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Liberty Pulse

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The GOP’s Theoconservatism Problem

8 min read

“The impact of the sound bite mentality which you find in both parties…is there’s been a debasing of the system. Because if you listen to these — I call them the Stepford candidates — on both sides in these debates the only two candidates that speak clearly are the ones they call the kooks.” Victor Gold to Bill Moyer in 2007 interview

 The GOP needs a dose of libertarianism and much less social conservatism if it can ever  honestly claim to be conservative again. Victor Gold, who served as Press Secretary to Barry Goldwater and speechwriter for Reagan and Bush 41, wrote a book entitled, Invasion of the Body Snatchers: How the Holy-Rollers and the Neo-Cons Destroyed the GOP. Victor Gold understood a problem for the GOP that would make proclamations of limited government and fiscal responsibility hypocritical and at odds with the desires of its social conservatives. Gold’s diagnosis is prescient; as the GOP has gone on to lose two more Presidential elections since the publication of Invasion of the Party Snatchers in 2007. His book remains a better diagnosis of why the GOP lost 4 of the last 6 Presidential elections and may continue to do so than Reince Priebus’ $10 million “autopsy” written in platitudinous consultancy speak.

Just a few days ago Rick Santorum, the poster boy of GOP social conservatism, announced, while expressing outrage that we had still not bombed North Korea and Iran, that he was not ruling out yet another failed Presidential run in 2016. Let’s be honest, Rick Santorum though referenced online in scatological terms, is not biodegradable-he will simply never leave. This presents a real problem for the GOP-not just that it will have nationally divisive primary candidates embraced outside of the primaries with scurrility but an ongoing optics issue. Why does the GOP want to get the government more involved in policing the most private aspects of personal life? And exactly what mental gymnastic argument allows this to be considered conservatism?

Theoconservatism or social conservatism is antithetical to notions of individual liberty in politics, libertarianism and fiscal conservatism. Arguments by those that try to say that social conservatism is not fundamentally at war with individual liberty are too tenuous and contrived to address-even by their most charitable reading, they do not work. Consider Santorum’s critique of libertarianism as not conservatism,

“One of the criticisms I make is to what I refer to as more of a libertarianish right. … This whole idea of personal autonomy, well I don’t think most conservatives hold that point of view. Some do. They have this idea that people should be left alone, be able to do whatever they want to do, government should keep our taxes down and keep our regulations low, that we shouldn’t get involved in the bedroom, we shouldn’t get involved in cultural issues. You know, people should do whatever they want. Well, that is not how traditional conservatives view the world and I think most conservatives understand that individuals can’t go it alone. That there is no such society that I am aware of, where we’ve had radical individualism and that it succeeds as a culture.”

 To be fair, Santorum has a point and he is right on one thing-libertarianism is not conservatism. There has never been a libertarian society-exactly nowhere and not ever. The liberty rpandsantorummovement has to hope to change the world and bring forward a utopian view of the world or some compromised approximation but in attempting to do so it will fight the Right and the Left and the middle that sees a place and value for the government. It is a bit like reading the abridged version of Adam Smith’s the Wealth of Nations and never having read the second half of the book or his Theory of Moral Sentiments. There is a place for the government, a concept once embraced by the right in something called “compassionate conservatism,” which by the way, went the way of the stegosaurus.

Alternatively, the liberty movement can save the GOP and bring it back to fiscal conservatism, respect for individual rights and smaller government. It is one thing to wave the Constitution or even be a Constitution-thumper- but you cannot do so while supporting simultaneously the Patriot Act, NDAA, agreeing with more fusion centers, the targeted killings of Americans and pretty much anything for even a bit more security-at least not the bits in the Constitution having to do with the Bill of Rights. It is one thing to wave a budget and complain about spending but have enacted costly big government social programs and nation building, which are all fine according to you because you are not the other side. At some level, even the dimmest occupant of the most tightly sealed echo chamber will notice, you are not being consistent-not even within your platform. This is precisely where a dose of libertarianism could help the GOP.

As much as neoconservatism believes in ends justifying the means (though they seem to do a wickedly poor job of guessing what the means will be by underestimating costs and casualties with errors of several orders of magnitude) on the idealist assumption that there will be peace, there is a strong values based argument for being more cautious about preventative killings and preventative wars. The same people who speak of spreading democracy through the Freedom Agenda [link] and preventative wars and a belief in natural laws, can also look at places in the Bible that call for caring for the poor, taking care of the sick and meek, turning the other cheek and loving one’s neighbor. What is one of the consistently missing considerations from the eternally idealist big-government Neoconservative element in the GOP is any thought to fiscal care.

