Tuesday, February 23, 2010

CPAC: Libertarians v. Religious Right

CPAC was much more interesting this year than usual. Not only did it signal the start of the Presidential race, but it signaled an interesting shift in conservative thinking, one which bodes very well for conservatives recapturing the majority of the public. It was also a change that has upset Mike Huckabee -- and he’s very wrong on this.

In the past, CPAC has largely been dominated by social conservatives. This year, that changed. This year, CPAC was co-sponsored by a gay group called GOProud. Moreover, the conference was heavily attended by libertarian-leaning conservatives, as evidenced by Ron Paul winning the straw poll rather handily.

This is a good thing. Conservative philosophy is about freedom of the individual and limited government interference in our lives. That’s why principled libertarian thinking fits so well into the conservative movement. They are a natural fit, and their return can only make the movement stronger.

Indeed, the return of a strong libertarian element to the conservative movement, and by extension the Republican Party, will help to impose the real change that is needed in the Republican Party -- a principled opposition to the continued expansion of government.

One of the problems with the Republicans over the past decade has been that they have not been opposed to the expansion of government. Yes, they opposed the expansion sought by the Democrats. But then they would turn right around and try to expand the government themselves. Indeed, it became so bad that the only way to tell a Democrat from a Republican was by looking at the direction in which they were trying to expand the government. Bush was a big proponent of this with his “compassionate conservatism,” which translated roughly into big government working to achieve social conservative and big business goals.

The reintroduction of libertarianism should help put a stop to that kind of thinking and should better align the Republican Party (and the conservative movement) with those 60% of Americans who consistently claim to share conservative beliefs, but who will not identify themselves as conservatives because they view the brand as tainted by its recent advocacy of government intervention.

And that brings us to Mike Huckabee and the Religious Right. Now before everybody gets upset, let me point out a few things. First, having a strong moral grounding is certainly a big part of conservative thinking, and there is nothing inconsistent with being conservative and wanting to see our government act in a moral and ethical manner. Nor could you argue that a belief in God is inconsistent with being conservative. Nor is there anything about conservatism that requires one to believe that the government should blindly ignore morality or religion. BUT.....

The vast majority of conservatives reconcile their belief in God and morality with their belief in individual freedom by understanding that the government should guarantee individual freedoms and should not be a tool for imposing personal views on others. A true conservative thinker would not want the government to push their religious beliefs on others any more than they would want the government imposing another’s beliefs upon them. Not only is this bad for society, but it is bad for religion (see e.g. Europe or the Middle East).

That is why libertarian thinking and social conservative thinking should, with rare exceptions, actually fit together quite nicely. If both respect the principle that the government should not get into the business of imposing beliefs, then everything should be harmonious between the two groups. It’s only where either group violates this principle that the problems arise.

For example, on the religious side, public education should not teach religious doctrine. Nor should the government fund church activities -- though it should not discriminate against religious groups either by, for example, allowing a group like ACORN to receive federal contracts to do community work but excluding a similar Catholic group. Nor should the government be involved in regulating (or criminalizing) “bedroom issues.” It’s just not anyone’s business. You have the right to speak and to persuade, you do not have the right to use government force to require compliance.

On the libertarian side, libertarians must tighten up their thinking and understand that libertarian does not mean libertine (“anything goes”). The relevant question is "will government force be applied" not "does somebody want it." For example, as I pointed out before the advocacy of gay marriage that many libertarians have undertaken is actually inconsistent with libertarian principle because it requires imposing the beliefs of gay advocates onto religious people. Moreover, libertarian thinking does not mean anarchical thinking (“no government”). For example, libertarians are wrong about legalization of drugs, though the reasons will need to wait for an upcoming post. The fact of the matter is that for society to function, some level of regulation is required, and laws, by their very nature, are based on moral judgments.

Both groups are vital to the conservative movement. And if both groups respect this boundary of respecting individual rights, then they should be able to form a powerful partnership that will finally bring together that 60% of Americans that we just haven’t been able to connect with.

But, disturbingly, listen to Mike Huckabee when he was asked why he didn’t attend CPAC, as he has done repeatedly in the past: “CPAC has become increasingly more libertarian and less Republican over the last years, one of the reasons I didn’t go this year.”

