State of the Union

Reform Conservatism Needs Place

It is once again a summer of conservative reform. Just as last year’s swells of heat and humidity were accompanied by a public discussion outlining the case for a “reform conservatism” by Ross Douthat, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, and others, so 2014’s retreat of spring has been marked by the release of “Room to Grow,” a 120-page prospective agenda designed to drag contemporary American conservatism out of 1981’s death grip and give it marching orders fit to the challenges of the present day. Yuval Levin’s introduction calls the effort “a conservative governing vision” that articulates how conservatives can embrace policy solutions deriving from their understanding of how society best operates: decentralized and interdependent, not atomized and anonymous. The, by one count 22, policy proposals contained within “Room to Grow” address health care policy and the tax code, education reform and work-life balance, financial/regulatory reforms and family-friendly federal policies.

As responses rolled in, Levin clarified what he saw as a persistent liberal misperception of “Room to Grow” and its associated project, as the GOP’s answer to Clintonian DLC centrism:

From my point of view (and I can speak only for myself of course), the key point to understand about what people are calling “reform conservatism” is that it is an effort to move the Republican party to the right. And in particular, it is an effort to move from arguing about how much we should be willing to spend on the liberal welfare state to arguing about how to replace it with a conservative approach to government that advances our vision of a free society. 

It is not in this sense a response to the Tea Party movement (and of course it predates that movement by some years) but rather a response to the fat and happy, big-business-oriented, go along to get along, aimless centrism of too much of the Republican party over the past decade, which has been perfectly happy to argue about the cost (if that!) of our government, rather than about its purpose and structure, provided its own friends got a piece of the action. [emphasis added]

Levin’s introduction to “Room to Grow” described the aims and purposes of such a pushing of the GOP to the right:

The premise of conservatism has always been, on the contrary, that what matters most about society happens in the space between the individual and the state—the space occupied by families, communities, civic and religious institutions, and the private economy—and that creating, sustaining, and protecting that space and helping all Americans take part in what happens there are among the foremost purposes of government.

That space between the potentially atomized individual and the looming Leviathan state is what prevents either from coming to dominate the social texture, and so hollow out the rich, interweaving webs of relationships that bind a society together. Yet “Room to Grow” rarely takes up the institutions of civil society as a central topic in and of themselves. The family is certainly given ample attention, with W. Bradford Wilcox, Carrie Lukas, and Robert Stein all articulating elements of an agenda to help encourage marriage and family formation and growth. Many of the other policy discussions would surely help support non-commercial civil society institutions, and involve topics very worthy in their own right, such as breaking up the biggest banks and encouraging employment. Indeed, one gets the sense that a great deal of attention has been paid to the vulnerability and uncertainty faced by so many middle- and working-class families, who often feel that they are barely hanging on.

That economic and social isolation is not the product of macroeconomic factors alone, however. The same liberation technocracy that, often out of the best of intentions, undermined the family with the unintended marriage penalties baked into the American welfare state ravaged the neighborhoods and communities that families were once able to rely upon when the hard times came (as they did much more often in previous generations). The progressive spirit came down upon the cities, bulldozing communities weak in the measurables of the moment, but strong in social solidarity and common support. It subsidized interstate systems and street grids that were placed in the hands of planners and engineers who would work with singular purpose to maximize car flow, without a thought given to community cohesion. The postwar explosion in building was dominated by a misunderstanding of human life manifested in suburban sprawl-friendly federal policy and local zoning codes alike. Their legacy has been a country largely built for a prosperous people seeking to purchase entertainment within the privacy of their own homes and backyards, not in town commons or on front porches. Read More…

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The Tricky Politics of Fighting Crony Capitalism

The conservative fight against crony capitalism received a boost last Tuesday, when the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee stood before a Heritage Foundation crowd and became the latest, and perhaps most influential, Republican politician to take specific aim at the Export-Import Bank. Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) devoted nearly half his speech to articulating the argument against the obscure federal institution that subsidizes American exports, while still making time to rail against the farm bill, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and recent bailouts for GM and Wall Street. As the chairman of the committee responsible for reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank before its charter expires at the end of September, and as a potential contender for the Speakership should John Boehner relinquish the gavel after the midterm elections, Hensarling’s words carry significant weight.

