November 29, 2009

The Conservative Eagle Has Two Wings

Justin Katz

Periodically, one picks up a hint from the libertarian quarters of the broader tea party movement that they see, in it, an opportunity to assert economic conservatism apart from social conservatism. As I noted while observing the size and diversity of the crowd at the marriage-vow-renewal ceremony hosted by the National Organization for Marriage - Rhode Island, I don't see that as a plausible political strategy. The point emerges, again, with this information from NOM's national head Maggie Gallagher:

Over in New York, the collapse of Dede Scozzafava is another big story. Scozzafava was handpicked to become the first openly pro-gay marriage Republican in a district where the vast majority of Republicans and independents (and even a big chunk of Democrats) oppose gay marriage.

A National Organization of Marriage poll of likely voters in New York's 23rd Congressional District revealed that fully 50 percent of her opponent's supporters said that Scozzafava's vote for gay marriage was a factor in their decision not to support her.

Granted, I watched that race only peripherally, and political horse-race commentary tends to focus on less, well, mushy subjects than social issues (which is to say it tends to be wonkish), but I hadn't seen the marriage issue mentioned as a factor in Doug Hoffman's out-of-nowhere wave. Obviously, Maggie has reason to emphasize her core issue, and the shorthand of "liberal v. conservative" still includes the social issues in most cases.

Still, it's worth reasserting that conservatism will fail if it doesn't apply its principles across the board. In conjunction with liberal morality, conservative economics only feed an aristocracy and modern conservative governance fails, but not before creating a seedy underclass.

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You could not be any more wrong. I have no religion. I support all the social issues you are against- marriage, abortion, immigration. Yet I am a conservative spender, environmentalist, governmentalist. Limiting government means something very differently to me than what you proscribe. And , please, do not confuse me with those DAN types.

Posted by: David S at November 29, 2009 4:24 PM

"Still, it's worth reasserting that conservatism will fail if it doesn't apply its principles across the board. In conjunction with liberal morality, conservative economics only feed an aristocracy and modern conservative governance fails, but not before creating a seedy underclass."

Did you mean NEEDY underclass? Because that has been the rw mantra for quite some time. If seedy, how so?

Posted by: David S at November 29, 2009 4:45 PM


Obviously, it's possible for an individual to simultaneously hold your views. Self-contradiction and error are not exactly strangers to the human psyche. It is as a salable philosophy and a strategy for governing that the libertarian/moderate will fail.

A seedy underclass is precisely what a combination of free-market economics, hands-off governance, and do-anything morality will produce. I think you can figure out what I mean.

Posted by: Justin Katz at November 29, 2009 7:07 PM

"Still, it's worth reasserting that conservatism will fail if it doesn't apply its principles across the board."

Please explain to me how the issue of gay marriage is at all related to fiscal conservativism in terms of principles.

You are simply pretending there is coherence where there is none. Unlike libertarianism, which is a coherent political philosophy per se (small government, individual liberty, and the all important no-harm principle), American "conservativism," like so-called "liberalism," is simply a hodge-podge of random, unrelated positions on all manner of things which are, in aggregate, sufficiently politically popular to garner votes in elections.

In other words, you've got the cart before the horse. Libertarianism is politically unpopular precisely because it is a coherent philosophy, and because it is not a political compromise between disparate social and economic voting blocks the way "conservativism" is.

Note that whether any individual person happens to be both fiscally and socially conservative is besides the point.

P.S. Most people in America self-report as socially liberal and fiscally conservative.

Posted by: Dan at November 29, 2009 9:16 PM


There's abstract theoretical coherence and there's functional coherence. As a carpenter, I can envision a theory of building that dictates that no lumber should have holes in it, so as to maintain the integrity of the structure. At a minimum, this would create all sorts of difficulties that would price houses beyond the reach of most people. At the extreme, it would forbid the use of nails, screws, and bolts. We tolerate the holes for other purposes. Libertarian coherence is like the pure unity of a stoner's drug-induced vision of reality.

Gay marriage to fiscal conservatism: I'll skip over the easy stuff, like the parallel between the importance of consistent social laws that can't be changed at a judicial whim, thus manipulating layers of preexisting legislation, and the importance of consistent financial laws that can't change the terms of contracts after the fact.

