On National Review Online, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg reacts to musings by conservative writers David Brooks and Michael Gerson about Rick Santorum’s political rise in the GOP primaries and how his social views might be expressed in government policy. Would a President Santorum usher in a smaller but more “transformational” role for the state in addressing social ills? Gregg:
On the one hand, self-described compassionate conservatives understand there is no such thing as morally neutral laws or morally indifferent government policies. At some level (even quite remote), all laws and policies embody some type of moral logic (which is either coherent or incoherent). Thus they cannot help but shape — for better and worse — a society’s moral culture. That’s just one reason among many why the legal treatment of issues like abortion, euthanasia, pornography, and marriage matters, and why they can’t, as some libertarians claim, be simply relegated to the private sphere.
At the same time, it seems to me that many compassionate conservatives don’t fully appreciate the moral, social, and legal urgency of reducing the state’s size and reach, instead of primarily focusing upon streamlining government’s role.
Reflecting on the GOP presidential campaigns and the Iowa caucus, Joseph Knippenberg has voiced serious concern on the First Things blog regarding the compatibility of Ron Paul’s libertarianism with traditional Christian social and political thought. As this race continues, this may be a question of fundamental importance, and I expect to see more Christians engaging this issue in the days and months to come.
Indeed, as Journal of Markets & Morality (JMM) executive editor Jordan Ballor has noted in his editorial for the most recent issue (14.2), the importance of this question is also highlighted by “the recent denial of a proposal for a master’s program in Austrian economics at Loyola University New Orleans [that] was in part attributed to ‘specific conflicts … between Catholic social teaching and the Austrian view of government, unions, taxations, human life and the place of Christianity in the public sector.'” Clearly, Loyola University New Orleans has already answered the question of compatibility with a strong no.
In light of the pressing need for a thoughtful and educated engagement of this question, I am pleased to note that the upcoming issue of JMM also features a debate in our “Controversy” section between Daniel Finn, Anthony Santelli, and John Mueller over the question: “Does libertarianism tempt some Catholics to stray from Catholic social thought?” The contributors represent an interesting spectrum of viewpoints on the issue and argue their stances with candor and conviction.
If you or your school or institution is not currently subscribed to JMM, this timely controversy is yet another reason to do so. For more information on how to subscribe, visit our website here.
Acton’s director of research Samuel Gregg’s reaction to last night’s GOP presidential debate is up at NRO’s The Corner. Like most people who saw the debate, he didn’t like the childish bickering, of which he says “the trivializing effects upon serious discussion are hard to deny.”
“There were, however, two useful moments,” he says:
One was several candidates’ efforts to put the contemporary disease of identity politics in its appropriate place (i.e., the grave).
The second was a number of candidates’ willingness to make the hard-to-hear but nevertheless accurate observation that the best way to address the slump in housing prices in places likeNevadais to allow the housing market to stabilize under its own volition. No matter how noble the intentions, government mortgage-relief programs have proved economically ineffective, and, in many instances they are deeply unjust. Who knows? If GOP presidential candidates are willing to make this point, maybe some of them will eventually dare to talk seriously about entitlement reform.
Acton director of research Samuel Gregg offers his thoughts on last night’s GOP Roundtable in this NRO Symposium. Gregg thinks the debate offered an important alternative to the government-driven economy talk that fills the news every other night of the week.
In a week in which two American economists from the non-Keynesian side of the ledger received the Nobel Prize for Economics, last night’s GOP debate gave us some insight into the depth and character of the various candidates’ free-market commitments and the different policy priorities which flow from the various forms of those commitments.
But if the ideas were strong, they were a reminder of separation between our free market ideals and our considerably less free economy:
For the most part, the candidates focused upon the institutional background that either impedes or facilitates economic growth: the regulatory environment, tax levels, trade policy, monetary policy, etc. Listening to the responses was a salutary reminder of the gap betweenAmerica’s free-market aspirations and rhetoric, and the rather different Eurosclerotic economic reality that has slowly envelopedAmerica– and not just over the past three years, but over several decades.
The only way we’re really going to get our economy going, is by addressing entitlements.
The surprising omission was substantial discussion of the issue of welfare reform and the related question of America’s public debt. While Obamacare was continually criticized because of its costs, that’s only part of the picture. Substantive entitlement reform is indispensable if we want to significantly reduce the spending and deficits that threaten to suck the life out of America’s economy. Addressing this subject is of course very politically risky because far too many Americans are more attached to the welfare state than they care to admit. But if fiscal conservatives aren’t willing to tackle this issue, then who will?
It’s too easy to say that such formats as Thursday night’s don’t lend themselves to that type of presentation. Whoever runs against President Obama is going to have to articulate, in very similar settings, a vivid, powerful, and content-rich contrast to the present administration’s economic policies.
Though none of the candidates was able to offer the “serious, public, and substantial reflection” on our economic problems that Gregg was looking for, he’s not expecting to hear it from the incumbent in debates with the GOP choice:
Angry voters (especially independents), disillusioned with politics and politicians in general, aren’t going to buy in to messianic 2008 hope-’n’-change rhetoric in 2012. Yet while anti-Obama sentiment will take the Republican candidate a long way towards victory, it won’t be enough in the current economic climate. Substance — and the ability to communicate it — will matter.