Tim Carney, who has become the drum major leading the march against crony capitalism, foresees the potential for the GOP to turn the 2014 midterms into a referendum on Democratic corporatism, and a demonstration that conservatives are pro-market, not pro-business. Pete Spiliakos, however, has been skeptical. “That is fine as far as it goes,” he says, “to portray the center-left as wanting to take taxes with one hand and give out subsidies to the connected with the other, but it is starting your presentation by answering a question the public doesn’t seem to be asking.” Pete agrees that corporations that have co-opted the feds into giving them unfair subsidies should be kicked off corporate welfare, but doesn’t think such proposals “amount to much absent a positive program that directly impacts people who are near the median income or who are economically struggling,” at least politically speaking. He followed up on those comments last week, writing, “Cutting crony capitalism has to be a means to an end rather than an end in itself. If the purpose of cutting crony capitalism is to free up money to cut the top marginal tax rates on high-earners, then conservatives aren’t going to seem any less pro-rich for wanting to cut the Export-Import Bank and subsidies to green energy companies.”

So what is crony capitalism, politically speaking? Is it a welcome restorative for a party pegged as being in the pockets of big business? Or a worthy policy initiative albeit with little public resonance? Perhaps the best answer came a year ago at the Heritage Foundation, when Sen. Mike Lee was delivering the outline of his reform agenda. Lee said:

The first step in a true conservative reform agenda must be to end this kind of preferential policymaking. Beyond simply being the right thing to do, it is a pre-requisite for earning the moral authority and political credibility to do anything else.

Why should the American people trust our ideas about middle-class entitlements… when we’re still propping up big banks?

“A pre-requisite for earning the moral authority and political credibility to do anything else.” In his latest post, Pete worried that “the crony capitalism strategy treats the perception of conservatives as being pro-rich as primarily a problem of resentment. People resent the rich for getting too much unfairly, and so conservatives must target the undeserving rich.” He is right, of course, that an actual appeal to middle- and working-class voters will have to be founded on policies that address their needs. But voters aren’t policy analysts, ready to parse a tax proposal to see how it scores. Republicans are (rightfully) in a place of very low trust with most Americans, having parroted the same set of supply-side solutions with a variety of weak attempts at rebranding. To put it somewhat dramatically, putting General Electric’s head on a spike doesn’t have to be, and shouldn’t be, about slaking the perceived bloodlust of a resentful mob. Instead, it can be as simple as demonstrating loyalty to a prospective new employer by offering up the old one.

A substantive agenda will still have to be offered to middle-class Americans, and good work on that has been freshly compiled here. But first, voters will have to have a reason to trust that this time is different, and their best interests really are at the heart of the new proposals.

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Reagan’s Man at VOA: Kenneth Tomlinson, RIP

Ken Tomlinson, who died last week, was one of Ronald Reagan’s key lieutenants in bringing about the collapse of Soviet communism. It’s much forgotten nowadays how vital the battle to disseminate information behind the Iron Curtain was to the cause of defeating communism. The Voice of America, which Ken ran early in Reagan’s term, and Radio Free Europe were the window for millions of East Europeans into the outside world. No young person today can conceive of the dearth of information inside Russia when millions listened to short wave radio for knowledge about the world.

When I first visited Moscow with a delegation of journalists in 1987, I brought along a radio and scanned for programs. In all of Moscow there was no FM at all, and only four AM stations. TV news was scarce and always pure propaganda. VOA and the BBC broadcast news about America and the world; Radio Free Europe broadcast news about what was happening inside the Eastern Bloc nations.

Tomlinson had hired me to debate leftists on a VOA program at the end of 1984. Only subsequently came the vast expansion of information as photocopy machines and VCRs were smuggled into Russia and East Europe by the thousands. Nearly every Russian diplomat would then take back 2 VCRs, one for himself and one to sell on the black market. The VCRs, whose tapes could be dubbed with translations, created havoc for the communists as more and more of their citizens citizens learned about the outside world, and their deprivation in the Soviet prison lands.

We met, and Tomlinson hired me, after I was quoted in a 1984 poll of conservative leaders in Richard Viguerie’s Conservative Digest. Asked about the best things Reagan had done, I replied, “His speeches and vitalizing the Voice of America.” Ken’s main assistant in his work was Ed Warner, a former Time editor, hired to oversee all the special programs. He was my direct boss. Tomlinson and Warner hired me and others who really understood communists’ psychology; we knew how to get inside their minds. I had been a long-time journalist in Latin America, and grew up the son of Freda Utley, who wrote several of the first books explaining Russian and Chinese communism.

