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We’re All Reactionaries Now

Tim Carney makes the eminently sane point that religious conservatives need not–and in fact, should not–align themselves with big government to accomplish their goals:

This is how the culture war generally plays out these days: The Left uses government to force religious people and cultural conservatives to violate their consciences, and then cries “theocracy” when conservatives object.

This truth needs to get out there. The media need to figure out who is imposing morality on whom. Libertarians need to reassess their allegiances on social matters. And cultural conservatives need to understand that government is inherently their enemy.

He’s not the first to suggest that anti-government sentiment has sprung up in some unusual places recently. “[T]he continuing power of the conservative anti-government idea,” to quote E.J. Dionne’s blatant apologia for statism, is stronger today than at any time in recent memory. This could mean that the unholy power-seeking symbiosis of the modern GOP and the religious right might finally be taking a more heterodox turn. And although they’ll get in bed with pretty much anyone else, libertarians hate to get in bed with cultural conservatives, even though the potential political gain could portend a long, happy, antistate affair. David Boaz and Walter Olson both chafed at the suggestion that “Libertarians need to reassess their allegiances on social matters.” Yet, the arguments they offer to refute Carney are strained. Says Olson:

Meanwhile, as Carney rightly observes, many who share his own religious convictions “have too often embraced government, either in the name of social justice or traditional values.” It might be noted that modern discrimination law accords “protected group” status to religion itself, an inclusion that remains curiously uncontroversial among many religious conservatives even though it carries with it a rich potential for chipping away at private conscience rights and the autonomy of private institutions.

Boaz takes a stronger tone, noting several examples of authoritarian conservatism run amok:

  • Conservatives, like National Reviewsupported state-imposed racial segregation in the 1950s and 1960s. (I won’t go back and claim that “conservatives” supported slavery or other pre-modern violations of freedom.)
  • Conservatives opposed legal and social equality for women.
  • Conservatives supported laws banning homosexual acts among consenting adults.
  • Conservatives still oppose equal marriage rights for gay couples.
  • Conservatives (and plenty of liberals) support the policy of drug prohibition, which results in nearly a million arrests a year for marijuana use.
  • Conservatives support state-imposed prayers and other endorsements of religion in public schools.

I can understand Boaz’s reluctance to embrace cultural conservatives–nearly every time they’ve taken power at the national level they have used it to restrict freedom. But some of these criticisms are unfair. Boaz would have to count Ron Paul among those conservatives who “oppose equal marriage rights” because of his deference to the 10th amendment, though if he were a state legislator faced with a gay marriage ban, I don’t doubt he would vote against it. Pat Robertson opposes the drug war.

But in general I’d bet that Carney considers most, perhaps all of these examples of the conservative statism he’d like to get away from.  Robert Murphy argued last week that government intervention breeds this sort of conflict. You don’t have to argue about prayer in schools if public schools don’t exist, so abolish them, say the libertarians. Yet, the homeschooling community is comprised largely of social conservatives.

Carney is absolutely right that the growth in state power has made anti-authoritarians out of the pious and formerly obeisant. Interestingly, Paul Gottfried has argued that the state’s growth has also put libertarians in a “reactionary position.” But it seems like Carney and the Cato folks are speaking past one another on the question of exactly how powerful anti-government sentiment is today on the American right. The Moral Majority was a trojan horse for statism. The Tea Party is emphatically not. If anti-government sentiment as powerful as E.J. Dionne seems to fear it is, then that seems like something libertarians should embrace.

Update: Carney responds: “The need for reassessment is not in Cato’s lobbying agenda or Reason’s article choice, but it’s in what I see on an individual, personal level: too many libertarians who see religion as itself an enemy to freedom. This isn’t most libertarians in Washington, but I feel it’s a lot of them.”

about the author

Arthur Bloom is editor of The American Conservative online. He was previously deputy editor of the Daily Caller and a columnist for the Catholic Herald. He holds masters degrees in urban planning and American studies from the University of Kansas. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Washington Times, The Spectator (UK), The Guardian, Quillette, The American Spectator, Modern Age, and Tiny Mix Tapes.

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