There are well-meaning, good-hearted people on both sides of the debate over social conservatism versus social liberalism. That doesn’t always help to clarify things, but it’s important to emphasize that point up front.
A fresh outbreak at PJ Media – Bryan Preston versus Roger Simon – prompts this post. And with due respect to both gentlemen, who write well and passionately, I conclude that we all just keep slogging through the same muddy trench on this issue, and it doesn’t seem to be helping.
The social conservative-social liberal argument is a supremely important one, however, because it’s ultimately an argument about government. It’s about how we see government, and why we argue social issues in the political arena.
When I say it’s about how we see government, I mean that it’s about how we see human life, including the question of man and the state, and the relations between the two. Libertarians are sorely tempted at this point to say, “Exactly! The social cons are a problem because they want to influence government to buck social trends that people like. My view of government is different.”
Social conservatives respond, “No, we’re on the defensive here. We don’t want government pushing these so-called ‘social trends’ on people, making them conform to social mores they don’t believe in.”
I think, in some meaningful ways, libertarians and social conservatives have much the same view of government. The difference lies largely in what they think is a “settled” social issue. That said, however, there is a very big factor self-styled libertarians ignore, and social conservatives articulate poorly. That factor is the role government has played already in “settling” some of the most contentious social issues.
As an illustration, see Roger Simon’s summary of recent talks he has had with teenagers:
Although I didn’t ask them directly about their politics — that was off the table for the interviews I was conducting — I got a fair glimpse of their views as time went on just through the flow of the conversation. Worry about their economic future is, not surprisingly, pervasive, but there was practically universal skepticism of government’s ability to solve it. They saw themselves as individual actors, libertarian, in most cases, without even realizing it. They were also highly aware of Obamacare and its innate unfairness to the younger generation, as well as its overweening bureaucratic disorganization.
In fact, when you come down to it, virtually nothing associated with the liberal platform met with their approval — even legalization of marijuana was dealt with in most instances with a shrug — except, you guessed it, same-sex marriage.
That appears to be the one issue militating against a coming Republican majority, but it is an exceptionally potent one because it is used, fairly or not, to paint the right as bigots. And young people, again not surprisingly, don’t want to hang with bigots — so the whole house of cards goes down.
How did the teenagers come to consider same-sex marriage such an important social issue? Not through unguided “social trends.” Unguided social trends are things like people’s spontaneously emerging passion for automobiles and smart phones, or the recognition that new technologies, and the resultant forms of economic organization, mean women are suited for a whole lot of different wage jobs, in a way they didn’t use to be.
The students’ view on same-sex marriage (and there is only one view, which ought to tell us something) has been guided every step of the way. Don’t be distracted by the roles of the media and the entertainment industry as conveyors of specific themes on this topic. Those roles were important, but the stage was actually set by government policy, mainly (but not entirely) in the schools.
It starts with the sense of an issue as something with sociopolitical importance, on which there ought to be positive, even coercive, public policy. That sense comes from an idea of how government and society should work – an idea much more fundamental than the specifics of any given issue.
These students whom Simon considers natural libertarians are actually quite the opposite, because they simply accept the whole idea of public policy that styles itself as opposing “bigotry” in the people. Some decidedly non-libertarian premises underlie that idea. The students don’t know any better, because they don’t know anything else. The federal and state governments have arranged for them to spend 12, 13, or 14 years steeping in prophylactic or therapeutic models of collective public authority – and many of their parents were steeped in the same intellectual environment 30 or 40 years ago.
No fair comparison of this construct with alternative views of human life – of social authority and government’s role in it – is ever given air time in the schools. Indeed, students are often taught – elliptically if not explicitly – that the United States was really founded on the idea of government-enabled social revolution against “bigotry” and “intolerance,” and that privileged white males have basically been fighting a rearguard action against it ever since.
It is because of government educational policy that so many Americans today can hardly even imagine the truly libertarian perspective on same-sex marriage: that people should do what they want, but the state doesn’t have to recognize it; moreover, the state should be so limited that it isn’t allowed – or expected – to.
That’s a libertarian view. Its extremely narrow perspective on the state is the reason populations have never gone in large numbers for libertarian government. But being incapable of understanding that view – of recognizing, thoughtfully, that there are rational, fully formed ideas of intellectual independence from a collective social authority – is a hallmark of intensive indoctrination. That indoctrination has been the policy of our federal and state governments.
It’s by no means absurd to propose that people who want to live as same-sex, “married” couples ought to be able to do so in peace, but no one else should be compelled – not bakeries, not photographers, not innkeepers, not insurance companies, not adoption agencies, not churches or clerics; certainly not taxpayers – to recognize their arrangement as “marriage.” This proposal shouldn’t provoke a knee-jerk reaction in an intelligent, large-minded person, one who is accustomed to freedom of thought.
It’s actually the very definition of tolerance to make such a proposal. Teenagers who have been taught that it is bigotry to oppose compulsion on other people’s consciences have been taught the opposite of tolerance.
Most importantly, their idea of social authority and government’s role in it is collectivist and coercive, rather than respectful and protective of the individual conscience. They don’t know how to think about things in the latter terms. This disability has been fostered by the government-run schools, and other programs administered by federal and state regulatory agencies – and it has softened the younger generations up for whatever their activist peers want to impose on them.
Which part of this multifaceted circumstance are “social conservatives” supposed to accept as “settled,” and no longer to be debated? I recognize that not all social conservatives make this particular argument about social issues as a pathology of the misuse of government. Most of them, to my eye, circle around it and never quite clarify the terms.
But this, right here, is the hinge-point of liberty. Catering to the view of indoctrinated teenagers is a death sentence for liberty. The teenagers may not think they’ve been indoctrinated, but that’s what the rest of us are for: to know that they’re wrong, and that if they want to ever be eligible for the libertarian life that seems right to them, they need to learn why.
In my view, this education in libertarian thinking is not to be accomplished by rebuking teenagers for a miseducation they had no say in. The way to encourage better thinking is with better thoughts. There is no better place to start that process than with the distinctively American philosophy of government: that it should be limited, constitutional, and federal.
Laying out what that means for the same-sex marriage issue is a subject for another post. (It doesn’t mean anyone has to believe only in traditional marriage; it does mean that accusations of “bigotry” cannot be the basis of government policy.)
Meanwhile, the problem with too much of the debate over social conservatism versus social liberalism is that it doesn’t get at the most important political dysfunction facing us today: a growing population that has no feel for the true meaning and purpose of liberty, limited government, and tolerance.
We can take it as axiomatic that this population will not – cannot – lead us in the direction of liberty. It needs education, intellectual empowerment, and leadership, not affirmation in its indoctrinated prejudices.