Before Tomlinson, VOA had been pretty namby-pamby, mainly known for its Willis Conover jazz programs. Turning the Voice into a real weapon of information was not easy at all for Tomlinson and Warner. It had always been a prime target of infiltration for the Soviets, second only to the CIA. Over and over again Warner would tell me of some broadcaster who was surely procommunist, putting out the straight Soviet line as if it were also Washington’s. When I’d say, “can’t you remove him?” Ed would reply, “I can’t, his boss is a good guy, thinks like we do, but says he’s ok and protects him.” Later they would finally get rid of the man only to find the boss again sponsoring the same kind of programming. The boss, too, had been a communist supporter. That was how the communists protected their agents; it was done the same way in the CIA. To this day we still don’t know just how infiltrated the VOA had been.

In any case, the VOA under Tomlinson began to broadcast hard-hitting, real information and criticism. Reagan spoke about how private property owners cared for their land to produce profitably and for the long term, unlike government. After that, I hammered away at explaining why Americans were rich and Russians were poor, for this reason. Tomlinson also unleashed the East European refugees to broadcast. A Polish friend of mine even started a talk show for listeners inside Poland to call into.

His New York Times obituary doesn’t mention how Tomlinson reformed the VOA and made it into a dynamic force for freedom. Nor, of course, does it explain that Ken Tomlinson was one of the architects of the collapse of communism. Rather, it almost completely dwells on infighting and criticism of him in later years about his disputes with PBS and public television.

Ken had reported for Reader’s Digest as a foreign correspondent before becoming editor. He was one of the rare conservatives who knew and understood the outside world, having reported from Vietnam, Somalia, and Europe. That experience was what made him so effective, and so successful.

Jon Basil Utley is publisher of The American Conservative.

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Walter Jones and the Bush Tax Cuts

One bit of pushback I’ve encountered in response to today’s column about Walter Jones: the claim that Jones was one of just three Republicans to vote with House Democrats to raise taxes in 2010.

Viewed in context, this is misleading. It’s true that Jones joined Ron Paul and Jimmy Duncan in voting for a Democratic bill that would have extended the Bush tax cuts for most taxpayers, but not for the highest earners.

Unlike most of the Democrats who voted for this bill, however, Jones and the other two Republicans did not actually favor increasing tax rates on the top earners. Democrats controlled the House at the time and the Bush tax cuts were going to expire in full unless Congress passed and President Obama signed an extension.

At the time, there was a real possibility that all the tax cuts were going to lapse in 2011. Democrats were arguing that the GOP was holding lower tax rates for the middle class hostage to lower rates for the top 2 percent. Jones, Paul, and Duncan wanted to extend the lower rates for however many people they could.

When I wrote about this in the context of Ron Paul at the time, a representative of Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform commented, “The bill Congress voted on yesterday is a tax cut relative to 2011 law, which assumes everyone’s taxes go up. By preventing some people’s taxes from going up, this would score out as a tax cut.”

Norquist is hardly in the tank for Jones; he campaigned against him in 2008.

Jones voted for the full Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003. He voted to make the first round of Bush tax cuts permanent in 2002. He voted for the full extension of the Bush tax cuts in 2010, after the vote for which he is being criticized.

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Runaway Interventionism Is the Real Benghazi Scandal

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

On Benghazi, most conservatives have behaved like a dog on a bone. Ever since the September 2012 tragedy, the right sensed that it had hit gold: a stain on Obama and a stain on then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. All the while managing to eschew the bigger questions (Why were we there in the first place? What does this say about the folly of American hyper-interventionism?), my fellow conservatives demanded “justice!” and “answers!” There are slogans such as “Hillary lied, people died!”, Benghazi ribbons on Twitter avatars, B-E-N-G-H-A-Z-I spelled out in all caps on far too many tweets, and so on and so forth. When answers were ultimately provided, following Congressional investigations, hearings, and countless news reports, none has ever been sufficient to let the story die a dignified death. And so the latest round of the Benghazi circus emerged this week, to wild applause.

First, a background recap: A few days after the tragedy, National Security Advisor Susan Rice appeared on the September 16, 2012 Sunday talk show circuit, in which she posited the idea that an anti-Islamic YouTube video prompted a spontaneous attack on the embassy. A questionable theory, to be sure, though not altogether crazy considering that such protests did spring up elsewhere across the Muslim world, and were ongoing at the time. A bipartisan report released early this year noted the anti-video protests in Cairo as possibly related to the Benghazi attack, and the CIA chief of station there considered the video one of the potential causes.

