Sunday, January 8, 2012

Is Ron Paul a Conservative?

No, Ron Paul is a libertarian and that is why I utterly despise his political philosophy and regard it as being as great a danger as socialism. Libertarianism is incompatible with conservatism and incompatible with Christianity.

Many people are confused by Ron Paul's clever hijacking of the Republican Party's presidential nomination process to use as a platform for his nefarious ideas, but Ron Paul is no conservative and it is important for every Christian to understand the difference between what he stands for and what true conservatism is all about. I believe that a Biblical Christian must be a conservative of some sort and cannot be a consistent socialist or libertarian without compromising the Faith. But definitions are essential for understanding. But these terms need definition or my statements will be misunderstood.

William D. Gairdner has the best brief explanation of the difference between socialism, conservatism and libertarianism in his book, The Trouble with Canada. . . Still! (Chapter 6) Here is how he explains it.

Think of our society as having three layers. At the top is the State, the governing power. At the bottom are individuals considered as individuals only. In the middle layer are a multitude of intermediate institutions and structures which are collectively called "civil society." These range from the relatively shallow and ephemeral ones such as bowling leagues and gardening societies to the family, which is pre-political, universal and rooted in nature not culture. The Church is also part of civil society and both Church and Family are prior to the State, which is to say that the State can only recognize their integrity and right to exist but has no power to alter, ban or attack them. Historically and logically (and ontologically) the Church and Family precede the State.

Socialism:
Now, we can define our terms. Socialism is a form of statism, which means that socialists believe that society should be governed from the top down by an elite class of scientific planners with the chief goal being equality of outcome so that everyone has roughly the same income no matter how talented or hard-working each one is. This belief is what makes socialism a form of "statism" and all forms of statism are bad including absolute monarchies, communism, fascism and big-government, welfare-state liberalism. The idea that government should be a rational, top-down operation is the essence of the problem and this idea comes out of the Enlightment. All the various forms of statism are variations on a theme; all are oligarchic in nature.

Libertarianism:
Libertarianism is the exact opposite of statism and statism's sworn enemy. Libertarians focus on the individual and ignore the middle layer of civil society.

Because of the state's monopoly on violence, libertarians have to acknowledge the existence (and grudgingly even the limited legitimacy) of the state. But their ideal is to limit the state as much as possible, keep taxes low and provide individuals with as much liberty as possible. The only justification for the state making and enforcing a law is to protect one person from harming another. But anything that does not harm someone else should be legal. This is why Ron Paul is in favor of legalizing drugs, for example. The argument that weak people will get addicted and be exploited by drug pushers makes cuts no ice with libertarians. Their attitude is a Nietzchean indifference: "Too bad for gullible idiots."

Conservatism:
Conservatives are different from both of the above two political philosophies in that conservatives do not have an ideology. Conservatives do not make either individual liberty or equality the first principle from which all political decisions flow, as do libertarians and socialists respectively. Conservatives do not believe in top down or bottom up governance, but instead focus on the preservation and nurturing of civil society. Conservatives believe that manners and customs are important and that law should evolve slowly up from thousands of individual court decisions. Therefore, conservatives support English common law rather than French-style code law.

Conservatives believe that a Hobbsian war of all against all, such as libertarianism would foster, is extremely bad, but they also believe that the statist cure of Nanny Government riding to the rescue at the expense of personal freedom is a cure worse than the disease. (This last point explains why, despite their disagreements, conservatives and libertarians can make a tactical alliance against all forms of statism.)

But conservatives believe that it is Family, Church and other forms of local community that give life meaning rather than individualism or collectivism (two modern ideologies). Conservatives believe that we need a state, but that it is severely limited in what it can accomplish. Most of what the state legitimately does is negative: punishing crime, defending the borders etc. But the postive shaping of virtue and individual lives should not be done by the state, but by civil society, primarily the Family and the Church. The reason for this view is that conservatives believe that morality and the meaning of life is not determined by the State.