The underlying principle is that what enables limited government and limited regulation is the existence of other structures in society. A society that does not encourage voluntary adherence to simple guidelines (such as that procreation and marriage are inextricably linked) will find that it must regulate every aspect of life. A society that does not have mechanisms for helping the downtrodden will find the downtrodden leveraging the government for Robin Hood schemes. The balance for government ought to be that it does not muddy society's attempts to build non-governmental structures that effect a sort of moral self-regulation. Setting aside a relationship type for the only pairing that can conceive children is one area of application. Deregulating just about anything (notably healthcare) would facilitate private responsibility and charity. (I read recently that a Mayor Bloomberg law banning transfats is resulting in food kitchens actually throwing donations in the garbage, despite increasing demand for sustenance.)

Posted by: Justin Katz at November 29, 2009 9:44 PM

"Still, it's worth reasserting that conservatism will fail if it doesn't apply its principles across the board."

That is an idea which bears repeating. I don't understand "moving toward the middle". This some sort of "seeking an average".

I don't see how "seeking the middle" forms a base. Particularly since that "middle" is a constantly moving target.

If the attitudes of a group are "averaged" it is very possible that only one person in that group has all of their attiudes at the "average". All of the others vary, in some degree, from that average. It would seem better to have "firm points" that will create a base among those that do not meet the average.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at November 29, 2009 11:02 PM

The way you relate gay marriage to fiscal conservativism seems to be mostly procedural in nature, and doesn't really relate to the substantive issues. I don't have a problem characterizing the relationship as strained, if not nonexistent. The same with all of the conservative pet causes: banning marijuana, illegal immigration, more military spending, foreign interventionism, prostitution, etc. there isn't really any one unifying theory or philosophy that one can point to as from where all of these stem. At least not one that a 10-12 year old could understand (not a bad test for coherence). On the other hand, libertarians can sum up all of their positions with the statement that initiating violence against other people is wrong.

The trans fat issue is simply what economists call the law of unintended consequences - a good argument against interference in the free market and small (or nonexistent) government.

While I think many libertarians are unfairly accused of being purists or out of touch with reality (despite the fact that politics is the making of our own reality in the first place), there is nothing inherently bad with purity or consistency. It's all about how you frame the issue.

For example, is being an anti-cannibalism purist a bad thing?
Is being an anti-abortion purist a bad thing?
Is being an anti-biological weapons purist a bad thing?

Why is being an anti-government purist a bad thing? After all, what is government except a monopoly on the initiation of violence, and I hardly think you would fault somebody for being a purist on that issue in their day to day life.

Posted by: Dan at November 29, 2009 11:20 PM

The central tenet of the tea party movement is a desire for freedom, in particular economic freedom, as defined by fiscally responsible and accountable smaller government and adherence to the principles of the US Consititution. Just as social issues were not the driving force behind the Revolutionary War, so too are they absent from the stated core principles of the tea party. There are moral aspects behind these beliefs, but only to the point which they are defined in the Constitution.

The tea party is laser focused on its guiding principles and will not be distracted by anything else. Our freedom is at stake; social issues can be dealt with by the people in times less threatening to the viability of our country as a land which respects our individual rights and liberty.

Posted by: MadMom at November 30, 2009 11:22 AM

Freedom seems like a rather important issue and a social issue at that. The freedom of two people who love each other being able to marry is to much to ask.That freedom should only be for the heterosexual couple.

Posted by: skippy at November 30, 2009 1:40 PM

Skippy: Freedom does not extend to redefining social institutions to fit one's preferences. Homosexuals certainly deserve the freedom to be with each other, and I do believe that society ought to develop a means of encouraging them to do so in stable, monogamous relationships.

That does not mean that intimate relationships between people of the same sex are equivalent to intimate relationships between people of opposite sex. "Better" or "worse" are matters of individual perspective, but it's simple acknowledgment of reality to accept that heterosexual sex has a potential that homosexual sex constitutionally lacks.

Posted by: Justin Katz at November 30, 2009 7:27 PM


Well, you'd have to draw the circle around "driving force[s] behind the Revolutionary War" rather tightly to exclude matters of social concern — excluding, especially, the impetus for traversing the Atlantic Ocean in the first place. But to the extent that your statement has merit, it wouldn't be presumptuous to suggest three things:

1. That there was adequate agreement on social issues from colony to colony and to the empire that they didn't have to be central to the Revolution.
2. That the colonies duly respected each other's rights to self-government, even to the point of putting aside the naked evil of slavery.
3. The Founders had reason to expect that the morality of the public would be looked after in other sphere's than government.

Be the historical adjustments as they may, I'd suggest that you'd do well not to ignore social conservatives as you organize and endorse candidates. Most of us, I dare say, are willing to accept the status quo on social issues as economic and civic freedoms are reaffirmed. If the tea party looks to be a libertarian coup, however, you'll likely see its successes begin to sink toward those of the Libertarian Party.