Following nearly two years of investigations and hearings, we will never know for certain: Was it a “terrorist” act in its traditional form? Was it a terrorist attack emboldened by the video? Was it simply a spontaneous mob fueled by the video? The possibilities are endless and the truth is likely a complex hybrid of all of the above. And even while the nation shows little interest in continuing to beat this story, many on the right bite down harder.

Now, a new e-mail emerged, uncovered by conservative watchdog Judicial Watch via a FOIA request. Written on September 14, 2012 by Ben Rhodes (Deputy NSA Advisor), Rhodes preps his boss for her upcoming network appearances, laying out talking points. One of the lines reminds Rice “(t)o underscore that these protests are rooted in an internet video and not a broader failure of policy.” Worth noting: the points in Rhodes’s e-mail are similar to the CIA theories at the time.

This e-mail is, as they say, a nothin’ burger.

But some on the right have pounced, shrieking that they have in their trembling hands a smoking gun, at long last. Had the email read: “Contrary to what the CIA informs us, let’s stick to the video story,” or anything along those lines, that would certainly be a smoking gun. But it seems to be an almost benign recap of current intel by a subordinate prepping his boss, and it’s quite clear Rhodes was working off the CIA talking points. Read More…

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Conservative Sentencing Reform: Politically Savvy, Morally Right

Darlene Eckles was not a drug user or dealer when she was indicted in 2004. After her troubled brother Rick used her house to sell crack cocaine against her wishes, Darlene was arrested as a co-conspirator and offered a plea bargain of 10 years in prison. She rejected the deal in attempt to clear her name in court. But, after it was revealed that she counted Rick’s drug money in exchange for paying her electricity bill, Darlene was sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison as a first-time, nonviolent drug offender.

While Darlene’s story may seem exceptional at first glance, she is just one of the countless victims of mandatory sentences that oblige judges to deliver often lengthy prison terms to convicted criminals. While the practice has received harsh criticism over the past two decades, convicts like Darlene have an unexpected new allies. Fiscally conservative elected officials like Sens. Rand Paul and Mike Lee are leading the charge in Congress for federal sentencing reform, reforming the GOP’s stance on criminal justice in a way that could potentially attract new supporters.

This turn in conservative politics is rather surprising considering the history of mandatory minimums. Although its roots in American jurisprudence trace back to the 19th century, it was not until the height of the War on Drugs during Ronald Reagan’s presidency that mandatory sentencing started gaining steam. The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 directed the United States Sentencing Commission to reduce the discretion district judges had on sentencing terms, through strict guidelines. Two years later, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 imposed specified mandatory minimums for violations of federal controlled substance laws.

Like most policy pushes, mandatory minimums were undoubtedly passed with good intentions. Given the high drug crime rates of the 1980s, it’s understandable why legislators would want to tackle the problem with a no-nonsense sentencing approach. Furthermore, mandatory minimums even had an egalitarian appeal. Under the previous sentencing regime, judges had wide discretion in determining the length of prison terms, giving rise to arbitrary inequalities in sentences for people convicted of the same crime.

Unfortunately good intentions do not always give rise to good policy. Mandatory minimums’ attempt to rein in judges’ discretion only shifted the discretion to prosecutors, resulting in no significant decrease of sentencing inequality. In fact, many mandatory minimums seem as arbitrary as the previous legal regime. Most infamously, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act was criticized for discriminating against African-Americans by mandating a five-year sentence for possessing five grams of crack cocaine while imposing the same sentence for possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine.

As a result of these lengthy and inflexible sentencing requirements, America’s prison population has skyrocketed, turning the criminal justice issue into a fiscal one. Over the past three decades, the cost of operating state correctional facilities have roughly tripled, giving rise to conservatives’ ire and the current Congressional push for reform. Read More…

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The Case for “Serfdom,” Rightly Understood

Baker County Tourism / Flickr

Last Saturday I had the honor of addressing the 50th anniversary meeting of the Philadelphia Society. The title of the meeting was “The Road Ahead—Serfdom or Liberty?” My remarks sought to suggest that conservatives should be more circumspect about their rote incantation of the word “liberty,” and that there may even be something to be said for “serfdom,” properly understood. My remarks in full are printed, below.

