Thursday, August 18, 2005

Reagan's Ghost

A marvelous Max Beerbohm cartoon (few are not) has a young Henry James confronting the elder Henry James in what looks like a heated argument. The two characters share a word balloon: As the elder James exclaims to the younger, "How badly you wrote!", the younger more calmly tells the elder, "How badly you write!" It is a reminder that in any hostile encounter between the past and the present, the past will always gain the upper hand -- for while the present must confine its criticism to how awful things were, the past can always show us how rotten things are.

Conservatives realize this fact more acutely than most, I suspect, which may explain why we're so deeply concerned, even anxious, about history and tradition. Regardless of whether we love it, we must make our peace with the past ... or else. And when conservatives try to break with History, we usually find History ready to strike back, good and hard.

Case in point: Rick Santorum, junior senator from Pennsylvania, and author of the book It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good. It's no secret that Santorum wants to expand the size and scope of the federal government, and not just in the realm of sexuality. (In a recent interview with NPR, he stated, "This whole idea of personal autonomy, well I don't think most conservatives hold that point of view.") It's also no secret that the political movement to which he belongs came to power largely through the efforts of Ronald Reagan, who said that "Government is not the solution, government is the problem." Perhaps it's significant, then, that Santorum's four hundred page tome only mentions Reagan twice, both times in passing.

If this omission is meant to signal a new conservative vision, it's somewhat less than successful, since Santorum has lifted all his good arguments from the Gipper's playbook. In a passage that could have come from one of Dutch's campaign speeches, Santorum claims that the big-government liberalism of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society failed the poor people it was designed to help: Tax cuts, not social programs, are the best means to help working families. (It would be a fine principle if only he could stick with it.) School choice is another classic Reagan idea, though Santorum's version would divert federal funds to Christian academies, instead of taxpayers' pockets. (He doesn't address whether this notion of "school choice" might also result in public funding of Wahabist madrassas.) Most importantly, Santorum's sustained attack on Hillary Clinton's It Takes a Village couldn't exist without Reagan's distrust of big government and central planning: According to the Pennsylvania senator, Clinton's book promotes a big government run by a central committee of "Village Elders" who despise the common man, family values, and all that the conservative movement stands for.

Yet, as the rest of the book reveals, Santorum is no Reagan: He's all for big government and central planning when they happen to serve his political and moral agendas. In this book, he offers federal mandates and juicy subsidies as the panacea for all social and political ills. He promotes creationism and "abstinence education" in public schools, and touts an amendment (sponsored by himself) that has helped a few local school boards insert anti-Darwin propaganda into high-school biology classrooms. Santorum proposes government subsidies for "faith-based" charities; unsurprisingly, most of his examples are evangelical, and all are Christian. He wants government to "fix" art, popular culture, marriage, reproduction, business, personal retirement, highway transportation, and a host of other picayune concerns. But since all these issues and more pertain to what Santorum calls the "common good," it would only follow that government has the power -- and perhaps the obligation -- to regulate them. For Reagan, government was the problem and individualism was the solution. For Santorum, who believes that individualism and freedom are "a great lie," it's the other way around.

It Takes a Family uses Reagan's limited-government rhetoric to justify a massive expansion of federal power. Not even a brilliant mind could have succeeded at such a task -- though perhaps a more intelligent person would have known better than to try. Of course, as this book makes clear, Santorum is not exactly Mensa material. His failure to reconcile his own authoritarianism with limited-government tradition is so transparent, and his social-policy arguments are (on the whole) so shoddily constructed, that one frequently wonders why he bothered to write a book at all. Reagan in his prime would have had the perfect four-word review of Santorum's book: There you go again.

And, as Shakespeare put it, thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.

(Rewritten: 8/25)

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Rick Santorum: Wrong for the Right

In It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good, Rick Santorum manages to drop quite a few big names in the conservative movement (none of them, alas, mine). There's neo-Victorian historian-cum-pundit Gertrude Himmelfarb, sociologist-cum-moralist James Q. Wilson, and Marxist-cum-Thomist Alasdair MacIntyre, just for starters. One prominent thinker you won't find mentioned by name is mid-twentieth century economist Friedrich Hayek, the godfather of today's conservative movement.

Hayek's basic idea was that individual initiative created and sustained the wealth of nations, and that central planning did precisely the reverse. If this sounds familiar, it should: Adam Smith said as much back in 1776. But Hayek also discussed the ways in which socialist central planning replaced economic incentives with brute force, effectively reducing individuals to cogs in a vast, ineffective governmental machine. According to Hayek, limited government, economic freedom, personal liberty and national prosperity were interrelated. On this classical-liberal bedrock, the Reagan Revolution was built..

Santorum's book should prove an eye-opener for anyone who still believes that today's conservatives care about these foundational concerns. The junior senator from Pennsylvania has a radical agenda, and wastes no time promoting it. He starts by dismissing the notion that respect for the individual is the foundation of liberal democracy. Freedom, he says, is "self-centered" and socially harmful, and must therefore be trumped or stymied by bigger interests:

So what is the liberal definition of freedom? It is the freedom to be and to do whatever we want -- freedom to choose, irrespective of the choice, freedom without limits (with the obligatory caveat that you can't hurt anyone else, directly. But someone always gets hurt when masses of individuals do what is only in their own self-interest. That is the great lie of liberal freedom, or as I like to say, "No Fault Freedom" (all of the choice, none of the responsibility). (p. 14)

A dyed-in-the-wool Leftist would surely agree that "someone always gets hurt when masses of individuals do what is only in their own self-interest." Militant academics have claimed that freedom of speech should not be permitted on college campuses, because if everyone speaks as he or she sees fit, someone will become offended and thus "get hurt." The modern welfare state was founded on the belief that the ability to use one's own resources will inevitably harm other, less fortunate souls.