Conservatives believe in a transcendent moral order (whether conceptualized as Divine commands, natural law or Tradition) that must be recognized. All religions and even virtuous irreligious people agree on basic morality (what C. S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man terms the Tao.) This means that conservatives accept limits to Utopian efforts to make the world perfect and also limits on personal freedom.

In fact, for conservatives real freedom is not the ability to enact one's whims or satisfy one's appetites at every moment; real freedom is the ability to realize our telos, to achieve our purpose as human beings. Christians believe we have both a natural telos as humans and an ultimate telos consisting of the beatific vision. In other words, we were made by God and for God. But we discover our true nature as human beings not as members of the mass society governed by statist planners or as individuals choosing our own values, but through religion, family and community.

Liberalism:
There is one more term whose meaning is very difficult to pin down and which causes a lot of confusion. That term is, of course, "liberalism." What is liberalism?

Classical 19th century liberalism was a political philosophy that emphasized limited government, free markets and individual liberty with a recognition of Christianity as true and as the source of parliamentary democracy, human rights and political liberalism. This political philosophy, which has influenced much of the world through the influence of the British Empire, has been the greatest means of gaining freedom, prosperity and justice for whole societies that the world has ever seen.

The problem is that in the 19th century Europe lost its faith in Jesus Christ, as did a large chunk of the governing elites in the US, Canada and the rest of the West. This loss of faith, known as "secularization," has removed the foundation of political liberalism and has caused political liberalism to decay and rot.

During the 20th century one strand of liberalism decayed into libertarianism. With nothing more solid than the conceptually incoherent utilitarianism of J. S. Mill to sustain it, this kind of liberalism without God glorified "choice" and "the individual" until it could not avoid falling into the Nietzschean glorification of the "will to power." This is the philosophical basis of the "right to choose" slogan of the abortion wars.

In the 20th century another strand of classical liberalism decayed into pseudo-socialism. These liberals lost their grip on a transcendent concept of justice (natural law) and fell into epistemological and ethical relativism. Multiculturalism and socialist attempts at re-distribution of wealth by the state were policy results.

One strand of liberalism made an idol out of "choice" and the other made an idol out of "equality" and then eventually these two strands came together in what we can call "libertarian socialism." This is a political philosophy in which the sexual revolution meets Karl Marx with the result that contraception, pornography, promiscuity, divorce, abortion, homosexuality etc. create the illusion of "freedom" for the individual while the state confiscates an ever-increasing percentage of his income in taxes and creates an endlessly-increasing number of regulations, legal requirements and administrative laws take the place of the morality taught by the Church and inculcated by the Family.

Statists don't believe that "Father knows best" but rather that "Government knows best." And they have the nerve to mock those of us who think a flesh-and-blood father relating personally to his blood relations is dispensable while government bureaucrats performing impersonal social engineering on us is perfectly normal!

Classical liberalism is a good thing. But the word has been corrupted by those who like to hide behind it while acting as libertarian socialists. If Obama is a "liberal" then the word has lost its value. The irony is that the only people who stand today for real liberalism are conservatives.

One last point is important. I believe that a Christian must be a conservative in our historical situation because Christianity has shaped Western civilization in such beneficial and life-giving ways: limited government, parliamentary democracy, free markets, the rule of law, free speech, religious freedom, the public recognition of God, the natural law as the basis of positive law, the common law system and so on. European culture has been shaped by the uniquely Christian doctrine of the division of powers reflected in the separation of church and state. This is not a doctrine of the marginalization or privatization of church as in secularism, but a doctrine that says that both church and state have valid, though different, roles to play is sustaining a liberal democracy.

The key points to recognize are (1) that liberal democracy does not work without Christianity and (2) that Christianity must be mediated to society through civil society. Therefore a secularized liberal democracy will always degenerate into the individualistic chaos of libertarianism or the suffocating bureaucracy of statism. As Yeats put it "The center does not hold."

This is why libertarianism is so bad. Ron Paul may be a Christian; I don't know. But libertarianism is pernicious. It is what you get when you take individual liberty to such an extreme that you eliminate the structures of civil society that make society civilized.

Cross-posted at The Bayview Review.

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