“The Road Ahead—Serfdom or Liberty?”

 The Philadelphia Society Annual Meeting—50th Anniversary

Patrick J. Deneen, The University of Notre Dame

I would like to begin my remarks by calling to mind two commercials that aired at different points during the last five years. The first aired in 2010, and was produced by the Census Bureau in an effort to encourage Americans to fill out their census forms. It opens with a man sitting in his living room dressed in a bathrobe, who talks directly into the camera in order to tell viewers that they should fill out the census form, as he’s doing from his vantage as a couch potato.

Fill out the census, he says, so that you can help your neighbors—and at this point he gets out his chair and walks out the front door, past his yard and the white picket fence and points at his neighbors who are getting into their car—You can help Mr. Griffith with better roads for his daily car pool commute, he says—and then, indicating the kids next door, “and Pete and Jen for a better school,” and continues walking down the street. Now neighbors are streaming into the quaint neighborhood street, and he tells us that by filling out the census, we can help Reesa with her healthcare (she’s being wheeled by in a gurney, about to give birth), and so on… “Fill it out and mail it back,” he screams through a bullhorn from a middle of a crowded street, “so that we can all get our fair share of funding, and you can make your town a better place!”

The other ad, produced in 2012, was produced by the Obama re-election campaign, though it was not aired on television and has today disappeared from the internet. It was entitled “The Life of Julia,” and in a series of slides it purported to show how government programs had supported a woman named Julia at every point in her life, from preschool funds from a young age to college loans to assistance for a start up to healthcare and finally retirement. In contrast to the Census commercial—which portrayed a neighborhood street filled with people who knew each others’ names—“The Life of Julia” portrayed a woman who appeared to exist without any human ties or relationships, except—in one poignant slide—a child that had suddenly appeared but who was about to be taken away on a little yellow school bus, and as far as we’re shown, is never seen again. No parents, no husband, a child who disappears.

The first ad is a kind of Potemkin Village behind which is the second ad. The first ad shows a thriving community in which everyone knows each others’ names, and as you watch it—if you aren’t duped by what it’s portraying—you are left wondering why in the world would we need government to take care of our neighbors if we knew each other so well? Why is my obligation to these neighbors best fulfilled by filling out the Census form? The commercial is appealing to our cooperative nature and our sense of strong community ties to encourage us to fill out the Census form, but in fact—as the commercial tells us—it is in order to relieve us of the responsibility of taking care of each other; perhaps more accurately, it’s reflecting a world in which increasingly we don’t know our neighbor’s names, and instead turn to the government for assistance in times of need.

The second commercial is what lies “behind” the Potemkin village of the first. Read More…

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Catching On to the Pyrrhic Victory of a GOP Senate

Gage Skidmore / Flickr

And here you thought I was being all #slatepitch-y: In February, I argued that President Obama shouldn’t get too uptight about Democrats losing the Senate; and, more, that the dead-end ideological fealty required to control Congress is, paradoxically (but only seemingly), what prevents Republicans from being a true national party; and, finally, that a Congress fully under Republican control will make a fat target for Hillary Clinton.

Zeke J. Miller reports in Time that GOP moneybags, as well as potential Republican presidential candidates currently serving as governor, share the latter concern:

Behind closed doors and in private conversations with reporters and donors, GOPers eyeing the White House in 2016 are privately signaling they wouldn’t mind seeing the party fall short in this year’s midterm elections. For all the benefits of a strong showing in 2014 after resounding defeat in 2012, senior political advisers to some of the top Republican presidential aspirants believe winning the Senate might be the worst thing that could happen.

The opinion is most strongly held by Republican governors, who are hoping to rise above the Washington political fray. Already the central theme adopted by governors like Chris Christie of New Jersey, Rick Perry of Texas, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and Scott Walker of Wisconsin is their ability to cut through partisan gridlock to lead their states. A dysfunctional Washington hamstrung by ideological division accentuates their core argument.

Others are taking a ride on my hobbyhorse. Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report recently conveyed the similarly glass-half-empty sentiments of “Republican umbrella carriers” who “worry that success in 2014 will mask the real, structural problems that Republicans need to fix before 2016. Namely, that the party doesn’t stand for much more than standing against President Obama. As important, the GOP heads into 2016 with a brand that has been deeply tarnished and not easily repaired.”

