Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Santorum: The greatest threat to modern conservatism is liberty

From a speech to a conservative conference, reported in the Forward:
the competitor to conservatism’s future, I believe, is libertarianism. It is a consistent and vibrant, although I believe misguided, strain of conservatism.

America’s conservative heritage never pursued a limitless freedom to do whatever one wants so long as no one is hurt. That kind of “freedom” to be and do whatever we want, irrespective of the choice is a selfish freedom that cannot be sustained or afforded. 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 the choice, none of the responsibility.
Somehow, I bet that when Santorum was complaining about communism, he probably liked to explain how the rugged individualism of American capitalism was far superior to the centrally planned Soviet communism. How times change!

I'll agree that libertarianism can be taken too far (privatize the courts! privatize law enforcement! privatize the military!), but the concept of liberty, the idea that people making rational choices will produce good beyond their own narrow interests is fundamental to the concept of democracy. If you reject that premise, we might as well appoint an aristocracy, or a cabal of priests to run the show.

I think that as the Santorum wing of the Republican party comes ever more ascendant, there will be a lot more Republicans looking for a new home, and the people like Mr. Morrison, people who believe in the classical liberalism of the founding fathers, will come to the Democratic party.

What does Santorum advocate? "Compassionate conservatism":

Ironically, for all of the chatter about it during the last number of years it is still an emerging philosophy. It hasn’t ever been tried as a governing philosophy. From one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other, Republican passion for compassionate conservatism has waned as other “more pressing matters” took over. For some this lack of action has meant discouragement and for others it has meant cynicism. But the truth is that this compassionate conservative philosophy is the only viable conservative philosophy we Republicans possess.
And finally, a sentence that works on so many levels: "Compassionate Conservatism targets the poor and hurting for help." He means it one way, I read it another. It's a political Rorschach test.

This gets back to my reason for referring to some conservatives as "religious authoritarians." I don't mind the religious part, I mind the authoritarian. My view of government is that it's job is to stay out of people's way and make it easy for people to do the right thing. Santorum's view is that the government's job is to make people to the right thing, to impose external authority on them.

Rick Santorum has the privilege of belonging to the majority religion (though an extreme brand of it). He sees no threat in the idea of imposing morality. Those of us who come from traditions which have existed as minorities within society know that imposing morality has a tendency to morph into pogroms or religious wars. My mother's father left the Ukraine, the Jewish Pale, to escape those pogroms and to have freedom and opportunity. My father's forebears left what is now western Poland, then eastern Germany, because they were tired of the Lutherans being oppressed when Catholics invaded, rebuilding when the Lutherans retook the city, then being oppressed again when the Catholics retook control.

We live in an age of greater religious tolerance (though don't tell that to the Sunnis and Shi'ites fighting each other in Iraq), but the lessons of our past should never be forgotten. Santorum's brand of authoritarian morality endangers us all.

There's a better way. Rather than replacing government programs with private, religious charities, leave the door open for private groups to do their good work while establishing a strong safety net for everyone, regardless of creed. Offer more generous incentives for people to give to charity (maybe allow donations to 501(c)3 charities to be tax-deductible on top of the standard deduction), and let local charities coordinate with government services. Offer businesses incentives to offer health insurance and other social goods, or take that expense off their hands with a national health care system.

These are not libertarian positions, nor are they the parody of liberalism Santorum offers. It's a robust, sensible, and practical approach that lets people improve their own lives in ways that make the most sense to them. It's genuine liberalism, the sort of thing John Stuart Mill or Alexander Hamilton would recognize, not to mention either of the Roosevelts.