Therein lies the problem. Mr. Huckabee and others like him (several leaders of the Religious Right became almost hysterical when they learned that GOProud was a co-sponsor) need to learn to respect libertarian thinking and views. Libertarians are not out-of-line with conservative thinking, it is Mr. Huckabee who is out of line with conservative principles. Indeed, as you may recall from my prior article about his pardons, Huckabee has already demonstrated that he has a dangerous, unprincipled belief that his own personal beliefs are superior to the rule of law. That’s not conservative thinking. That is, in fact, the worst kind of far-left thinking.

Unfortunately, implicit in Huckabee’s dismissal of libertarians is more proof that he is not comfortable with individual rights, that he prefers a government that imposes favored views. This is not conservative thinking. This is the kind of thinking that created the recent RINO problem and discredited the brand. This is the kind of thinking that needs to be excised from the movement.

I encourage Mr. Huckabee and others to meet with the libertarians, to learn from them, and to come to an accord. If not, do not ask for my support any time soon.


Mike K. said...

Is there a "libertarian position" on abortion?

Libertarian philosophy seems to run into difficulties where two or more principles conflict. There's a strain of moral relativism to libertarianism that seems to limit its ability to develop any kind of coherent worldview.

AndrewPrice said...

Mike, I'm not sure there is an official position on abortion for libertarians. I think that one depends on the question of whether or not they believe the child is a life or a collection of cells. That would probably inform their philosophy.

One thing that would certainly be consistent with libertarian thinking would be a prohibition on government funding of abortion.

As for moral relativism, I'm not sure that's entirely true. I think just like I could cherry-pick from the views of different self-described Christian groups and say "they don't know what they believe", you could cherry-pick from different groups claiming the libertarian mantle and say "they don't know what they believe."

JG said...

Personally, I think those who boycotted CPAC (and apparently there were many) based on the inclusion of GOPride are missing the boat.

I guess I fall into that category of the "religious right," as I am not a supporter of the homosexual lifestyle. But many of my fellows fail to realize that, other than maybe gay marriage, we pretty agree with the so-called Log Cabin Republicans on most everything. And not even all of them are for gay marriage. Certainly, the gay conservatives I know are not unified on the issue. I'm more concerned with the modern libertarian positions that you outlined above - because as much as they are for less government, they are also for a very, very small tent party.

Frankly, the "religious right" as an activist group is dying out. Occasionally a Huckabee comes along who pulls them to the polls, but where are they when it comes time, for example, to go to conventions, to flyer neighborhoods, to vote against local tax increases and special interest bonds? Absent. And thats not a good thing, because there are a whole heck of a lot of them, and we need them on the local and state levels, not just for presidential elections - and even then, they didn't help us much in 2008, did they?

The problem is on both sides. Both sides need to learn to work together when they can, and to limits the in-house disagreements for events like CPAC, when we have bigger fish to fry - you know, like Obamacare.

JG said...

Wow, that last sentence was all over the place. Here's what I meant to say: ...to limit in-house discussions AT events like CPAC...

AndrewPrice said...

JG, I absolutely agree on working together. I don't fall into either group, but I recognize the contributions of both. And I think they need to start focusing more on the things they agree about, and just agree to disagree on the rest.

It's the Reagan 80% thing again. If you can agree on 80%, then do it, and argue about the rest -- but don't let that interfere with the 80%.

Unfortunately, I see comments like the one Huckabee made as entirely counter-productive. He's focused on that extra 20% so much that he would rather have a small movement that can't ever get the 80%.

And in fairness, I see this too from many libertarians who would rather have an irrelevant party to themselves than to have their voices actually make a difference where they are needed -- in keeping the Republican Party from crossing over into big government territory.

In the end, I think that both groups send off the worst possible messages. I know many young kids who literally fear that the Religious Right would impose religious beliefs on America if they could -- and they aren't getting this from the MSM, they're getting it from the mouths of the movement's leaders. (And I know they very much turn off gays too, who should frankly be conservative allies.)

At the same time, the libertarians scare the heck out of people who see them as libertines and anarchists. Again, that's not because of the MSM, but because of things their leaders say.

I think both groups need each other to balance each other out. And if they can achieve that, then they can really make the conservative movement strong.

Writer X said...

I've got to say that my opinion of Huckabee went down a few notches when I read his quote. Certainly he's entitled to say and do what he wants, but he strikes me as someone (like a McCain) who's trying to rebuild the Republican Party in his own image. Instead of looking at CPAC as an opportunity to talk and discuss issues, he ran from it.

