Conservatives are Not Our Friends

 Posted by on 5 September 2005 at 7:45 pm  Uncategorized
Sep 052005

Senator Rick Santorum (3rd ranking Republican in the US Senate and staunch religious conservative) has spelled out the new right-wing ideology in his book It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good. According to this harsh review, it marks the end of the Goldwater-Madison-Jefferson approach to minimal government, and instead a new conservative view of government in support of duty-based “virtues”. Needless to say, this is antithetically opposed to the Objectivist principle of individual rights.

Here are some selected quotes from the review:

The book is worth taking seriously for several reasons, not least of which is that it is a serious book. The writing and thinking are consistently competent, often better than that… Santorum wrestles intelligently, often impressively, with the biggest of big ideas: freedom, virtue, civil society, the Founders’ intentions… It’s now official: Philosophically, the conservative movement has split.

In Santorum’s view, freedom is not the same as liberty. Or, to put it differently, there are two kinds of freedom. One is “no-fault freedom,” individual autonomy uncoupled from any larger purpose: “freedom to choose, irrespective of the choice.” This, he says, is “the liberal definition of freedom,” and it is the one that has taken over in the culture and been imposed on the country by the courts.

Quite different is “the conservative view of freedom,” “the liberty our Founders understood.” This is “freedom coupled with the responsibility to something bigger or higher than the self.” True liberty is freedom in the service of virtue — not “the freedom to be as selfish as I want to be,” or “the freedom to be left alone,” but “the freedom to attend to one’s duties — duties to God, to family, and to neighbors.”

…Where Goldwater denounced collectivism as the enemy of the individual, Santorum denounces individualism as the enemy of family. On page 426, Santorum says this: “In the conservative vision, people are first connected to and part of families: The family, not the individual, is the fundamental unit of society.” Those words are not merely uncomfortable with the individual-rights tradition of modern conservatism. They are incompatible with it.

A list of the government interventions that Santorum endorses includes national service, promotion of prison ministries, “individual development accounts,” publicly financed trust funds for children, community-investment incentives, strengthened obscenity enforcement, covenant marriage, assorted tax breaks, economic literacy programs in “every school in America” (his italics), and more. Lots more.

Though he is a populist critic of Big Government, Santorum shows no interest in defining principled limits on political power. His first priority is to make government pro-family, not to make it small. He has no use for a constitutional (or, as far as one can tell, moral) right to privacy, which he regards as a “constitutional wrecking ball” that has become inimical to the very principle of the common good. Ditto for the notions of government neutrality and free expression. He does not support a ban on contraception, but he thinks the government has every right to impose one.

The quarrel between virtue and freedom is an ancient and profound one. Santorum’s suspicion of liberal individualism has a long pedigree and is not without support in American history…

With It Takes a Family, Rick Santorum has served notice. The bold new challenge to the Goldwater-Reagan tradition in American politics comes not from the Left, but from the Right.

Chilling words. Although I don’t agree with everything in the review, I think the main point is correct, namely that the Right poses a significant and growing threat to our individual liberties. Santorum’s book provides an intellectual defense for the appalling ideas exemplified by the “Dear Abby” reader in this recent post.

Hence, it will be interesting to see how this plays out over the next few years within the ranks of those who call themselves “conservative”. One key will be the response of the secular conservatives who claim to want a minimal government — will they repudiate the views of their religious brethren, or will they betray their principles in order to retain political power? Obviously, I hope they choose the former, but I fear they will choose the latter. Personally, I am not optimistic that anyone will arise from the ranks of the conservatives who will consistently defend individual rights. Instead, I suspect we’ll see a lot more talk from the Right about “virtue”, “duty” and “sacrifice for the common good”, just with a different notion of what constitutes the “common good” than we’ve heard from the Left.

But at least we will have a clear battleground on which to oppose these ideas. If the ideological battle is cast in terms of “virtue vs. individual rights”, then Objectivists are in a perfect position to challenge this false dichotomy and provide a rational alternative ethical and political philosophy.

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