Since the Republican Presidential primaries I have heard many conservatives threatening to withhold their vote from Mitt Romney in the November election, either because he is not conservative enough or simply because he is not Ron Paul. Such sentiments are typically based upon principle alone, or else sending some sort of message to the “establishment.” I fear that this sentiment is, as the wise man once said, allowing the perfect to become the enemy of the good. Continue reading Mitt Romney: Lesser Of Two Evils?
In the name of supporting freedom of expression and consumer choice, Amazon made a controversial book available for sale to Kindle users: “The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure: a Child-lover’s Code of Conduct.” According to an MSNBC news article, the book offers “advice to pedophiles afraid of becoming the center of retaliation.” According to the author, his work is (misspellings his own) his “attempt to make pedophile situations safer for those juveniles that find themselves involved in them, by establishing certian rules for these adults to follow.”
The reviews on the book’s page reflected the outrage of many of Amazon’s patrons, to whom Amazon defended their choice to sell the book. Responding that “it is censorship not to sell certain books simply because we or others believe their message is objectionable…we do support the right of every individual to make their own purchasing decisions.”
The purpose of free speech
Amazon is correct in that they do have the freedom to publish such material. But does that mean they should?
When it was included in the Bill of Rights, free speech was not designated arbitrarily. It was included to protect an individual’s rights from being trampled by the federal government—not to give the individual permission to do whatever he wanted. Freedom of speech is foundational to all other freedoms because it preserves space for dissent, for ideas and opinions to be heard—but it is not freedom to say whatever you want. It is freedom to pursue truth.
In order for truth to surface in public dialogue, there must be public space for a free exchange of ideas. Wendell Berry, in his essay “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community” argues that freedom exists because people will disagree, and that freedom is “a way of guaranteeing to individuals and to political bodies the right to be different from one another.”
Notice that Berry does not say that free speech is protected for the purpose of doing what we want—it exists for the good of society. Because freedom is not the license to do whatever we please, our individual freedoms come with corresponding duties to our communities. In the case of this book, Amazon is the private individual and the community is all the families that shop Amazon.com.
Why Amazon was right to remove the book
After a few days, Amazon removed the book from its site, presumably because of the public outcry and threats of boycott. And they were right to do so. Respect for the community should not be taken lightly. According to Barry, only the sphere of community can mediate between public and private interests.
Community “identifies itself by an understood mutuality of interests”—namely, virtues such as trust, temperance, mercy, kindness, and forgiveness. In order for communities to flourish, they must encourage these virtues. Properly functioning communities will “invariably, not as a rule . . . enforce decency without litigation.”
Absent this idea of community, where decency is encouraged, “private” comes to mean an area which individuals defend as space for doing what they please, even if this includes limiting or destroying the rights of others. The community alone has the power to influence behavior by dictating “what works and what does not work in a given place.” Only a community can determine for itself what is good and what is harmful.
Community has an interest in being able to protect itself. And for the sake of freedom of speech, the public ought to let it. But free speech is not an absolute right. It only exists as people concur that it should. Says Berry, “One person alone cannot uphold the freedom of speech…[It] is a public absolute, and it can remain absolute only so long as a sufficient segment of the public believes that it is and consents to uphold it. It is an absolute that can be destroyed by public opinion…If this freedom is abused and if a sufficient segment of the public becomes sufficiently resentful of the abuses, then the freedom will be revoked. It is a freedom, therefore, that depends directly on responsibility. And so the First Amendment alone is not a sufficient guarantee of the freedom of speech (emphasis added).”
The standards of a community ought to be considered because the community is a part of “the people” whose support is necessary to uphold free speech as a right. This is why it is not right for Amazon to ignore the opinions of the community in the name of free speech alone.