StanH said...

Somebody on another board put it well, “let’s keep the Titanic from sinking first, then we’ll worry about the chair placement.” It’s imperative that we not allow conservatives to splinter, or God forbid form a third party. I know we belabor Reagan’s 80%, but it’s so very wise heading into 11/10 and 12.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, I agree. This definitely has the feeling of someone who has decided which groups belong in his party and which don't, and he has no use for anyone who doesn't fit his views. That's not a recipe for a succesful party -- conservatism simply is too broad and has too many diverent views for that.

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, Absolutely. There is no reason to sacrifice the 80% because we can't agree on the other 20% -- and frankly, I'm not even sure it's as much as 20%. It's probably actually a lot less than that.

So the moral is to come together to get the 80% and then work to convince everyone else that you're right on 20% and look for whatever compromises everyone can live with.

Anonymous said...

Andrew: I think we both welcome the various religions into the Republican tent. So long as they don't attempt to make religion a political issue. The First Amendment, if properly viewed, was designed to protect religion, not to remove it from the public forum. But the Founders feared theocracies, and didn't want religious beliefs made part of the law or the Constitution. Therefore, they protected all religions by forbidding government religions and stating that no religious test would ever be acceptable for public office.

Religion has advised all the greats in American history, but they never denigrated opponents for their difference in religion, or even their entire lack of it. Carter wore his religion on his sleeve, Reagan did not. Who was the greater president?

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I would agree. There is absolutely a place in society for all religions and even no religion. And to me, the key is that the government should not be in the business of imposing the views of one group on another.

This means that religious groups must realize that they have no right to get their views imposed on others by the government, AND it means that the non-religious (or even the anti-religious) must realize that they have no right to demand that others give up their religious beliefs or that religion be forced out of the public sphere.

Now I know that on some issues, this gets tricky. But those are areas where we can discuss the pros and cons and hopefully come to some form of consensus. But for 99% of the rest of the issues, the key is to understand that the government is not a tool for imposing our views on others.

MegaTroll said...

Nice article. I think you really hit it right on the head with both groups. They need to realize they have more in common than they have in opposition, and if they won't recognize that then you're right that we should withhold our report.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Mega. It's kind of like looking at the a negotiation. You need to find your common ground before you can resolve the rest. That's why statements like Huckabee's are so damaging -- because they focus immediately on the differences and never let the sides build up any trust.

98ZJUSMC said...

Good article. In my naive days, I used to consider myself a fiscal conservative and a socially somewhat liberal. I still thought of liberals in the classical sense, dopey me. As much as I am pro-life on the abortion issue, I can shift and support limited choice in certain circumstances, but absolutely no government support. There is a lot of the libertarian mindset that I agree with and I don't find it at cross purposes with conservatism. More a wing of conservatism than a wholly separate political philosophy.

I was pleasantly surprised to see an increased gay community presence at CPAC. I think it is a huge mistake to alienate that. The upside to support individual right to sexual preference is very, very big and I think that does dovetail into conservative support for individual rights and personal responsibility. Live the lifestyle you choose, but take responsibility for the consequences. There is a sizable portion of the gay community that would shift to the GOP with just a little nudging and education.

While religious, I despise having religion thrown in my face. Religion is a personal issue to be protected as such. You're right. Religious leaders are their own worst enemies. Tend to the flock and stay out of politics. They seem to have quite a few morality issues of their own to deal with :-).

AndrewPrice said...

98ZJUSMC, Very well said -- I agree on all points.

"Live the lifestyle you choose, but take responsibility for the consequences and don't expect the government to get involved" really excellently sums up how our Constitution should be seen, and how conservatism should work.

Like you, I don't like throwing religion in other people's faces and I don't want it thrown in mine. I view it as a deeply personal matter -- which is why I usually avoid mentioning it on the site.

And like you say, bringing gays back into the conservative movement rather than chasing them out, as has been done recently, has a tremendous upside. I understand the morality issues and that it makes some people uncomfortable, but part of living in a free society is that we have to respect even the choices we don't like. . . until they infringe on our rights.

In terms of religious leaders being their own worst enemies, I think you're right. Look at Robertson's declaration that Haiti was the result of a contract with the devil. That kind of statement just casts a negative stereotype over a great many people who would otherwise have a valuable perspective to add to the debate.