Keep in mind, too, that the linkage of social and economic liberalism is not coincidental. Indeed, many of our freedoms — economic freedoms, freedoms of association (especially in business), and civic freedoms pertaining to federalism — have been eroded explicitly in the push for social liberalism.

Lasers are nifty things, but they aren't always the best tool for the job, lest you burn holes in that which you're merely trying to reshape.

Posted by: Justin Katz at November 30, 2009 7:40 PM

Those social issues which drove the colonists to the new world were already put to bed well over 100 years prior to the Revolution, particularly due to that wonderful aspect of independent quasi-self governance by the states. But if not for the burning desire for economic freedom, we would still be bowing to the Queen. No social issue of the time would have instigated a similar rebellion by a small new country against the world's foremost empire. They seem to have succeeded quite well without co-opting social issues as part of the bargain to sway the number of forces necessary to win.

The tea party carries no political banner; it welcomes all who espouse the principles mentioned previously. If folks want to bundle their particular social concerns in with their fight for freedom, they are free to do so. It's likely that most candidates who advocate for the same issues as the tea party will not be social progressives, but it's not a given (for example there may be a Moderate candidate who is a better choice than a Democrat incumbent in RI).

Freedom, particularly as defined in the Constitution, overrides everything. I would fight to the death to protect my children's liberty. I can't think of any social issue for which I would do the same.

Posted by: MadMom at November 30, 2009 8:19 PM

Oh? You wouldn't "fight to the death" to keep your children out of the reach of pedophiles? What about eugenicists who would kill them if they proved to have some disability? Or who would limit you to a certain number of children? How about government bureaucrats who would indoctrinate our sons and daughters about the aesthetic values of sadomasochism?

Or let's not be so extreme. What about a government that would deny them the right to vote according to their religious principles? Or one in which a wealthy minority could rewrite the dictionary by declaring their preferences to be "civil rights"? A federal judiciary that dictates cultural minutia at the local level?

Perhaps we're different, you and I, but I'd tolerate a good bit more taxation rather than turn my children over to a fully nationalized government regime co-opted by people who seek to deny our right to carve out enclaves in which to live moral lives.

Again, I'm obviously not ignorant of political realities. I'm merely offering a cautionary statement to those who would capitalize on the tea party emphasis that you describe in order to push social liberalism.

My point is simply that you should advocate what you prefer to advocate, and I'll do the same, but that our movement will not survive unless the sum total of our effects is to apply conservative principles across the board.

You might find it beneficial to ponder, for example, what you would say to a potential supporter who wants to know how society can prevent our preferred economic policies from crushing those who are economically vulnerable. As I said, I'd suggest that you cannot contrive a satisfactory answer without a socially conservative component.

Posted by: Justin Katz at November 30, 2009 8:46 PM

I'll add this, having just reread the Declaration of Independence: the focus is clearly not so much economics as civic rights of self governance. I can't think of a single social issue at the national level for which a critical component isn't the right of citizens to determine the shape of their government despite the preferences of representatives of higher levels of government, especially in their emphasis on selective individual rights.

Posted by: Justin Katz at November 30, 2009 9:49 PM

Which is why the tea party focuses on small, accountable government for, of, and by the people. I would argue that all of your extreme examples of social issues are covered under the protections of the Constitution, are they not? Law and order, national security, freedom of speech and religion, general welfare, etc. I'm not advocating no government, or no taxes. That is absolutely a misrepresentation of what drives the tea party movement. It's about accountability of elected officials, responsible fiscal policy, inalienable rights, individual liberty, but within the confines of the Constitution. We'll fight the government takeover of healthcare, because that is another big government power grab which limits our freedoms. But you won't see the tea party marching to DC to protest gay marriage or abortion even though many of us feel strongly about those issues.

Check this out:

I wonder if, in the context of the time, if all of the founding fathers were social conservatives? I don't know, but my guess is, probably not.

Posted by: MadMom at November 30, 2009 10:54 PM

And this...

Posted by: Madmom at December 1, 2009 12:25 AM

Not sure what you're ultimately arguing against. I'm not calling on the tea party organizations to shift their focus to social issues. I've merely been saying that their supporters shouldn't take tea party enthusiasm as an opportunity to jettison social conservatives because the movement and its political philosophy will fail.

I disagree, by the way, that "context of the time" is the relevant measure of the Founders' political philosophies. Generally speaking, they had a vision of government and a certain range of social morality within which they believed it would work. If you're going to introduce relativism on social matters, I see no reason distinction from the Left applying the same sliding scales on matters of government intrusion in our lives.

Posted by: Justin Katz at December 1, 2009 5:14 AM
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