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Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Republican Split

This National Journal Article on Rick Santorum's new book is interesting:

In 1960, a Republican senator named Barry Goldwater published a little book called The Conscience of a Conservative. The first printing of 10,000 copies led to a second of the same size, then a third of 50,000, until ultimately it sold more than 3 million copies. Goldwater's presidential candidacy crashed in 1964, but his ideas did not: For decades, Goldwater's hostility to Big Government ruled the American Right. Until, approximately, now. Rick Santorum, a second-term Republican senator from Pennsylvania, has written a new book called It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good. 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. The lapses into right-wing talk-radioese ('liberals practically despise the common man') are rare. Santorum wrestles intelligently, often impressively, with the biggest of big ideas: freedom, virtue, civil society, the Founders' intentions. Although he is a Catholic who is often characterized as a religious conservative, he has written a book whose ambitions are secular. As its subtitle promises, it is about conservatism, not Christianity.
These two traditions, the libertanianish Goldwater conservatives and the Social conservatives have long had different goals. Historically, they have allied because however diverse their goals were, they hated the Liberal position more and were happy to ignore internal conflicts to focus on the greater danger. With Liberals out of power, and seeming determined to remain there, the ideological differences between these two strains have become far more prominent. This trend will likely continue for a time, although I don't think we will see a major political split for at least a couple of elections. Continued erosion of the Democratic party would hasten this, but I expect that Hillary Clinton will single handily hold the Republican coalition together until at least 2016. Some of the specifics Santorum is talking about I have sympathy with.
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. Santorum seems to sense as much. In an interview with National Public Radio last month, he acknowledged his quarrel with "what I refer to as more of a libertarianish Right" and "this whole idea of personal autonomy." In his book he comments, seemingly with a shrug, "Some will reject what I have to say as a kind of 'Big Government' conservatism." They sure will. 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.
I have argued in the past that a view that the family, not the individual, is the basic unit of society makes a lot of sense. However sensible this may be from a sociological standpoint though, I am skeptical of the ability of Government to utilize this principle. Family is tough to define, and law and politics is all about definitions. It would benefit us all if individuals regarded their families as being fundamental, I am less sanguine about the idea that Government can make, or even help, us to view them in that way (making sure that Government doesn't encourage the opposite has merit however.) Of his laundry list, one that has always struck me as interesting is the trust fund for children idea. One of the places where conservatism and capitalism does seem to fail is in existing property, passed down from previous generations. I believe strongly in individual merit and responsibility, and in a perfect world with a level playing field there would soon arise vast disparities in wealth due to individual ability and differing goals. That would be very acceptable to me. However, it is patently obvious that we don't all start out on a level playing field. While we probably can't change this completely, and it probably wouldn't be wise to even try, I think there is good justification for making an attempt at some balance. A trust fund for each child (perhaps funded by an estate tax?) seems to be a sensible way to do this. I think that this notion can be defended on more traditional conservative grounds as well.


Blogger RFTR said...

You say that you are "skeptical of the ability of Government to utilize this principle" (emphasis added).

I think that misses the point. It's not a question of whether the government can do it right or not, but whether the government should be involved at all. In fact, if we look at the Social Conservatives argument against gay marriage, it can be applied here as well: government presupposing a social structure and imposing it on a public that doesn't want it is wrong.

I agree that the family is the place to start, and the basic building block for our society—but I see no place for government there.

If anything, I agree with Santorum's thesis that "it takes a family," and I want the government to get the heck out of the way and let that family work.

9/07/2005 12:23:00 PM  
Blogger Dave Justus said...

I tend to be utilitarian in my views, rather then wedded to any one ideology.

I think we would be better off if families were stronger. Therefore, if Government could accomplish that goal, without horrible negative trade-offs, I would support such a thing.

As I said, I don't believe that it can. I should probably further add that the negative trade-offs would be pretty horrible, and would occur even if the project did not succeed.

I think you took my term 'skeptical' to mean that I was supportive of the idea, which is far from the case. While I suppose I could be convinced that it was otherwise, it would take pretty convincing evidence.

I do think that their is a lot we could do to remove government pressures that work against the family. Some of the welfare rules for instance that penalize married women. I think that their is a lot of work to be done in that area, and that it will be a place where libertarian conservative and social conservative can agree on for a while.

9/07/2005 01:01:00 PM  
Blogger honestpartisan said...

I have to confess that I don't know what you or other people mean when you say that family is the basis of society. It's one of those things I've always heard but no one's ever explained to me in a satisfactory way.

9/07/2005 01:52:00 PM  

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