A new direction for American conservatives

It’s time to end the post mortem and get moving, the only problem being that “getting moving” is proving to be as rancorous amongst conservatives as was the political cycle itself. One of the schisms I’m seeing in my own blog is between pro-Life and pro- (or, at least, not anti-) abortion types. That got me thinking about a potential way out of that, which was something that Danny Lemieux raised in an email: libertarianism.

I have to say that, when I was growing up, the term libertarian had exactly the same meaning for me as “completely nuts in a creepy way.” Ron Paul’s candidacy, which attracted an unseemly number of unpleasant people and ideas, didn’t help the whole concept of libertarianism. In fact, though, libertarianism is probably about as good an answer as there is, whether your question is “How do we counter Obama’s statism?” or “How do we cause the disparate elements of conservatism to coalesce?”

If you want an excellent primer on core libertarian principles, you can’t do better than Charles Murray’s What It Means to Be a Libertarian. In this short little book (almost a pamphlet, really), Murray spells out the fundamental libertarian concept, which is that maximum freedom means minimum government — and especially minimum federal government.

Contrary to big-government aficionados, who envision libertarianism as a sort of anarchic situation, akin to a perpetual Lord of the Flies world, Murray does not demand that government vanish. Instead, as I’ve often said here (inspired, no doubt, by Murray’s book), he envisions government as an entity that doesn’t guarantee prosperity, but that clears the way for individuals to seek that prosperity. When you think about this concept, you’ll quickly realize that it sounds familiar: it echoes Jefferson’s formulation of a free society as one in which the government creates the circumstances under which citizens are guaranteed, not happiness, but the right to pursue happiness.

In this libertarian world, government continues to be responsible for national security; domestic safety (which includes police forces, fire fighters, and guidance and protection during epidemic and endemic diseases); transportation infrastructure; and the assurance that no single group is targeted for discrimination in any of the marketplaces that make up a functional country (business, housing, education, etc.). As to that last, government would be charged with protecting citizens such as women and minorities from discrimination, but it would no longer use its brute force to give them a leg up in the marketplace.

Because the country is so large as to be unwieldy, we can also hand government a few more powers: it can make and enforce clear, limited rules for the securities market, but it may not control the market;* it can provide a safety net for those temporarily down on their luck; and it can provide resources for people permanently incapable of taking care of themselves (such as the profoundly handicapped).

Once upon a time, I would have said that the government should also provide public school education, but I’m more inclined to say that the (state) government should use tax dollars to provide vouchers to parents who can then enter the marketplace in a search for the education of their choice. In this marketplace, those vouchers may, in the first few years, be used for some pretty flaky and abhorrent schools. However, the fact that most parents want their children to succeed in the world would mean that the flaky schools would quickly vanish from the marketplace as their graduates would likely not do well in market competition. (And before you get upset about the poor guinea pig kids who are unlucky enough to have parents who make bad choices, think about the generations of children who have been condemned to the hell of poorly-performing public schools.)

There’s also an argument to be made for government to get out of the business of education altogether, but I can see that turning into a situation such as existed in the world before public education: only affluent people got educated. As a republic, I do believe we owe all of our children the right to a good education. Since the government is proving increasingly inept at providing that education, however, I just think we should let the marketplace take over.

The libertarianism I envision would also bypass the gay marriage issue which is becoming every more ugly. (And, really, do you think harassment and intimidation is really the way to win hearts and minds?) I would get the government out of the “marriage” business entirely and make everything “civil unions.”

Owing to the fact that, up until the American experiment, religious and civil marriage were inextricably intertwined, we’ve ended up with a bastardized system that uses the word marriage, but that is really concerned with extending certain civil benefits to those formalized relationships of which the state approves. These are relationships that, in gross (even if it is not true for every specific relationship) confer a benefit on the state. The most obvious benefit, of course, is population stability through children.

In addition to these civil concerns, marriage continues to exist in a parallel world as a purely religious construct. In Catholicism, for example, its part of core religious doctrine, and is, I understand, one of the seven sacraments.

If we continue to conflate religious marriage and civil unions, I can readily envision a situation in which a gay couple sues the Catholic church for refusing to conduct a marriage ceremony. Someone I know said this will never happen, because the Catholic church isn’t sued for refusing to give communion to pro-abortion people. This erroneous argument shows precisely the problem with conflating civil rights and religious doctrine. While abortion is a right, the church isn’t in the business of giving abortions; and while the church is in the business of giving communion, communion isn’t a right. However, the church is in the business of presiding over marriages and if you make civil “marriage” a right, even though you’re dealing with two entirely different concepts (a religious sacrament and a civil contract for tax and other benefits), you end up with a sued church.

In my libertarian world, the state would stop using the word marriage altogether and would allow people to register for civil unions. These civil unions would confer on the participants all the benefits and burdens that the state feels would best encourage such unions. And the state traditionally encourages these unions (1) because of children (every state needs citizens) and, due to those same children, (2) because of the stability those couples seek to create in order to protect those children both in the present and in the future. Frankly, the civil unions would look pretty much like modern civil marriages, but we would have gotten the state disentangled from its hangover relationship with religious marriage. We would also force the state to focus on societal goals in defining civil unions, which should allow us to bypass polygamy, polyamory and bestiality, all of which are tugging on the coat tails of “gay” marriage.

The approach I’ve outlined above also takes the federal government out of the abortion issue. As a voter, you would not need to investigate a candidate’s stand on the abortion issue. Instead, a solid conservative/libertarian citizen would simply vote for a candidate who would, in turn, appoint strict constructionist judges. These judges, if they’re intellectually honest, would say, as should have been said in 1973, that abortion is not a Constitutional right and therefore not a federal matter.

Once abortion is returned to local jurisdictions, citizens will have much more control over the issue, with those who are pro-Choice gravitating to states that allow less fettered abortion and those who are pro-Life gathering in jurisdictions with more fettered abortion. Time will tell which geographic areas are physically and emotionally healthier, more stable, more productive, more affluent, and generally more agreeable.

I realize that what I’m proposing is somewhat revolutionary, since it envisions dismantling large sectors of the federal government. And indeed, after several years of unfettered Democratic rule, there will be even more sectors to dismantle. Nevertheless, it’s a template that can bring the largest number of people into the conservative tent because it’s basic message is clear and attractive: You need to give just enough money to the government so that it can provide a safe, stable, fair environment that takes care of its weakest members. After that, all the choices are yours.

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*As a lawyer who has had the misfortunate to do some securities work, I can tell you that the plethora of extraordinarily confusing and poorly written regulations (both state and federal) does little to protect the “widows and orphans,” but it does make lawyers rich, all the while keeping businesses from maximizing their profitability.

Cross-posted at Bookworm Room

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