“I’m fiscally conservative, but socially liberal”

Dennis Prager provides a thoughtful response to the popular “either/or” fallacy about fiscal vs. social conservatism.

One frequently hears this political self-identification: “I’m socially liberal, but fiscally conservative.” Or, “If the Republicans weren’t conservative on so many social issues, I would vote Republican.” Or, “It’s too bad the Christian Right dominates the Republican Party. I would vote for the Republicans on fiscal issues, but I can’t stand the religious right.”

The same sentiment holds among many inside the Republican Party. Most secular conservatives and the libertarian wing of the party agree: Let’s jettison all this social stuff — most prominently opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion, and this unnecessary commitment to religion — and just stand for small government and personal liberty.

To many people these positions sound reasonable, even persuasive. They shouldn’t.

Like Prager, I’m firmly in the “both/and” conservative camp. I usually describe myself as a conservative, no hyphenated qualifier needed. If pressed for clarification, I’ll explain that I am a Constitutional conservative. Which to me is a polite way of saying I am not “‘fiscally conservative’ but socially liberal,” i.e., libertarian.

I used to be libertarian, and as the prelude to an insult goes, some of my best friends are libertarians.

As a libertarian, I understood that my ideas traced back to a tradition known as classical liberalism, which represented what I considered the best of Enlightenment Age thought. It irritated me that the term “liberal” was hijacked by early 20th century Marxists after the destructive fruits of their poisonous ideology discredited the previous labels they deployed to hide their stripes: “socialist,” “Fabian socialist,” and “progressive.” Plus ca change, after destroying the “Liberal” brand, they recycled the “progressive” label, which thanks to Obama has finally passed its sell-by date. Perhaps Leftists will start calling themselves as “conservatives” going forward. That would not be entirely fraudulent. After all, since 2008, “progressives” have done more to enhance the conservative brand than conservatives have.

I still agree with libertarians on economic and monetary policy. Mises and Hayek were not just right, but prophetically and spectacularly so. Where I part company with my “fiscal conservative’ but social liberal” friends is on first principles, specifically: On liberty.

As a libertarian, I read hundreds of books and articles espousing libertarian views on myriad social and political issues. Curiously, even though our worldview was centered on maximizing freedom, I don’t remember reading any books or articles that discussed the meaning of freedom. My libertarian friends and I simply assumed the meaning of  freedom was self-evident. Had someone asked me then what I meant by freedom, my bafflement would have made it clear that the worldview I espoused was not as sound as I believed.

I often ask young libertarians  what they mean by freedom. Typically, they give one of two responses: 1) a variation of “freedom means allowing people to do what they want.” Sometimes they’ll include John Stuart Mills’ qualifier: … as long as you do not harm anyone else… or interfere with another’s lawful exercise of freedom. Or 2) a confused expression reminiscent of an actor who has forgotten his lines, in stark contrast to their breezy answers on specific issues.

The concept of freedom as the ability to do what I want more closely resembles a Nike slogan than a definition of freedom. Freedom to do as we please is self-refuting. We often desire things that are downright destructive to ourselves and others, such as addictions that enslave us or selfish acts that rob us and others of our inherent dignity as human beings. Our modern notion of freedom to do as we please would been astonished great thinkers in the classical tradition like Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. They understood that authentic freedom means the ability to do as we ought, not as we please. The former presupposes an understanding of human nature that we no longer understand or reject in our desire for unlimited freedom.

John Milton understood the difference between authentic freedom and its modern counterfeit:

But this is got by casting pearls to hogs,
That bawl for freedom in their senseless mood,
And still revolt when Truth would set them free.
License they mean when they cry Liberty;
For who loves that must first be wise and good.

Consider an aspiring pianist. A classically-trained pianist typically spends many years practicing scales and exercises and learning to sight-read music. Years of hard work and practice enable her to play the masterworks of the great composers. Paradoxically, the time and effort needed to master the instrument repays the student’s investment with the freedom to perform and the potential to create music of their own. By contrast, a small child pounding on a toy piano who refuses to take music lessons can create noise with the instrument, but no music. Which one is more free?

Mills’ qualifying principle doesn’t solve the problem. Unfortunately, differences of opinion arise regarding when my freedom causes harm or encroaches upon another’s freedom. Unless you live alone on an otherwise deserted island, doing as you please will invariably interfere with other persons doing what they want. And unless what you want to do conforms to what you ought to do (or you live on a deserted island), invariably your selfish acts will hurt others in some fashion.

Anyone who thinks that you can have smaller government — the central issue for libertarians and other fiscal conservatives — without Judeo-Christian religions and their God-based values neither understands the Founders nor human nature very well.

The entire American experiment in smaller government — and even in secular government — was based on Americans individually being actively religious. The Founders — unlike the European men of the Enlightenment then and the left today — understood that people are not basically good. That is a defining belief of Judaism as well as of Christianity. Therefore the great majority of people need moral religion and belief in accountability to a morally judging God to be good. In other words, you will either have the big God of Judaism and Christianity or the big state of the left.

Social conservatives know that they need fiscal conservatives. They know that the bigger the state, the smaller the God. They know that proponents of the ever-larger state want their own gods — like Mother Earth — to replace the Bible’s God. Fiscal conservatives need to understand that they need social conservatives. They need them philosophically, for reasons explained above. And they need them politically. There will never be enough Americans who are fiscally but not socially conservative to win a national election. Sorry.

I agree with this except for the last paragraph. I don’t think Prager really means it when he says conservatives “know that the bigger the state, the smaller the God.” I’m sure he doesn’t believe God is diminished by even the severest totalitarian dictatorships. “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church,” etc. I’m sure we agree that the bigger the state, the greater the threat to freedom of religion. To paraphrase Chesterton, see 20th Century, History of.

He is correct that there aren’t enough Americans who are fiscally but not socially conservative to win elections. However, Prager goes on to suggest that social conservatives understand they need fiscal conservatives, whereas fiscal conservatives do not understand they need social conservatives. My fiscally but not socially conservative friends would claim the opposite, and they don’t have to look too far back for proof. In 2012, by most estimates, approximately 3 million conservatives stayed home rather than vote for Mitt Romney, either because of his Mormon faith or because he “wasn’t conservative enough.” Either way, this was insane. Unfortunately, I suspect that if a more conservative Republican had won the nomination, a similar percentage of fiscal conservative social liberal moderates likely would have stayed home too.

There’s a reason we’re called the Stupid Party. We keep finding ways to let the Evil Party win.

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