Monday, October 23, 2006

The Ends of Conservative Politics?

I’ve been thinking about an interesting question lately, and I wondered if anyone had any input.

Frank Meyer, an early editor and columnist at the National Review, is widely considered to be one of the founding fathers of the modern conservative movement. He was most famous perhaps for his attempts to forge a synthesis between the libertarian and social conservative strands of the movement, popularly known as “fusionism,” though Meyer disliked the term himself.

Seemingly, the two threads of thought are irreconcilable. Libertarianism (sometimes known as “classical liberalism”) places primacy on the individual, and individual freedom. According to libertarians, the force most likely to restrain the freedom of a people is government. Therefore, all forms of government should be minimized to the extent possible. Man himself, once completely free, will have the free will to live as he wishes, and will have the ability to live a just and orderly life.

Conservatives buy little of the libertarian argument, often scornfully referring to libertarians as “intellectual anarchists.” Although conservatives believe in limiting the government, they also realize that the government does play an important role in society, primarily that of keeping order and executing justice. Conservatives believe that if libertarians would have their way, the world would fall into anarchy, not order. Instead, they placed primacy on order and especially community.

The development of the conservative movement was marred by frequent, and occasionally vicious, squabbling between these two factions. But Frank Meyer claimed that in truth, there was no inherent argument. He believed that both factions were incorrectly stressing only one half of the true conservative equation. He claimed that libertarians, on the one hand, often placed the focus on liberty and freedom alone, forgetting that the end of society is not freedom but virtue. And a free capitalist economic order cannot inculcate virtue. Rather, they must learn to draw from the well of transcendent and absolute order of truth.

And here’s where it gets interesting. Meyer claimed that social conservatives were misguided too. For while they accepted “the objective existence of values based upon the unchanging constitution of being,” they denied what must follow – that “acceptance of the moral authority derived from transcendent criteria of truth and good must be voluntary if it is to have meaning; if it is coerced by human force, it is meaningless.” Meaning, in order for man to be truly virtuous, he must have the ability to choose virtue. And if a state attempts to coerce virtue, man will lose his freewill, and once freewill is gone, he cannot be considered truly virtuous. So at the political level, freedom must be the primary end.

It’s an interesting idea, but it seems flawed, and Brent Bozell, brother-in-law to the founder of National Review, William F. Buckley, pointed this out in a lengthy article titled “Freedom or Virtue?” He claimed that the first and primary goal of mankind is virtue, not freedom. Therefore, insisted Bozell, the primary purpose of politics must be to aid this quest for virtue, even by means of the state. What about Meyer’s point that if the state attempts to coerce virtue, man will not really be allowed to exercise his freewill? Bozell answered that freewill was inherent in man – especially in his inner impulses and desires, and it was these that truly determined what kind of an act was being preformed. A man in chains, forced to sin, would not be condemned by G-d, but virtuous acts, commanded by the state, produced order and stability, and promoted a godly civilization. “Freewill would exist no matter what policies the state adopted, so why not pass laws that would prudently regulate man’s action, to prevent sin and lawlessness from taking over the world?” Did not society already do this in the form of certain laws?

Now, on the surface, Bozell has an exceedingly strong point. This is basically the vision the Torah lays out for a just Jewish state. One can hardly claim that man’s freewill has been taken away, despite the mandates of a moral state. But Meyer replied in a subsequent article, and although many of his points seem weak, he does have one very strong one, the core of my quandary. Meyer explained that allowing the state to promote virtue could only lead to disaster. Power corrupts, and “if the state is endowed with the power to enforce virtue, the men who hold that power will enforce their own concepts as virtuous. The denial of this basic freedom leads not conservatism but to authoritarianism and theocracy.”

Meyer has a good point. The gentiles have no urrim v’tummim to objectively decide what is considered moral. Just look at what the present oligarchy considers “moral” – inverse-racism, multiculturalism, feminism and all matter of other corruption. If the state can coerce virtue, who is to say what they will mandate in the future?

Is Meyer or Bozell correct? Should a conservative state seek to mandate virtue? This is no idle question, as many laws already do just this – for example, taxes that are “pro-family.” I have some thoughts, but I’m curious to know what everyone thinks. Keep in mind that we’re not discussing a Jewish state; the gentiles are not necessarily obligated to even pattern their state after the Torah (though they are obligated to keep law and order.)

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