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Libertarianism, Conservatism's Last Refuge

We lost the culture war. Time for new defensive positions.

By Petrarch  |  April 18, 2013

It's now been nearly half a year since, against all historical precedent in an ongoing economic depression, Barack Obama won re-election.  For conservatives and the right in general, that time has been mostly occupied by shock, horror, hand-wringing, and soul-searching as to what went wrong and how the future can be changed for the better, if it can.

There's still a lot of sound and fury, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the formal leadership of the Republican party, at least, has made up its mind: Conservatism lost, traditional American and Republican principles are done for, and the only way to preserve personal power is to follow the path of Britain's erstwhile "Conservative" Tory Party and abandon anything that remotely resembles conservatism.  Britain's "Conservative" Prime Minister David Cameron recently rammed through nationwide homosexual "marriage", has increased foreign aid while slashing Britain's military, refuses to expel known terrorist imams much less cast them into prison, has entirely failed to stop overwhelming flows of immigration - in short, he had carried out pretty much the same agenda as America's Democrats.  But hey, he's Prime Minister and our Republicans are rather less powerful.

From the point of view of the pure pursuit of power, a Cameronian abandonment of historical principle might make sense for the Republican Party.  It seems that virtually all modern politicians don't actually believe in anything whatsoever; like the steady trickle of Republican pols coming out in favor of homosexual "marriage", they believe whatever is expedient to believe at any given time, and if that changes, they'll trump up some bogus excuse for their change of heart.

Voters don't work that way, at least, the conservative base doesn't.  A solid minority of Republican voters, and probably the majority of ground-troop activists, truly believe in the principles of small-government conservatism.  Why should they bother to invest their money, time, and personal effort in a party that overtly abandons its reason for existence?

Cameron's Tory Party is wrestling with this problem right now.  With an election coming, local party stalwarts are abandoning it in droves and even the occasional sitting MP is changing parties in disgust.  You can't win an election that way.

If moving to the left spells doom, and standing still demonstrably doesn't work either, what's left?  There is a strategy that Republicans and conservatives have not tried in many a year: go back to first principles, find a first principle that Americans generally agree with, and fight for only those policies which align with that principle.

Is there such a principle?  As it happens there is: the longstanding American desire to be "left alone" and maximize personal freedom.  The Left has long used this with great success but exclusively in the sexual arena; it's time the Right recovered its stolen clothes.

Without Freedom, We're Doomed

Let's see how a strict principle of libertarianism lines up in one specific area where the Right is in full retreat: homosexual "marriage".  Before this decade is out, homosexuals will almost surely have been granted newly minted marriage privileges in most if not all states.  It's equally clear that social conservatives and religious supporters of the GOP will be just as disgusted by this as they've always been; the Holy Scriptures aren't likely to change over the next few years.

How to square this circle?  It's been generally assumed that opposition to homosexual "marriage" is an absolute requirement of social conservatism, and that abandoning this opposition will mean losing the support of social conservatives.

But the conservative argument is losing so badly that the religious now have worse problems on their hands.  The question is no longer "can Adam and Steve marry?"  That ship has sailed.

The question instead has become, will churches be permitted to refuse to employ homosexuals even when their holy books call homosexuality an abomination?  Will churches be able to choose not to allow homosexual unions on their property?  Will ministers be allowed to decline to solemnize homosexual joinings they view as an abomination?  Will churches and religiously devout private citizens be required by force of law to spend their own money on homosexual benefits, or be forced to serve them in other ways?

Adam and Steve will be able to marry each other; that fight has been well and truly lost.  What remains is, can religious individuals practice their own beliefs anymore, personally or collectively?

The Obama administration believes not; it fought hard for a court ruling that antidiscrimination laws apply equally to churches, and was discomfited when the Supreme Court defended the First Amendment.  However, the Court applied the "ministerial exception" to exactly that - ministers - and specifically refused to say either way about the rules for other church employees.

Fine, so a Catholic church doesn't have to tolerate an openly homosexual priest, or a female one.  What about a lesbian church secretary, or a transgender church janitor?

Polls show that most Americans bear no ill will to homosexuals as people.  However, most Americans still have a residual respect for religious liberty and would understand the concept that religions and religious people ought to be allowed to live as they please, even if you personally think their views are medieval.  That's a libertarian position, an essential battle that can be fought and won.

Good Principles Grow and Extend

But once conservatives and Republicans decide to battle for freedom in the literal sense - the right to live as you please without being forced by the government to violate your conscience - there's a lot of scope for growth.  How can you truly be living free when the government takes half your income and spends it on things you abhor?

Exactly what you abhor might be wildly different for different people, but almost everyone has something they're morally offended about the government spending their money on.  Republicans haven't been able to make much hay with this because they have next to no credibility about actually shrinking the size of government; even Saint Reagan didn't spend less or eliminate any major departments.  The problem with true fiscal conservatism isn't that it's failed, it's that it hasn't been tried since Calvin Coolidge.

In the abstract, Americans prefer lower taxes.  In the particular, most Americans love their government benefits and don't want to give them up.  A voice is urgently needed to tell them just how much this program or tax deduction is really costing them - in money as well as in personal liberty.

The Democrats have long been seen as the party of the nanny state, wanting to provide everything for everyone from cradle to grave.  This is an accurate evaluation, and as Rush Limbaugh observed, "It's hard to run against Santa Claus."

In contrast, the Republicans have been cast as benefit-cutting Scrooges - while not, in fact, cutting much of anything at all!  Thus conservatism gets a bad name without even having a chance to see actual conservative policies enacted.

Libertarian arguments offer the opportunity for the Republican party to rebrand itself and start over, but only if the principles of limited government are consistently enforced.  Modern social changes and political failures may possibly have put the various segments of voters that make up the Republican Party in a position where they'll all accept this; time to give it a shot.

And if not, then there won't be a Republican party for much longer, in fact if not in name.