The redoubtable Charlie Cook himself added:

This is so true. If Republicans do gain a Senate majority, which they may very well do in November, and manage to pick up eight or more House seats, it will be because of who they are not, not because of who they are. They aren’t in Obama’s party, and they aren’t in the party that unilaterally passed the Affordable Care Act, which, like the president, is unpopular. Republicans may win a bunch of races without measurably improving their party’s “brand” and without making any clear progress among minority, young, moderate, and female voters. The fact that midterm electorates are generally older, whiter, and more conservative than their counterparts in presidential elections exacerbates the difference between the world of 2014 and the one that will exist in 2016. The Republicans can win in 2014 without having fixed their problems.

Granted, Cook and Walter are not making precisely the same argument as mine, though I of course agree that a win in 2014 might give the GOP “false hope.” I go a bit further: I believe Republicans, or at least a good portion of those who matter, know full well that the party has a problem going into 2016, quite apart from what happens this fall. The crux of it is this: there’s nothing they can do to change it in the near term. The adjustments they need to make in order to recapture the White House—find some way to deal with undocumented immigrants; give up on tax cuts for the wealthy; acknowledge the painful trade-offs of any serious Obamacare alternative—would jeopardize their grip on Congress.

It’s possible that Republican leaders are merely biding their time until the Senate is in hand. Why rock the boat when you can win by default? I suspect, however, that the truth is more inconvenient: Rocking the boat will be no easier in 2016 than it is now.

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Hobby Lobby vs. the Order of Justice

The Crimson White /

Ross Douthat affectionately calls out me and Rod Dreher for applauding Patrick Deneen’s moral-economic brief against Hobby Lobby and other big-box retail chains. He laments that the paleo/crunchy-con mentality tends toward self-marginalization.

Speaking only for myself, I actually agree with Ross.

I’m not Catholic. I’m not a traditionalist (if I were, I’d have a lot of explaining to do regarding that infatuation with Keith Richards). When asked to describe my politics, lately I call myself a good-government Bush 41 conservative. (I maintain that H.W. was inferior to Reagan as a communicator and politician—obviously—but at least as great, and maybe even better, a president. I think his leadership during the meltdown of the Soviet empire was brilliant, and I’d take Dick Darman over Grover Norquist every day of the week. Sue me!)

All that said, I fear I’ve muddied the waters on where I agree with Deneen, and where I part ways with him (as well as, I’m going to presume, Dreher).

I am taken with Deneen’s argument that there is an uninterrupted continuum between the Founding (“progressive” in a Baconian sense) and the present; that classical liberals and modern liberals are both liberals. If there’s anything remotely distinctive about my blogging here and at U.S. News since ’10, I hope it’s been a counterweight to the despair of both moral traditionalists like Deneen and Dreher and market purists-slash-declinists like Kevin Williamson. My gravamen, my conceit, my shtick is this: Government has grown alongside our continental economy. There is not a hydraulic relationship (one goes up, the other goes down) between markets and government. If our capitalists were smart, they’d favor effective social insurance alongside free enterprise. Etc.

While I sympathize, somewhat, with Deneen’s aesthetic recoil from Hobby Lobby and strip malls and big boxes, I don’t get nearly as exercised about such things as he does. In any case, I don’t think there’s much that can be done practically to change it at the level of policymaking. I’m all for traditionalists and orthodox believers bringing their beliefs to bear in the marketplace. To the extent that I used the Hobby Lobby case as a springboard for my last post, it was only tangentially about contraception and religious liberty. My beef is not with religious conservatives participating in modern capitalism; it is with those who conflate modern capitalism and the Constitution with Judeo-Christianity. I have a beef with them because this conflation, I believe, is one of the main drivers of our current antigovernment ferocity, the rampant and irrational fears of inflation, and the counterproductive fear over short-term budget deficits.

I could be wrong about that.

In any case, I don’t think I made this point clear in my post on Hobby Lobby (which, for the record, I had never heard of before it became news).

While I’m at it, I might as well spell out what I think about the particulars of said case. On that score, I’ll associate myself with Yuval Levin’s recent post in NRO’s Corner. He writes that conservatives:

take the arrangement of rights and liberties at the core of the liberal-democratic understanding of society to exist in the service of sustaining the space in which society thrives, rather than of taking society “forward” and away from its roots. There is room in that space for different parts of society to sustain quite different ways of living, and room for people to debate our broader society’s social and political course – which can take different directions at different times in response to different circumstances. Liberty is not the yearned-for endpoint of that story, when we will be free at last from the burdens of the past. Liberty is what exists in that space now, what allows for different people (and groups of people) to pursue different paths and debate different options, and what allows society to address its problems in various ways as they arise. Liberty is not what we’re progressing toward but what we are conserving.