Without an injection of libertarianism into the GOP going forward, it will be in all relevant aspects exactly the party of George W. Bush. Having learned nothing and having altered none at all. For what has changed? Unless the GOP injects a healthy dose of libertarianism, it cannot coherently continue to pretend it stands for fiscal sanity or smaller government. With two failed wars that will cost in excess of $6 trillion and demands for even more budget busting interventions around the globe to spread democracy and build nations-in seemingly ceaseless play acting of the Crusades…except that there will be the hundreds of thousands of more real lives lost, and thousands more actual young American lives sacrificed. It is only the libertarian impulse that can affect a return to Realism and consideration of our actual strategic interests other than utopian flights of nation building fancy in foreign policy. The GOP needs a foreign policy that does not see every single non-national actor or trash-talking figurehead as representing another Soviet Union in miniature manifestation and someone somewhere, another Poland.

It is not just that social conservatism limits personal freedom by using state action to compel compliance with its preferred social values-the opposite of the oft-stated Republican principles of personal freedom and autonomy from government intrusion. Social conservatism also breeds bigger government and like neoconservatism, it is massively expensive.

The social agendas of theoconservatives require expensive and expansive bureaucratic programs to effectuate. For example, if you make marriage a federal issue, like the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) did, because of your stated reason your “moral disapproval of homosexuality” you are bigoted and you are asking the government to help. In so doing, you are affecting over 1000 federal laws and asking for federal enforcement, policing and ultimately prosecution. You are also asking all your fellow Americans to pay for the costs of your personal beliefs. Why not support your own beliefs yourself instead of demanding that the federal government enforce them on everyone else too?

Santorum’s views on the place of religion in government are antithetical to the First Amendment. America is not a theocracy. Social conservatism does not always respect the freedom of others to practice their beliefs in the manner that they see fit-they seek to spread social agendas based on religious beliefs and enforce them by state action if necessary. This is un constitutional and from a constitutional sense profoundly un-American. Many of the Founding Fathers had a pervasive and profound anti-Catholicism-whether inherited from the Church of England or not, they deeply feared any conflation of the state with any church.

America was set up never to be a theocracy and the natural rights argument does not make it a theocracy, as Santorum’s logic hints. There is a legal sleight of hand argument where the Declaration of Independence assumes a place in Constitutional interpretation that takes the first document out of its historical context. Santorum brings God into the Constitution through the Declaration of Independence and conflates the rights and liberties referred to in both documents as one and the same. They may not be. To some extent the Constitution does refer to inalienable rights but Americans have inalienable rights because of the Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land-not because of where they come from or whether they were given by God or not. Santorum explains why his self-described “very good” interpretation of the Constitution is better than Ron Paul’s,

“Ron Paul has a libertarian view of the Constitution. I do not. The Constitution has to be read in the context of another founding document, and that’s the Declaration of Independence. Our country never was a libertarian idea of radical individualism. We have certain values and principles that are embodied in our country. We have God-given rights.
The Constitution is not the “why” of America; it’s the “how” of America. It’s the operator’s manual. It’s the rules we have to play by to ensure something. And what do we ensure? God-given rights.”

The rights given to all Americans in the Constitution are there because the Constitution is written as the supreme law of the land. Inalienable rights are akin to human rights, they exist to people because people exist. Using inalienable rights to bring God into the Constitution is another matter entirely and one for another time.
The GOP ought to cease the business of bringing religion into politics and the church into the state. On this score, the GOP so utterly needs a dose of libertarianism. Victor Gold says this best in speaking of Barry Goldwater,

“What they [Republicans] don’t seem to understand is keeping politics, keeping government out of the bedroom and private lives. Goldwater understood that. If you had told me and if you had told Barry Goldwater that we would one day have an office in the White House called the Office of Faith-based Initiative, what kind of Orwellian language is that? Faith-based initiative? That’s the Office of Religion. The Office of Religious Outreach. What — how do you put that in the White House? It’s not simply a separation of church and state. I’m talking about a separation of church and politics.

I highly recommend reading Victor Gold’s book.

R. Tamara de Silva

IMG_1241R. Tamara de Silva is a litigator specializing in Constitutional law in the federal courts. Ms. de Silva is also a professional securities trader. She writes a blog about the law, the financial markets and politics, which can be found