing concepts of governance — disagreeing not only with each other, but also with the expression of them — make it difficult to carry on productive dialogue.

One must acknowledge that, in such large political groupings, there are examples of people to disprove any general statement. Nonetheless, it has seemed to me that, typical expectations notwithstanding, social conservatives stand a bit more firmly on that theoretical common ground than do libertarians or so-called moderates. Consider the following statement from the admirable INDC Bill:

Some or all of those [right-wing] themes may resonate with some of you, but they don't lay the groundwork for a long-term majority that's necessarily comprised of a coalition of interests. Conservative control of government shouldn't be a tool to legislate morality, social engineering or lynch-mob populism, rather serve as a lever to further disengage government from unsuccessful bureaucratic equations, let ideas rise and fall in a marketplace of honest debate, and allow decentralized localities to decide the mores and taboos of particular regions.

It appears that the necessary compromise platform for this long-term coalition between libertarians/moderates and conservatives is just about indistinguishable from a libertarian statement of principle! A social conservative might as well suggest that the compromise must be founded on an acknowledgment of God as the source of our rights. But Bill raises the fair point that libertarians and social conservatives have different understandings about the nature of government and its role in society.

Even taken in the spirit of one side's opening declaration, the problems with Bill's argument are threefold. The first Bill addresses in a follow-up post, in response to one of his readers, who wrote:

Please, not the old "legislating morality" canard again. Advocating for your position is one thing, but admonishing me that I shouldn't try to "impose my values on others" is something else entirely.

Let's make one thing clear - virtually every action taken by a legislative body is, in effect, "legislating morality." When a group of lawmakers passes a law banning murder, they are by their very action defining a moral boundary for society and by extension, "imposing morality" on said society.

Thus, the question is not "can morality be imposed on society?"; rather the question is "who's morality will be imposed?"

Bill responds, in part, by holding up the "compelling majorities [that] agree on things like murder," but that doesn't quite address the objection. For one thing, positing some theoretical number at which the will of the majority justifies moral law shifts Bill from statements of governmental principle to practical considerations. To see another difficulty with Bill's approach consider why (without turning to the practicalities of policing), if so many people agree that murder is wrong, we need laws against it.

The reason is hinted within Bill's appeal to "compelling majorities": it makes a statement about murder if democratically determined law has nothing to say about it. It says that the society believes that murder could be okay. I don't mean to suggest that the government ought to take a stand on every moral question. Sometimes the appropriate "statement about X" is that people disagree — and have a right to do so.

What makes social conservatives suspicious about libertarians and moderates' supposed even-handedly amoral stand — the second problem with Bill's argument — is that the issues that they claim as open to the liberty of disagreement seem conspicuously to fall in the direction of a particular morality. About the "popular socially conservative goal [of repealing] Roe v Wade," Bill writes the following (emphasis his):

A strategy centered around making the effective case to build a natural majority on a specific issue should eclipse and precede any strategy that's reliant on government, especially when that vision only reflects the will of a majority of the winning political coalition. And in the abortion example, based on shifting medical definitions that move the definition of "fetal viability" closer and closer to conception, there are still socially conservative legislative advances that can be made within the current atmosphere of public opinion.

Put aside Bill's continued privileging of public opinion in determining government morality. (One wonders about the legitimacy of legislating based on "the current atmosphere of public opinion" when it comes to restricting offensive entertainment.) It's difficult to see how a repeal of Roe v. Wade would fail to further Bill's goal of letting "ideas rise and fall in a marketplace of honest debate" and allowing "decentralized localities to decide the mores and taboos of particular regions." The government statement enforced by Roe v. Wade is that no locality can disagree with the proposition that abortion is not murder. (See also John Hawkins's post addressing Bill's claims about public opinion.)

While I may be misreading his tone, it seems fair to contrast Bill's view of Roe with a paragraph from the third post in this series (certainly a legitimate comparison when it comes to the broader group with which Bill is aligning himself):

Where is the conservative outrage over the Bush Administration's recent judicial activism attempting to overturn the Death With Dignity Act, a piece of state legislation that was twice approved by Oregonian voters? The same culture of life that animates the core of opposition to Roe v Wade also seems to drive the bid to bring this case before the Supreme Court, regardless of its status as duly created law or relation to Constitutional rights.

Assuming their opposition to the action of bringing the assisted suicide case to SCOTUS, libertarians and moderates aren't following the nuanced approach to governance that they apply to abortion — blending the actions of the branches so as to conform with the popular will. First of all, I'd suggest that Bill inadequately justifies his accusation of hypocrisy by vaguely referencing the "core of opposition"; to my experience, most of that core would readily admit that the legal process is a matter of convenience. Still others, such as myself, would overturn Roe and, realizing the danger of the contradiction, argue for other approaches than judicial when it comes to assisted suicide.

The important point is that social conservatives don't have to be consistent when it comes to government theory. Indeed, the libertarian/moderate complaint on the table is that conservatives have political goals beyond the strict operation of the government. Only from the libertarian point of view is it inconsistent to support the culture of life regardless of means, which is to repeat what I implied above: libertarians/moderates aren't futilely holding out a hand of compromise, rather they are every bit as contentious toward those whom they are "in agreement with, annoyed by, affectionately bemused by, embarrassed for or respectfully tolerant of."

And their motive is no more pure when it comes to government theory. The motive that so often seems to underlie the libertarian approach to government is directly related to the need for murder to be criminalized: if social conservatives (and liberals) can no longer "impose" their morality through government, then libertarians can ignore them. The "marketplace of honest debate" need be no more than a form of entertainment when the urge to argue arises.

That brings us to the third problem with Bill's argument. The great unsung genius of our system of government is that it makes discourse matter. It gives stakes to the spirited debate in the public square. If libertarians win the argument that government "shouldn't be a tool to legislate morality," the essential tension that enables the government to bind us in an environment of mutual respect is gone, and with it our society.

And so, to end on a note of shared principle, I agree with Bill that we've strayed too far from the priority of "decentralized localities to decide the mores and taboos of particular regions," mostly because it would disperse the stakes involved with each particular fight. Political victory — on the lowest level possible for a given issue — is a necessary currency in the marketplace of ideas, even when one of those ideas is that it is alright to legislate morality.

Posted by Justin Katz at March 11, 2005 5:38 PM
Libertarians vs. Social Conservatives