Here, Levin calls to mind Garry Wills’s distinction between the progressive-liberal “order of justice” and the “order of convenience.” To sum up a complex essay, Wills believed it should not be the aim of the state to dispense “raw justice” (Chesterton’s phrase), but rather to facilitate convenience (in the John Calhoun sense of the word—to “convene” or “concur” or bring about social peace). Sounding a lot like Burke and Nisbet, Wills wrote:

For if the state arises out of man’s social instinct, then the state destroys its own roots when it denies free scope to the other forms of social life. The state, when it is made the source of justice, must be equally and instantly available to all citizens; and, in achieving this, in sweeping away the confusion of claims raised by families, economic orders, educational conventions, codes of conduct, natural gradations of privilege, the Liberal leaves society atomized, each man isolated, with all the weight of political power coming unintercepted upon him. The higher forms of organization do not grow out of and strengthen the lower, but counter and erase them. This is what happened under the Order of Justice from the time when Plato pitted the state against the family to the modern breakdown of divided jurisdiction in the centralized state. …

The state, as extending throughout all other levels of social solidarity, must have a certain neutrality towards them all, and as the order-enforcing agent, it must take upon itself a certain negative, punitive function. This neutral and negative aspect of the state will be perverted, and become a positive push—as life-giving, rather than life-preserving—if the other forms of spontaneous activity wither; or if the state officials try to use their power to call up a positive vision of their own; or if politics is considered the all-inclusive area of man’s achievement of excellence. …

A proper order of convenience would be able to accommodate Hobby Lobby’s religious objections. On this matter and others, the Obama administration seeks an order of justice. I hope, in this case, that it loses.

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The Greatest Trick the Devil Ever Played

Every Sunday, the rector of my church appends a brief note of spiritual guidance to the weekly bulletin. Recently, he noted that whereas “the world” encourages individuals to satisfy their desires, the Scriptures teach that we’re often to deny those desires.

That generality—“the world.”

I get it. I appreciate the New Testament connotation of the “world” as distinct from the church and its principles and disciplines. Still, I don’t think it’s quite right. “The world,” depending on where you live and which tradition you may or may not have been raised in, says a lot of different things. American consumerist culture, on the other hand, very definitely does encourage us—entice us, seduce us—to satisfy our desires. That culture is now global and, on balance, I think material human welfare is vastly better for it.

Thinking holistically of the human person, however, consumerism, with its valorization of individual choice and autonomy, is spiritually problematic.

And so it’s a great and terrible irony that the church—I should specify, a large segment of the conservative Protestant church—has invited “the world” into the church. It has embedded its economic imperatives into its doctrines. Indeed, it has elevated the marketplace into a thing affirmed and designed by God himself.

With characteristic brilliance, Patrick Deneen shone a klieg light on this “delicious irony,” with his post on the Hobby Lobby contraception case currently before the Supreme Court. A self-styled “religious corporation” seeks

to push back against the State’s understanding of humans as radically autonomous, individuated, biologically sterile, and even hostile to their offspring. For that “religious corporation” operates in an economic system in which it has been wholly disembedded from a pervasive moral and religious context. Its “religion” is no less individuated and “disembedded” than the conception of the self being advanced by the State. It defends its religious views as a matter of individual conscience, of course, because there is no moral, social, or religious context to which it can appeal beyond the autonomy of its own religious belief. Lacking any connecting moral basis on which to stake a social claim, all it can do in the context of a society of “disembeddedness” is seek an exemption from the general practice of advancing radical autonomy. Yet, the effort to secure an exemption is itself already a concession to the very culture and economy of autonomy.

Deneen of course is a conservative Catholic. I’ve yet to come across a rejoinder from a conservative Protestant arguing against Deneen’s contention that there is, or should be, a “separation of church and economy.” If no one has written it yet, someone will soon. For this is an unfortunate, ahistorical, heretical bedrock belief of the conservative base: the American economy is God’s economy. Any attempt to regulate it is contrary to the God-breathed Constitution. It is atheistic, humanistic, and tyrannical.

This could be the greatest trick the devil ever played.

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