As campaign promises go, it isn’t all that inspiring a slogan, but now that Ralph Reiland has given us the idea I think we should run with it with every ounce of statist gusto that we’ve got. As pointed out by Ramesh Ponnuru, he comments on the state of conservatism and Mr. Ponnuru’s story from a few weeks back on “conservatism in crisis,” and with the flair of a good two-speed libertarian (they have two speeds: hyperbole and indifference) he takes Ponnuru’s sensible observation that social conservatism has been an overall electoral winner and economic conservatism has been an electoral liability and makes it into a libertarian’s worst nightmare:
Arguing that conservatism’s crisis is “badly misunderstood,” Ponnuru offers a policy prescription that’s sure not to sit too well with those who support freedom, both economic and social.
“Social conservatism is an asset to Republicans,” he writes, “and economic conservatism a liability.”
That sounds like a call for more faith-based tax hikes, perhaps for more wars, because, as the president has explained, God wants men to be free. Domestically, it looks like a call for more government flashlights in the bedrooms and fewer dollars in our wallets.
Mr. Reiland takes what has actually become a pretty standard assessment of American electoral reality (social conservatism helps, economic “conservatism” hurts) and make it into an argument for a certain set of anti-libertarian policy prescriptions. Indeed, he calls it a prescription, when it is really a description. So right away there is a great deal of confusion in Mr. Reiland’s response. The rest of his response is fairly overheated, when you consider the simple truth that cheering on the workings of an unfettered market and pushing for massive deregulation, for example, are wildly unpopular. It might be the case that something that is wildly unpopular is still the right thing to do and is worth advocating in spite of the political cost, but that is a different argument. Before we can have that argument, libertarians should at least be able to acknowledge that advocacy of their economic policies is a political liability, especially nowadays. As Ponnuru says in his post:
I am for anti-statists taking a careful look at their actual political prospects rather than at what they wish those prospects were. But I am not surprised that some libertarians would respond to my attempt to do that by retreating deeper into fantasy.
Even given the retreat into fantasy, each item Mr. Reiland brings up seems weirdly and completely disconnected from Mr. Ponnuru’s assessment of electoral reality. Perhaps economic populism would mean “fewer dollars in our wallets” or perhaps not, but “social conservatism” as it is usually defined has no obvious position on taxes (on the whole, avowed social conservatives have tended to be anti-tax to the extent that they see reducing revenues as a way of weakening an intrusive and culturally hostile government). Social conservatism is not the equal and opposite of what we are calling “economic conservatism.” For the most part, they relate to entirely different spheres of life and support for one does not necessarily imply hostility to the other. While a social conservative may be more sympathetic to state power to regulate certain kinds of behaviour that he deems immoral, it does not necessarily follow that he thinks the government should be involved in economic regulation to the same degree. But as far as I can tell Ponnuru wasn’t defending one or the other. He wasn’t making a prescription at this point. What Mr. Ponnuru said, pretty plainly, is that one tends to win a party votes and the other tends to lose a party votes. If this runs up against the findings of the methodologically questionable and difficult–to-credit Kirby/Boaz report, that is not the fault of all the people who regard the report’s findings to be an exaggeration of libertarian political strength.
Just out of curiosity I have to ask: what, pray, is a “faith-based tax hike”? Is Mr. Reiland referring obscurely to Alabama Gov. Bob Riley’s support for jacking up property taxes in his conviction that he was serving a Christian vision of social justice? This was surely a fairly isolated and unusual incident. (More common, at the state level, were the tax hikes of the Taft administration in Ohio aimed at closing the budget gap created by the habit of reckless spending acquired in the booming ’90s.) If this is not a reference to Riley, I literally have no idea what he’s talking about, since the trouble with Mr. Bush’s fiscal management has been rampant spending together with tax cuts. Had we had a few more “faith-based tax hikes,” the deficit would at least be less egregiously unbalanced (which is not to say, lest Mr. Reiland have a stroke, that we should have had all the spending that we did have).
What, in fact, does social conservatism have to do with war? It is apparently and unfortunately true that many of the most stalwart leading social conservatives (e.g., Santorum) are also strongly in favour of the war in Iraq and Mr. Bush’s proclivity to use force generally, but if warmongering were a feature of social conservatism itself you would have to count this against social conservatism’s appeal. The appeal that social conservatism has is to those people who feel their values or way of life threatened by attacks in the culture wars, rather than seeing their values being necessarily advanced by the wars in Asia. (Indeed, if most social conservatives are Christian and a Christian “theocracy” is supposedly the goal of these people, as Mr. Reiland hints at the end, how do wars of “liberation” in the Islamic world that work to benefit of Islamic fundamentalist and to the detriment of Christians overseas advance this social conservative vision?)
Note that Mr. Reiland thinks that Ponnuru is advocating more government flashlights in our bedrooms, which apparently means that he believes that the government has flashlights there now. Are these Homeland Security flashlights, issued in case of power failure resulting from a terrorist attack? Or are these flashlights that people get from the government when they pay their taxes in a timely fashion as a complimentary prize of sorts? Yes, I do realise he is speaking figuratively here about government intrusions on our privacy, and if he focused on the actual intrusions the feds have done in the last few years he might find a very sympathetic conservative audience that regards the PATRIOT Act as excessive and unconstitutional. But, no, it’s always about people snooping on what you do in your bedroom, in spite of the fact that the old Republican majority did essentially nothing that might be construed as an attempt to dictate sexual mores or intrude on the privacy of anyone’s bedroom. In the very same article where he notes that sodomy laws have been struck from the books, he would have us believe that the government needs “flashlights” to ferret out the social miscreants engaged in unseemly acts in the bedrooms of the land. Why does the government need flashlights anyway? Don’t the social miscreants have light switches?