The abortion issue is the most difficult one, but as someone said today (can't think of who it was), "that issue is at a stalemate in the political system and little is going to change." If that's true, and I think it largely is at the moment, then for conservatives to fracture over that one issue would be a tragedy -- especially since I think all conservatives can agree at least that there should be no government funding.

Anonymous said...

Sorry I'm late to this party. :-)

You know, I find Huckabee oddly likable. In a parallel universe - if his views on certain areas were reversed - I could see myself voting for him. But not in this universe.

As for religion, yeah, I guess I used to fall into that "The religious right is gonna take over" category. I used to work at a bookstore that had a large religious section and some of the titles ("Taking Back America" and so on and so forth) scared the hell out of me. Today, my views are slightly more nuanced. And even though I'm Jewish, I'm not that observant, and I don't want my elected officials telling me I'm somehow inferior because I don't attend church.

I didn't vote for Bush but I never hated the guy. I was not, however, a fan of some of the people who did like him (the James Dobson "Gays caused 9/11" types). The far right has to drop the "Gay marriage will destroy the earth" rhetoric. They vote!

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I understand your point and I know many of the statements you are talking about.

This is actually the problem with extremists on any issue. Take socialists on the left. They have limited power, but they spout off and the entire left gets tarred with their stupidity. Same thing here. These guys spout off, sounding like they want to create an American Christian version of the Taliban -- which is absolutely impossible -- but the rest of Christianity get tarred with their comments.

And while you can tell people, don't worry, they have no support and they couldn't do what they say they want to anyways, people won't accept that because of the possibility. Plus, it makes people suspicious of the motives of those who ally themselves with these people.

As for gays, like I said, that's a bedroom issue and it's no one's business -- but that also requires that gays don't have the right to force people to accept them. To say that they do is just substituting one version of "oppressive morality" with another.

And as I pointed out before, I oppose gay marriage, but it's not for religious reasons -- to me its about freedom from government imposing values.

Mike K. said...

Andrew, I think I wasn't clear in what I said earlier. (Sorry to be so late to reply, by the way.)

I meant that, when principles conflict that there is no way---within libertarianism---to resolve the issue. In certain cases (like abortion, but I think I could come up with others) maximizing one person's freedom will necessarily cause a reduction of another's. When that happens, libertarians fall back on plain old-fashioned judgment.

Which is exactly what liberals and conservatives do, but without the arrogant air of hyper-rationality that libertarians like to assume. The truth is, most problems can't be solved through a calculus of freedoms.

I have a problem with the whole idea of freedom being mistaken for good, anyway. Don't get me wrong, freedom is good, but there are other goods too, and in practice they must be balanced against each other.

But as far as libertarians wish to reduce the power of the federal government, I'll go along with that. And as far as anyone's sexuality is concerned, it's none of my business, and I wish I could be allowed to keep it that way.

AndrewPrice said...

Mike, Late's ok, better late than never!

I think that you need to think in terms of freedoms when you talk about government, because government is about competing freedoms. The government cannot give to one person without limiting the freedoms of another.

As for freedom being good, I think freedom is generally a good, but not always, AND you're right that there is a balancing that must be done between the good of the public and the good of the individual. That's something that I think libertarians who don't fall into the two camps I mentioned (anarchists or libertines) do recognize. Those are the people that I think are good for the conservative movement, not the anarchists or the libertines who don't really apply libertarian principle so much as hide their desire to do whatevery they want behind the label.

In terms of solving competing rights, I don't think that libertarians are any worse at it than any other philosophy. That is one of the hardest questions about governing. In fact, you see this in law school over and over (particularly in nuisance law), where it's just not clear how to resolve the claims of two people who seem to be exercising clearly defined rights. Indeed, what's interesting is how random the solutions to these questions seem to have been over the past 1000 years. There is just no consistency.

As far as sexuality, I want to be clear -- I think that part of not letting the government impose views means that it can't tell you that you need to condone anyone else's behavior.

By the way, are you still writing at Threedonia? I look for your stuff, but haven't see you write much lately?

Mike K. said...

I tend to go through slumps where I can't see any angle to write
anything interesting. I'll be back though!

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Mike, I was just curious.

Mike K. said...

Heck, I'm flattered that you noticed I've been slacking.

AndrewPrice said...

Mike, I like your stuff, so I always go check. :-)

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