Another election has come and gone, and once again the balance of power has significantly shifted in Washington, D.C. and statehouses across America. Tuesday’s results are, I suppose, a win for fans of limited government, in that a Republican House of Representatives will make it more difficult for President Obama and his Democrat colleagues in the Congress to enact more of what has been a very statist agenda. But even with the prospect of divided government on the horizon, we who believe in individual liberty and the principles of classical liberalism still have much to be concerned with. Perhaps the primary concern is whether or not those Republicans who were swept into office—not due to any real love of the electorate for the Republican Party, but rather due to anxiety over the direction the Democrats have taken the country—will be able to hold to the principles of limited government and individual liberty that so many of them claimed to espouse during the campaign, or whether those principles will be abandoned in a mad pursuit of power. Forefront in the mind of every lover of liberty should be Lord Acton’s famous maxim: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
My sincere hope is that with Americans deeply dissatisfied with both major political parties and finding that the government is either unable or unwilling to solve the major fiscal and social problems that we face, people will begin to re-think their basic assumptions about the role of government in American life. For decades, the default assumption has been that the government is a force for good and can be a driver of positive social change. Witness Social Security, Medicare, the Great Society, the War on Poverty, etc. All of these programs were designed by experts to alleviate some pressing social need, and were assumed to be the right thing to do. After all, who wouldn’t want to help the poor and elderly to live a fuller, better life? And yet, as the years went by, all of these programs—though well-intentioned by their creators—have failed to achieve their lofty goals. The Social Security “trust fund” is devoid of funds and packed with IOUs left by politicians who, over the years, have spent the money promised to seniors on other programs. Medicare, Medicaid, and other government health care programs have warped the economics of health care, paying doctors less and less and therefore driving up the cost of private insurance in order to make up the difference. Obamacare is little more than an attempt by the government to solve a cost crisis—created in large part by government intervention—with even more extensive government intervention into the market. We already know how that story ends. And as for the Great Society and the War on Poverty, trillions of dollars over the years simply failed to alleviate poverty in America, and in many cases only created deeper, more entrenched social problems.
It is clear by now to anyone who cares to look that massive government intervention into society tends to do more harm than good, no matter how well intentioned the interventionists are. Government has its place—no arguments for anarchy are to be found here—but the government must be limited to its proper place. The genius of the American founding came in the limitation of the national government to certain enumerated functions, leaving the people at liberty to take care of the rest of life as they saw fit. The respect for individual liberty and the acknowledgement that the rights of citizens were not granted by the state but were granted to individuals by God himself provided a firm foundation for the vibrant growth and strength of the United States in the coming centuries. As a people, we need to realize that the further we move away from those founding principles and the more we cede our liberty to governmental agents in return for a promise of security, the less likely it is that we will remain strong, vibrant, and free.
At the Acton Institute 20th Anniversary Celebration, Acton President Rev. Robert A. Sirico reminded us of the roots of human dignity and the importance of individual liberty during his keynote address:
Righteous Warrior: Jesse Helms and the Rise of Modern Conservatism, a political biography published in February, crafts a narrative that largely reinforces popular public images of the late Jesse Helms as a demonizing figure. The author, William A. Link, is a history professor at the University of Florida who notes several times in the preface of his book that Helms represented everything he opposes. Link also says his intention was to write a fair biography of the former Senator from the Tar Heel state. While Link’s biography largely fails this test, his depiction is less hostile and more respectable than many modern liberal academics may have been able to attempt. The author does include significant portions of his biography to depicting the impeccable manners, personal morality, and genteel personality that characterized Jesse Helms.
Probably the most controversial position of Jesse Helms was his opposition to the land mark federal Civil Rights legislation of 1964 and 1965 while he was a journalist and television commentator for WRAL radio and television in Raleigh, North Carolina. While not a lawmaker at the time, the controversy is further fueled because Helms never renounced his opposition to the legislation, like some Southern politicians would later do because of a genuine change of heart or perhaps for political survival. Helms always insisted he was not a racist and Link notes that Helms tried to tie his opposition to integration to larger anti-statist arguments against federal intervention. Helms kept his distance from the more radical segregationist groups who opposed integration. At the same time, he attacked the alleged communist influences in Civil Rights groups, and even the personal moral failings of its leaders. Helms felt that good people from both races could come together to solve racial problems without federal intervention. He would take further flak for opposing the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday and this political ad against quotas.
Link also discusses many commentaries written and read by Helms at WRAL about the dangers of the growing federal government. Helms declared “government could either be man’s servant or master: it could not be both.” Helms also attacked appeasers of communism and would soon emerge as perhaps the most notable elected anti-communist, with the exception of Ronald Reagan.
Trying to decide to run for the United States Senate, a supporter urged Helms to run by saying, “We need you Jesse in order to save the country from liberalism.” In his first Senate campaign Link declares:
Repeating the familiar Viewpoints message, he told voters in 1972 about an expanding and intrusive federal government, the threat of socialism, the excesses of the welfare state, rising crime, deteriorating moral standards – all problems related, he said, to an out of control liberal state. The welfare system, he explained to an audience in the eastern North Carolina tobacco town of Smithfield, was a “mess,” beset by “loafers and parasites.” Helms fashioned a populist appeal that was targeted toward ordinary people and toward the frustrations of white, rural, and small town North Carolinians. His message, Helms said, was directed toward “the person who pulls on his clothes in the morning and grabs his dinner pail and goes off to work.”
In fact, Link notes that Helms was running as a Republican in the 1972 Senate campaign and had recently switched parties. The Republican Party offered little help or resources to Helms. Most of his supporters were Democrats, who had long dominated state politics in North Carolina during this era. Those supporters were admirably dubbed “Jessecrats.” Helms would however benefit greatly from Democratic Presidential Candidate George McGovern’s unpopularity in North Carolina, and a last minute campaign stop by incumbent President Richard Nixon, when it appeared Helms had a chance to win. Helms did win, and while all of his senate races were relatively close, he was always able to hold together a strong and loyal coalition of religious conservatives, white males, and rural and small town voters. Always the underdog, he played up his anti-establishment and anti-liberal crusades, and his political obituary was prematurely written on a number of occasions. (more…)