Amazon is correct: individuals do have the right to make their own purchasing decisions. However, when the community complains, Amazon ought to listen. Communities are rightfully interested in their own self-preservation, and this includes upholding some sort of moral standard. Where public laws exist to bind the government to a particular arena, communities exist to uphold morality and decency, and to tell people how they ought to live. The government should not do this, and an individual alone cannot. Therefore, we must rely on the community to be the mediating pathway in many areas. If a community determines that it ought to uphold certain standards of decency, the public sphere ought to listen. If free speech exists only because the majority of people support it, individuals should not destroy that which allows the community to flourish with their freedom– lest they lose it.
Finally, it is right that the government not control what books Amazon sells. It is dangerous when the government involves itself in our ability to freely exchange ideas. Yes, “The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure: a Child-lover’s Code of Conduct” is offensive. However, the government should not make a law, and it will not have to, if the community is allowed to function properly. Decency will be encouraged, and there will be no desire—or need—for litigation.
When a man claims he can build a tower so tall that it reaches God, raise your eyebrows and ask skeptical questions. Beyond warnings against architectural hubris, the story of the Tower of Babel also says much about modern understandings of government.
Has Rush Limbaugh ‘jumped the shark’? That depends on what you think his purpose is. Is he, as Michael Steele no doubt wishes he hadn’t said, just ‘an entertainer’? Or is he the de facto leader of the Republican party, as so many liberals would like him to be?
Rush Limbaugh is not the head of the Republican party. And he’s not just an entertainer. He is…. Rush Limbaugh. And frankly, that’s ‘the way things oughtta be.’
Rush Limbaugh has arguably done more than any other conservative commentator to give regular folks a voice – to help the average conservative understand and articulate the views he’s always taken for granted. He gives the guy on the street not only a voice but a vocabulary with which to voice his frustrations. He’s helped put many members of the Right on the same page by serving as a sort of ‘shared text’. The taxi driver who doesn’t know what laissez-faire means can discuss economics at length with a fellow ditto-head because Rush gave him the means to do so.
Is this vocabulary out-dated? Has Rush ‘jumped the shark’? Not yet.
Author’s note: This is a slightly edited version of an article that was published a few years ago at California Republic . -Rachel Motte
Today’s young conservative activists often lack a clear idea of what conservatism means. Drawn by the excitement generated by a popular candidate or policy, many accept conservatism because it has been presented to them in an attractive way, not because they understand that the principles it promotes are true.
This is an easy trap for young people, and calls to mind a passage in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. The passage describes a man who was so serious about a cause that he was willing to sacrifice even his life for it; yet even with all his fervor, he was unwilling to do the hard intellectual work that would train him to think well and thus defend his cause most effectively.
Students are no longer given a sound grounding in the Liberal Arts in school, so it’s no wonder they don’t know how to grapple with difficult ideas properly. Like so many other young people throughout history, they fail to think through their decisions and end up fighting fiercely for something they cannot always fully define.
Many college students get involved in politics because they enjoy the social interaction and stimulating environment, not because they fully understand what they are getting themselves into. Those who genuinely do want to make a difference in the world are often like the man described above; they are willing to make sacrifices, but are unwilling to make the most effective sacrifice. Conservatism would benefit tremendously if its young workforce would spend a little less time networking and a lot more time studying the great ideas that define the western civilization they will someday be responsible for protecting.
It has been said that a return to the intellectual rigor that characterized conservative groups in the 1960’s is needed to ensure the unity and effectiveness of the movement. There is a lot of truth to this; however, there is also some danger. Student-led campus groups and conservative training organizations have done much to educate young people in the philosophies of conservatism, but fail to get at the root of the real problem facing the movement: Lack of virtue.
The most rigorous intellectual training program in the world is worth nothing if its students do not learn virtue, because it is useless to study the truth unless one is transformed by it. The brightest, most loyal conservative will not be able to make a significant difference in the culture unless he first makes the sacrifices that are needed to learn to live well.
