Saturday, January 7, 2012

If you must choose, choose wisely.

The choices left to conservatives after Iowa are starker than most realize.  In order to show how stark, I need to dissect the term conservative.  Due in part to the significant overlap of the types of conservatives and in part to the media’s successful efforts to make Christian moral values the dominate understanding of the term, “conservative” hides two subparts.   
Those two subparts are: theory of government and morality.  The conservative theory of government is the classical liberal, Burkean, limited government position.  I will call these "classical conservatives" because the traditional term "classical liberal" is confusing given that modern liberals are actually progressives and because I’ve read far too much Lauren Child and Dr. Seuss.  I have developed an alliteration addiction.   The conservative morality is basically Christian morality.  It is this type of conservative, the social conservative, that most people think of whey they hear the term "conservative."   
While the overlap among the types of conservatives is significant, it is not complete.  There are social conservatives who are happy to use government to achieve moral ends.  These are the “big government conservatives”.  On the other side, there are many classical conservatives who are socially liberal.  Given, however, that the mark of a classical conservative is belief in limited government, the moral beliefs of classical conservatives matter less because they are not likely to impose them through law.   In case you wondered, the Tea Party is predominately a classical conservative movement.  
The current set of GOP nominees pits the classical conservative against the big government conservative, with an outlier in Paul.
The big government conservatives are Gingrich, Santorum, and Romney.  They differ a bit on what they would like to achieve through big government.  Santorum focuses more on traditional social issues, which is why some commentators say he is the most conservative in the race, while Gingrich is a bit of a wild card.  Regardless, both are typically happy to use the current powers of the federal government to achieve their goals.  
Romney is also a big government guy though not as conservative.  He’d use the expansive power of the federal government to do conservative-ish/liberal-ish things.  This is why he is stuck at 25%.  He doesn’t inspire the big government conservatives because he isn’t conservative.  He repels the classical conservatives (and libertarians, but more on them in a moment) because he’s a big government guy.  And he doesn’t even capture many conservatives in the overlap because, if we have to submit to big government, then we might as well get conservative policy.  I’d guess that his 25% is mostly those who have bought into the risky conventional wisdom (more on that in a later post) that social conservatives can’t win and who think that he is at least a better manager than Obama.  In fact, outside of professional political commentary, I’ve heard no Romney supporter make any argument in his favor save these practical ones.  There is little sense that anyone knows or prefers any of his actual policies.  Frankly, that scares me more than anything else in this primary season.
The classical conservative is Perry.  He believes in limited government, specifically our federalist system, which pushes as much power as possible to state and local levels.  The general idea is that local government is more easily controlled and tailored to individual desires. When anyone says that Perry is only conservative in the race, they mean that he is the only classical conservative in the race.  He happens to be the common type of classical conservative, one who is also socially conservative.  This fact and his campaign’s panicked post debate gaffes retreat to secure the base--commonly though mistakenly* thought to be social conservatives--has camouflaged his limited government beliefs.  
It is only now, after Iowa, that classical conservatives have realized the opportunity we are about to lose.  Throughout the world, progressivism is failing.  This is an historic opportunity to restore limited government, not the time to compromise with a conservative take on big government.  This is why Perry is staying in, and why it might work, though I will admit it is a long shot at this point.  

As an outlier to the conservative battle stands Paul.  He is a limited government guy, but in the extreme.  A libertarian essentially holds that individual autonomy should trump in all but a precious few circumstances, like crimes.  Libertarians vary greatly in how much they think the government should do and, for various reasons I won’t go into here, Paul is an extreme libertarian, too extreme to achieve a broad following.  He will stay in a while longer.  He will win respectable percentages, especially if Perry exits leaving Paul as the only limited government candidate.  But if nothing else, his foreign policy positions will prevent him from gaining a large collation.   
Therefore, to my libertarian friends I ask, wouldn’t fighting for libertarian government on a state by state basis be preferable to any form of big federal government?  Sure, libertarians aren’t likely to take Massachusetts, but perhaps other states are possible, especially since the majority’s objection to libertarian foreign policy would not be in issue at the state level.  I know this is a very conservative position, but you have to fight the war you are in, not the war you want.  Libertarians can reform states, as long as a federalist restoration keeps the feds from interfering from the top.
For the rest of us GOP voters, we must choose between big government with a conservative bent or limited government in restoration.  True, each one is preferable to the present administration of big government of a socialist flavor.  Also true, successful societies require moral men. But moral men must be won by persuasion, and that is the job of culture, not law. Morality compelled by law is no morality at all.   

Most important, however, in the weighing of big-but-conservative government and limited government, remember this: laws can always bend the other way.   After decades of living under the liberal reign of New Deals and Great Societies, of our tax dollars funding entities we abhor, we should know this.   We should work to insure that it won’t happen again.  US Federalism provided structural resistance to big government, which is why it took until the 1940’s to achieve big government. We should seek to restore it.  



*The conventional wisdom holds that social conservatives are the go to base, but I think the CW is wrong.  Classical conservatives are the base.  The Reagan landslides were predicated on limited government.  Social conservatives might do better in elections than RINO’s, but classical conservatives can find common cause with the widest spectrum of Americans.  

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