Irreconcilable Differences


Like their counterparts on the statist Left, social conservatives use words not to clarify thought but to stir emotion.

In America, the contemporary political Right essentially consists of two factions. Ordinarily one is called social conservative and the other libertarian, though a more accurate way of distinguishing them would be to describe the former as big-government conservative and the latter as small-government conservative.

The only thing that brings the two together — into the marriage of convenience that unites the Right today — is a shared opposition to the statist Left. The Obama administration has kept them together as perhaps nothing else could. It may be all that prevents them from getting their long-overdue divorce. Once Romney is elected, if that indeed happens, all the counseling in the world won’t be enough to save this marriage.

As far back as the ’80s, President Reagan seemed to understand that this was strictly a shotgun wedding. Those who opposed Communist expansionism had to stick together to win the Cold War. There must always be a grand cause — an archenemy to defeat. At the moment, Barack Obama fits the bill.

I, very frankly, am getting tired of being told that I must vote for whichever unprincipled empty suit the Republican Party has chosen to carry its baton. Mitt Romney is particularly hollow. He seems willing to say anything, do anything, pander to anybody, betray anybody to get elected. As the aim is clearly only to wrest power away from the Democrats, this seems to be acceptable to the GOP, which has surrendered all but the flimsiest pretense that it has any principles whatever.

This probably suits big-government conservatives just fine. They are all about power, power, and more power, totally in the thrall of the delusion that if they just get enough of it, they can hang onto it forever. Their small-government counterparts, on the other hand, may just want to think again. How can it further our principles to trust in a party that has none?

We are being told that the Obama administration is a threat to America of apocalyptic proportions. But it hasn’t stopped so-called social conservatives from playing chicken with the rest of us on their favorite issues. To gain the blessing of the GOP establishment, candidate Romney must, for example, voice support for the Federal Marriage Amendment: a poison pill if there ever was one. Its passage would violate at least three, and possibly four, existing constitutional amendments. It would, essentially, make the Constitution contradict itself, thereby weakening it and accelerating its eventual destruction.

So we already know that Mitt Romney cannot be taken seriously. Even before getting the chance to take the oath of office for the presidency, he has as much as admitted that he would damage it. One cannot “preserve, protect, and defend” something that one has indicated a willingness to help destroy.

Romney’s claim to champion small government is also dubious, considering the fact that while he was governor of Massachusetts, he raised taxes every year. Oh, he called them other things — “tax-fees,” the closing of loopholes on an internet sales tax, new laws permitting local governments to hike business property taxes, and a new tax penalty soaking both individuals and small businesses. He claims to be an economic conservative, but that claim can attain credibility only if big-government devotees on the political Right manage to drain the term of meaning in the way they have drained “social conservative.” Defining what any sort of a conservative he is seems a lot like determining what “is” is: an interesting parlor game.

I suppose part of my problem with “social conservatives” is their apparent unwillingness to think through what they mean by using that term to describe themselves. I frequently ask friends who call themselves that to explain it to me. The hostility this evokes is puzzling. It appears that they’re not sure what they mean, and they don’t like having their confusion exposed.

I’m perfectly willing to explain, to anyone who asks, why I call myself a libertarian, or a small-government conservative. I see little sense in using a term — repeatedly — to describe myself, but becoming resentful when asked to elaborate. Social conservatives seem to claim that name not as a descriptor but as a dog-whistle. Like their counterparts on the statist Left, they use words not to clarify thought but to stir emotion.

“Either you are giving your opinion of yourself,” I tell them, “or you are saying something about your philosophy of government. I don’t care about your opinion of yourself . . . that’s your concern, not mine. I may or may not share it, and it’s rather narcissistic of you to assume it interests me as much as it does you.”

If, on the other hand, they are saying something about their philosophy of government — that force should be used, by the state, to make other people comply with their views about how people’s lives ought to be lived — then that is of tremendous concern to me. But I would prefer they drop the self-congratulatory veneer and simply call themselves what they are: advocates of big government. For if they do believe that government should do such things, the task is impossible unless government is big and intrusive. Other than serving as a smokescreen, the term “social conservative” accomplishes nothing, because it reveals nothing. If language does not reveal, then it serves no meaningful purpose.

It is dishonest for the Republican Party to go on pretending that big-government conservatives and small-government conservatives belong in the same political party. Their aims are so fundamentally at odds that they cancel each other out. It would be impossible for both to succeed, because a victory for either would inevitably be a defeat for the other. No organization can simultaneously move in opposite directions. As long as it tries to appease both factions, in the misguided notion that this gives it greater power, it will remain what it has become: an incoherent mass of acrimony.