The moral conduct of a leader affects the conduct of those under him. He teaches others how to live — if he is a righteous and virtuous man, many who support him will follow his example. If he is a corrupt man, his followers may be corrupted. Those who followed the Clinton impeachment proceedings know well that intelligent, well-educated people in positions of power can be very dangerous if their personal lives are characterized by bad conduct. Bill Clinton’s affair made it easier for others to justify their own sins, and marital unfaithfulness became even more acceptable to the general public.
Both liberal and conservative leaders have been found guilty of adultery in recent years. I was in high school when I heard of Newt Gingrich’s affair, and was shocked that one of the “good guys” had made such an enormous mistake. I know now that such things are no less common among conservatives than among those with whom they disagree.
Conservatives will never be able to make a significant cultural impact if they continue to live badly. Each new generation of activists looks a little less like the one that came before, and a little more like the enemy it opposes. What does it mean for the future of the west when those who love it most are little better than those who want to see it destroyed? ‘
[Note: This post is part of the “On Conservatism” series.]
Having cleared away some of the semantic underbrush, we can return to the original questions: What is the meaning of the phrase “limited government” and what political questions are we addressing when we appeal to that principle?
The most complete and illuminating statement addressing this question is found in a recent essay by Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University:
In his latest book, Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again, David Frum relates a story from the 1950s about an ex-Communist who got into an argument with a young man newly infatuated with Marxism. The older man retorted: “Your answer are so old that I’ve forgotten the questions.”
In many ways we conservatives are like the young Marxist. Often we are more familiar with the proper answer than we are with the questions they address. For example, we consider “limited government” to be one of the first principles of political conservatism. But what does the phrase really mean? And what political questions are we addressing when we appeal to limited government?
Before we answer it would be useful to distinguish what we should not mean when we use that phrase. Here are three ways in which I believe we misunderstand the concept of “limited government.”
[Note: This post is part of the “On Conservatism” series.]
Because the purpose of this series is to explore the “the contours of conservatism” the majority of the posts will focus on the ideas and perspective of the past. But it is also useful to be aware of the trends that conservative thought are more current and are shaping the future direction of the movement. One of the most disturbing trends is the direction exemplified by Andrew Sullivan.
We tend to discount the impact of our contemporaries, particularly when we disagree with them. Not surprisingly, most conservatives scoff at the notion that Sullivan is all that influential. I too once underestimated his importance as a thinker. Although I have always considered him an entertaining blogger, for many years I failed to recognize his transpositive genius.
I had failed to recognize that like many profound theorists, Sullivan doesn’t always use words in their generally accepted usage, choosing instead to imbue them with his own nuance. Take, for example, his use of the term “conservatism.” In a post in 2005, Sullivan quotes Glenn Reynolds, “coming to terms with what the religious right is doing to conservative principles.” Sullivan adds,
The important point is that religious zealotry cannot be incorporated into conservatism. It is the nemesis of conservatism. And it has to be purged in order for conservatism to be revived.
While it might not be an ideal, there is, of course, nothing incompatible about “religious zealotry” and conservatism. In fact, as Russell Kirk noted, one of the first principles of conservatism is a belief “that there exists a transcendent moral order, to which we ought to conform the ways of society. A divine tactic, however dimly descried, is at work in human society.” Taken at face value, such a comment by a man with a doctorate in Political Science from Harvard would be worthy of nothing more than ridicule. But Sullivan should not be so easily dismissed.
Obviously, his use of the term in no way resembles the philosophy of Russell Kirk or Edmund Burke. When Sullivan talks about conservatism, particularly when he uses the label in reference to his own beliefs, he is redefining the term to apply to his own odd mix of radical individualism and Oakeshottism, a philosophy that could best be described as Sullivanism
[Note: This post is part of the “On Conservatism” series.]
Recently a friend wrote, “Conservatism is what it is and it’s not subject to interpretation. It’s not a “living” concept subject to the vagaries of public opinion. It’s small government, low taxes and muscular foreign policy in its simplest form.” I suspect most conservatives in America would not in agreement, which is an ironic testament that the word has lost all traditional meaning.