Whatever their other faults may be, Leftists do realize that an individual will pursue happiness as she sees fit, unless a greater authority can force her to do otherwise. Nor do they flinch when describing this greater authority: They believe that if a person's wealth is to be redistributed to the poor, then the government must do it. Santorum is understandably more circumspect on this point, but he offers a partial answer in the Catholic-conservative tenet of "subsidiarity" -- or rather, an autocratic variation of it. He claims that the basic unit of society is the family, not the individual, and that the primary responsibility for enforcing the common good belongs with family. After that, the responsibility moves upward, as each social institution or level of government supplements the more localized unit of control. The local church supports the family, the local government supports its churches, the state government supports the local government, and the federal government supports all of the above.

If the individual is included in this system of subsidiarity, then he or she would constitute the most localized unit of control, and the larger units would support, supplement, and defer to individual choice. (This is admittedly a libertarian version of the doctrine.) But Santorum believes that the individual is the main problem with our society -- and since everyone is to some degree an individual, everyone is pretty much to blame for society's alleged spiritual decline. So he places all of these institutions, from family onward, in opposition to the most localized unit of self. Their primary purpose is to restrain or punish choice, not support or supplement it.

Nor is Santorum content to rest there: He claims that if families, churches, local and state authorities can't enforce limitations on personal choice as Santorum and his ilk see fit, then more powerful authorities must do the job. As Santorum writes, "When a people no longer controls its 'appetite,' the public consequences require an external force, most likely the government, to step in" (p. 216). As Santorum's central government slowly assumes ultimate regulatory power, the concept of federalism (or "states' rights") dies with the rights of the individual. It is a recipe for fascism.

Nothing could be further from the conservatism of Ronald Reagan, who once quipped that "Government is like a baby -- an alimentary canal with a big appetite at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other." Reagan called for taxpayers to discipline government; Santorum, in contrast, calls for government to discipline us. To give an idea of how much this concept of family negates individualism, the senator describes (on page 3) a small bracelet that he wears around his wrist with the letters "F.A.M.I.L.Y." He eventually reveals (on page 100) that it stands for the phrase "Forget About Me, I Love You." One wonders which is more chilling: that Santorum would subscribe unironically to such a banal platitude, that he would use this as a central metaphor in his public-policy agenda, or that said agenda tells individuals that they are worthless save for the way in which they contribute to the well-being of the State.

Of course, no one can dispense altogether with concrete self-interest, which might explain why those who attempt to do so end up invoking an abstract good as compensation. It might involve divine favor or a medal from the government, but as Gilda Radner said, it's always something. Santorum contends that individual self-interest must be "coupled with responsibility to something bigger or higher than the self," and that our decision-making must be approached "with an eye toward the common good." That's on page fifteen, by the way. The remaining four hundred pages of the book consist of Santorum's attempt to define this idea of a "common good" as it might apply to pop culture, welfare, marriage, reproduction, corporate America, faith-based charities, public education, arts funding, Darwinian evolution, the appointment of federal judges, or any other issue that might find its way onto the floor of the United States Senate.

The effort is completely unnecessary. As anyone who reads the book (or tries to) will quickly discover, the "common good" according to Rick Santorum consists of anything Rick Santorum happens to like. This arbitrary standard, common among tinpot dictators, has one important advantage: It relies on nothing but personal tastes. For example, the senator considers violence in the cinema detrimental to the common good; he even quotes research from pediatrician Michael Rich, which claims that extremely violent movies have a negative impact on young children and teenagers. This seems like a solid enough principle. Yet when the body of Jim Caviesel gets stripped, whipped and ripped in Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ, Santorum can't get enough of it. He writes, "I spent the next eight months doing all I could to make sure this exceedingly violent film was as widely distributed as possible" (p. 284). According to guidelines drawn up and endorsed by Santorum's own Catholic Church, the film's retelling of the Passion was also anti-Semitic, and an irreverent wag might wonder if such anti-Semitism was equally conducive to the common good. I can only reply that if the senator liked it, it must have been.

Santorum's brand of pseudoconservatism comes with a cascading fault, one of those seemingly minor errors that avalanche into chaos, incoherence, and general system failure. It begins when Santorum misunderstands the nature of individual choice by stating that choice is somehow opposed to responsibility instead of concomitant with it. Because he can't grasp this fundamental point about individual choice, he determines that freedom and liberty can only be preserved when specific, moral outcomes that benefit the "common good" are guaranteed at the expense of the individual, and concludes that when local governments fail to achieve those outcomes, a central government must make the proper decision on their behalf. A society organized according to Santorum's model might resemble Plato's Republic, in which a committee of philosopher-kings takes such an active role in civic virtue that there's no room for individual agency. Hayek had a frankly unpleasant name for this condition, one which suits Santorum's medieval mind to a tee: Serfdom.

The party of Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater deserves better.

Sunday, August 14, 2005


Gentle reader, a few quotes for your delectation:

Man, much as he may therefore be a particular individual (and it is precisely his particularity which makes him an individual, and a real individual social being), is just as much the totality – the ideal totality – the subjective existence of imagined and experienced society for itself; just as he exists also in the real world both as awareness and real enjoyment of social existence, and as a totality of human manifestation of life. -- Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, 1844

We object to bringing this question down to the level of persons. The individual is but an atom; he is born, he acts, he dies; but principles are eternal; and this has been a contest over a principle. ... We do not come as individuals. -- William Jennings Bryan, "Cross of Gold" speech, 1896

This whole idea of personal autonomy, well I don't think most conservatives hold that point of view ... [T]hat is not how traditional conservatives view the world and I think most conservatives understand that individuals can't go it alone. -- Rick Santorum on NPR, 4 August 2005.

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