But there's another bad thing to mention. The GOP's lack of clear purpose leads its opposition into further intellectual laziness and moral decay. Instead of the parties' improving each other and, by extension, the country — the very reason the two-party system is supposed to exist — everyone gets dragged down. It’s a race to the bottom all the way.

Libertarians and true small-government conservatives are telling the truth about the cause of our national demise and what must be done about it. Big-government conservatives — whatever they want to call themselves — are lying about it. That many of them believe that lie can be chiefly attributed to their lack of willingness to examine whether it’s true. But when one side in a conflict tells the truth and the other lies, there should indeed be a decisive winner and loser.

Truth is not such a relative matter after all. “Social conservatives” fervently claim to believe that. Too bad their behavior so often says something altogether different.

It is dishonest for the Republican Party to go on pretending that big-government conservatives and small-government conservatives belong in the same political party. Their aims are so fundamentally at odds that they cancel each other out. It would be impossible for both to succeed, because a victory for either would inevitably be a defeat for the other. No organization can simultaneously move in opposite directions. As long as it tries to appease both factions, in the misguided notion that this gives it greater power, it will remain what it has become: an incoherent mass of acrimony.

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Libertarian conservatism is just as absurd a term! You can not wish to conserve the state of things and call for liberation from that state!.

Jon Harrison

Nonsense. One can favor preserving what is best in a society while simultaneously seeking to liberate that society from outworn or reactionary practices and beliefs.

Jon Harrison

The contemporary political Right actually consists of three factions: social conservatives, establishment (or corporate) conservatives (once known informally as country club Republicans), and libertarians. These three main branches can be further broken down into factions. Some social conservatives, for example, are economic libertarians, while others support some aspects of the welfare state. Establishment conservatives are the people who ran the Reagan and Bush I administrations - or rather, what's left of them. In the 21st century the Republican establishment was taken over by Karl Rove on the political side, and the neocons on the foreign policy side. The old Republican Party died in those years, to be replaced by big government conservatism, a hideous amalgam of the worst impulses in American political life and thought. The Tea Party is as much a reaction to the Bush II administration as it is to Obama.

McCain was an establishment conservative with a neocon foreign policy. So too is Romney, though he has attempted to reach out to both social conservatives and Tea Party libertarians (The Tea Party itself has libertarian and socially conservative wings). The thing to note here is that had Romney run against a single Republican opponent to his right, i.e., Rick Santorum, Santorum and not he would be the Republican nominee. The old Republican establishment is increasingly irrelevant in Republican politics. Some of its members (Bruce Bartlett, for example) have drifted away from the party to embrace some aspects of the Democratic agenda, having lost all hope of bringing the party back to Reaganism.

There are left wing libertarians (no, it's not an oxymoron), though they are clearly a small minority in the libertarian "movement". In any case, libertariansism, despite the upswing of recent years, remains a fringe phenomenon. There is no indication that libertarians will ever be able to intervene decisively in our politics, except perhaps to play a Naderlike role in denying a Republican candidate the presidency in some future election.

Social conservatives are statists of the worst kind, seeking to interfere in the most private aspects of our lives. Corporate conservatives talk the talk of freedom from excessive government intrusion, but in reality they now partially conform (for vote-getting reasons) to the social conservative agenda, while economically they support corporate capitalism as distinct from free enterprise. As a practical matter, their program leads us down the road to timocracy. They are statists of a different stripe, but statists still, and they tend to support an activist, neocon foreign policy. Libertarians meanwhile simply lack the numbers to impose their views on the Right generally.

The poltical Right, to which I once proudly belonged, is headed, despite outward appearances, down the road to permanent minority status. It is increasingly white, male, and militantly Christian. It is secretly intolerant or contemptuous of the "other," despite America's rapidly changing demographic picture. It offers nothing but a chimera of "opportunity" to the less well off in our society. It has no real intention to cut government, but will simply shift resources from Democratic constituencies to the warfare state and its corporate backers. With such a program it cannot hope in the future to win majorities at the federal level, unless it succeeds in restricting the franchise through bogus voter ID laws or some other means. If it wins this election, the process of self-destruction will simply be delayed until 2016 or after, when a Santorum or Ryan is its candidate. Rand Paul is the best of the lot, but it's unlikely he can win the Republican nomination for president. If he ever does, it's unlikely he'll be elected. If he is, his policies will spur a reaction not so different fom that which a Santorum or Ryan presidency would create.

