Related to the question of self-reliance are the paired concepts of self-restraint and self-indulgence. You may remember that there was a lively debate about Crunchy Cons in the spring of 2006, and much of the argument was over patterns and types of consumption (or overconsumption, as we on the crunchy side saw it). On one level, we were talking about an overconsumption of things, but this could be applied more narrowly to an overconsumption of food and of the unhealthiest–but frequently most convenient–kinds of food. The debate was regularly sidetracked as we were chided for being snobbish foodies who were trying to impose our love of manchego on the masses. We were pushing the ideal of enkrateia (I don’t think any of us used the word at the time, but this is broadly what we were talking about), and we were told that we were hypocritical busybodies, socialists-in-waiting and the like. Overconsumption comes from disordered desire, or rather an excess of desire, and what the “crunchies” or neo-traditionalists were arguing for was moderation. We were calling for cultivating self-restraint and constraining impulses towards gluttony. (This in turn would tie into matters of land usage, such as how much land and how many resources are being devoted to raising livestock, and to questions of the treatment of animals in factory farming to provide the mass production of meat demanded by an overconsuming public–the kinds of questions that my green friends were putting to me years ago and which I, still in a rather unreflective libertarian phase, laughed off as unimportant.) Accustomed to thinking of such arguments in terms of calls for government action, which we were not making, the critics presumably saw us as little better than pro-life Michael Bloombergs on a quest to eliminate transfats by edict. They were, are, wrong.
When Mike Huckabee started running for President (and was busily running, training for a marathon as part of his health kick), the prospect of having a weight-loss guru in the race was dispiriting for some of us, and his vague answers to health care questions indicated that he thought there was nothing wrong with the health care system that a good diet wouldn’t cure. It has been easy to make light of Huckabee’s talk about preventive care and a national “health crisis,” since he is usually heavy on quips and light on details, but I may be starting to see some value in what he’s talking about here. Not as a matter of policy, but as a matter of pushing for changes in habits and making arguments that the good life entails moderation and that this must affect how we consume food. This is not to move away from joie de vivre and festivity, which I believe are complements to a certain asceticism that a conservatism of virtue has to try to instill, but to encourage a return to proportion and limits and, above all, restraint. The return of restraint would be a boon to conservatives in virtually all areas, whether we are talking about spending, foreign policy or conservation, but it can be applied more immediately in daily life.
As Americans, our cultural responses to indulgence and restraint tend to veer towards extremes, and you find a generally humourless, puritanical lot crusading for various public health causes on one side and those who insist on their God-given right to kill themselves with smoke and fat if they so choose. One area where cultural conservatives might make a valuable contribution is trying to bring these two views more into balance. Promoting a sense of proportion, limits and restraint and encouraging the healthy enjoyment of food, and furthermore making the case that how and what a people eats is actually significant and not an irrelevant choice, could be one way that conservatives could attack a significant cause of health care expense by working to transform the culture and instill habits more in keeping with the virtues. This is a classic example of the need to have checks imposed from within if they are not going to be imposed from without.