I started this series because I believe that we have failed to pay attention to what leading conservative writers and politicians have said and done. This is particularly true when it comes to conservatives who live outside our borders yet share our same outlook. One example is the British novelist Evelyn Waugh.
William F. Buckley, Jr. considered Waugh to be “the greatest English novelist of the century” and his novels are certainly are worth reading (A Handful of Dust is a personal favorite). But it was a travel memoir that best represents Waugh’s conservative thought. In his book, Mexico: An Object Lesson, he presents what could be considered a succinct manifesto of his British, Catholic-influenced conservatism* (I’ve taken the liberty of breaking up the paragraph to make it easier to read):
[Note: This post is part of the “On Conservatism” series.]
In modern American there are almost as many brands of conservatism as there are conservatives. There are neo-cons and paleocons, theocons and crunchy cons. There are social conservative and fiscal conservatives. Conservatives who aim for National Greatness and others who strive to be Compassionate. There are the oxymoronic “Big Government conservatives” and “South Park Conservatives.” And some claims to conservatism that are simply moronic (i.e., Andrew Sullivan, Rudy Giuliani).
Unless you’re already familiar with the political taxonomy, such labels aren’t particularly useful. To truly understand what a conservative believes, it is often more instructive to simply ask what it is they want to conserve.
My own answer to that question would be the same as that of Russell Kirk: The institution most essential to conserve is the family.
I believe that while ultimate sovereignty belongs to God alone, He delegates authority throughout society to various institutional structures (i.e., churches, businesses, the state, etc.). Naturally, these institutions are not immune to the effects of sin or human depravity but they still retain the legitimate authority given to them by our Creator. Although each of these institutions is important, the most essential is the family. My political philosophy could be called “family-first conservatism” for I believe that the institution of the family should be given pride of place in decisions about public policy.
While family-first conservatism is rather limited in scope, I believe it is a robust enough to generate a core set of principles and policy prescriptions. The principles, which I have gleaned from the writings of better thinkers than myself, are outlined in the following manifesto:
1. We believe the family is the basic unit of society.
2. We believe that from birth we are initiated into the community structure of the family. We are not thrust into a state of radical individualism but rather into the most basic form of community. We are created to be both individuated persons and members of a community; neither can be reduced into the other.
3. We believe the heart of the family is the pre-political institution of marriage, a “one-flesh union” of sexually complementary spouses who cleave to each other in permanent commitment, loyalty, and fidelity and that this one-flesh communion is naturally ordered to the good of spousal unity, to procreation, and to the nurturing of children.
4. We believe it is a self-evident truth that all human beings are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of human flourishing.
5. We believe in protecting the intrinsic dignity of all members of the human family, at any and every stage of life, in any and every state of consciousness or self-awareness, of any and every race, color, ethnicity, level of intelligence, religion, language, gender, character, behavior, physical ability/disability, potential, class, social status, etc., and believe that they must be treated in a manner commensurate with this moral status.
6. We believe the interaction between people in community has lead naturally to societal pluriformity and the formation of various social structures. Families interact with other families to create distinct communities such as the tribe, the city, and the state and that the various tasks and requirements for living has lead to the formation of churches, schools, businesses, civic unions, etc.
7. We believe that each of these structures or spheres of influence has its own autonomy and responsibility and is sovereign within its own sphere. Each also has its locus of sovereignty which is derived not from another structure from God alone. This forms a non-hierarchical structure where all authority is ultimately derived from our Creator.
8. We believe that parents have the primary sphere of authority and influence over the upbringing of their children and that this role may not be usurped by other institutions unless necessary to prevent the child from suffering harm.
9. We believe that while parental authority is primary, other institutions have an interest and a duty in protecting the welfare of children and should do what they can to create and preserve a moral ecology that is conducive to creating virtuous citizens.
10. We believe that while social structures are non-hierarchical, the family should be considered “first among equals” and given special consideration in making decisions about public policy.