There is a way out for the Right in this country: a partial return to Reaganism. Go beyond Reaganism by writing off the social conservatives and seriously reaching out to women, Hispanics, African-Americans. Stand for more modest foreign and defense policies, and smaller government overall, but keep those parts of the welfare state that have overwhelming public support. Romney actually has the instincts to do this, but not the guts to turn his back on the yahoos in his party. Because of this gutlessness, whether he wins or not is irrelevant. The yahoos are taking over the Right, defining the Right, and in doing so destroying the Right as a viable political force in America.

The role of libertarians should be to keep the Right honest. Keep up the pressure for smaller government, less spending, and lower tax rates, but realize that our society will never return to the pre-New Deal style of federalism. Fight the neocons and the warfare state without stripping America's defense establishment. Press for less government interference in our strictly private affairs. This is probably best done from within an established party, and not from an outsider perspective. Above all, learn the lesson of Reagan: that half a loaf is always better than none.

Lori Heine

Mr. Harrison, you and the other commenters have good insights about what's going on in this country. I hope we can hang onto our half a loaf.

I'm getting a lot of political survey calls, and the questions are very tightly scripted. I tell the surveyers it's not possible for them to get an accurate picture of my views from their questions. It's easy to see how polls can be manipulated.

My responses just make the survey people uncomfortable. In their voices I hear a definite note of "don't blame me, I don't get paid enough to deal with that."

Establishment conservatives (including the warhawks) and social conservatives are definitely determined to hold power. Perhaps the only thing that keeps these neighbors in the big-government wing of the GOP from getting too cozy is that neither faction can stand the other.

When I think of them together, I picture the Three Stooges minus one stooge. It will be interesting to see if there'll be a lot of nose-tweaking and head-slapping at the convention, or if they all make nice -- for the sake of defeating Obama -- and pretend to get along.


Romney is a master of Reaganism. It's just that most people are onto politicans who say one thing, while practicing the opposite.

When Reagan said he wouldn't negoiate with terrorists, while secretly negotiating with terrorists. Said he was for small government, while greatly increasing the size of government, alot of people actually believed him, rather than look at his actions.

Now, we are onto this scam. So we actually check the record of Romney.

Reagan really excellerated the worst aspects of all parts of the GOP you mention. Greatly increased the size of government. Ran up massive debts, involved the US in very suspect foreign interventions, got the fed. gov't into peoples personal lives.

The Republican party has tried to reproduce this Reagan effect ever since. But, mostly, people don't buy it. We are much better at recoginzing when politicans are lying.I guess, you could say that's one of the best things Reagan did for this country.

Jon Harrison

You make valid points, Visitor. I take a glass half full view of the Gipper. The ending of the Cold War and the 1986 tax reform were solid achievements. But there was much on the debit side as well.


A true breath of fresh air for Liberty magazine. I think this was the first mention (albeit brief) of the marriage laws and amendments circulating state and federal legislatures.

The problem is....where do the small government conservatives go? I ssume they'll have to leave the GOP because they are greatly outnumbered. As evidenced by primary after primary.

Like Mr. Choate, I had briefly hoped the Tea Party was some kind of answer. But I quickly learned it was overrun with people that already had a party. The Republican Party. All I heard from them was "We need to rid ourselves of immigrants, get God into public schools and discourse", etc. etc. I tried to tell them by taking these positions they are alienating about 30% of the population, but oh well....

I personally think the LP is the best place for the small government conservatives. But with such small numbers being added to the small numbers already in the LP, don't expect many wins. The hard, cold truth is that most US voters prefer big government, the bigger the the better. They just don't want to pay for it.

Bill Roland

So there! She pretty well hits it on the head. It's all about power; especially the power to enforce your beliefs and behavior on others. And we lose.

Rodney Choate, P.E.

Nice piece with a few fresh insights and descriptions.

My experience: I'm in the bible belt (Louisiana). I started going to my local Tea Party meetings, hoping to find a like mind. No dice. Meetings start with a prayer and Pledge of Allegiance, thereby sending "the message" to folks like me - "we want to mix government and OUR religion". They are terrified of Muslim law coming, but don't see that they are helping to bring it. I think Rick Santorum was pretty popular with the group, but maybe not with everyone. They still think that if only "their side" could win, then all would be ok. Behind all their valid complaints about Obama, voiced in the meetings, you can just feel their big religious approach to government. They still don't get it.

Fred Mora

You make good points. I grant you that Democrat Leftists and Big Government GOP are both leading this country to statist Hell. However, in my opinion, the former want us to take the highway, while the latter is taking us on the scenic route. This is a difference in speed of decay that merits consideration.

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