By David J Beilstein
IT has been asked more than once what is the point of constitutional government. And around The Libertarian Republic tent such questions – while sensibly ironic – still need cogent answers and persuasive polemics. And such grist must be unpacked – as it were – because time grows short in our mounting post-constitutional republic.
Likewise, it should be noted that the locus classicus of that liberty-animating document is the preservation within separated, co-equal branches of a government, a “distrust” of the collective capacity of citizens to unravel the structures necessary for a free society of individuals enthroned by self-government.
Our founders distrusted the American people. At least in our collective actions. It’s plain and simple – just read the U.S. Constitution sometime.
Such an insight is clear enough in the Constitution which itself marks out clear limits upon government, restricting what citizens can do to neighbour and of self through the power of government.
Much of the topsoil enriching such classical liberal pillars has been washed away due in no small part to statist preference-based policy – either on the right or the left. Moreover, the statist left is easily the more egregious offender when it comes to imposing reckless additions to the constitutional provoking a constitutional crisis in these years.
But in recent years the so-called political right has been second fiddle.
Unfortunately, it did not take long. And unlike the statist left’s prestigious actions to impose collectivist ideology on the masses at large – the populist and moralistic right has done so through fear and reactionary cheerleading of the sis-boom-bah variety.
And yet imagine for a moment (if one can; if one has the imagination of a child) going back in time through machine or portal.
An experiment cultural conservatives (including, most recently, Republican nominee for President Mitt Romney) seems to generate all kinds of sentimental gush and nostalgia for times long gone.
And what do we find if we travel back to 1920 – for instance.
A smaller government – but a smaller government with an overall ethos. That ethos is one where there were fewer laws governing human conduct. Where as far as the eye could perceive no income tax; where cocaine was a legal ingredient in Coca-Cola, and regulatory mischief ebbed low and far less noticeable.
The point of all this is to say, simply: the smaller and less intrusive the government the more individual liberty; the broader and more vital the republic.
And yet today’s conservatives in the main if consistent would fear much of such a society, for government would not be ordering people what to do from top to bottom. Once conservatism became about saying no to a host of private, consensual behavior, the game was lost. And conservatives could never sell that premise with the apposite premise of wanting to animate individual liberty.
It is true much foolish behaviour is not truly freeing. Go figure. But when did such value judgments become the governments business?
And saying “yes” in terms of the jurisdiction of the state never met such freedoms were objectively good – just that there were rights of individual autonomy which needed respecting and the right to act does not men one is “right” in the action in ultimate categories.
Good conservatism has never been about closing gates but making sure the entrance through the proverbial gates of a free society are ever open – widening hopefully for more and more diverse groups of Americans.
What seems obvious is conservative Republicans never learned what is good for the goose is good for the gander. The restriction of individual liberty on one group of Americans unsettles the constitutional claims many cultural conservatives desire.
Of course, the mainstream conservative is interested in listening to the witness of human conduct and therefore heeding the story it unpacks. But never at the cost of liberty – something the right must learn.
It is more than a little interesting that the more conservatism became traditionalist (slash, moralistic) the closer national elections became.
Look at the landslide victories of Pres. Reagan in the 1980s – which included New York and California – and the elections of the last Republican to occupy the presidency – the nail-biters of the George W Bush era.
This cannot be an aberration for it is too solidified to be one. Perhaps Pres. Reagan unwisely courted the voters belonging to the cadre of the moral majority and Christian right.
But then Pres. Reagan did not belong to them. And Pres. Reagan made it upmost clear he would do his best to get government off the backs of working Americans without telling them how to live or what to think.
Gentlemen, we’re talking about free minds and markets.
In a word, the more Republicans ran on the heels of Reagan the greater the victory spreads. The more the Republican right looked like Jerry Falwell at a revivalist get-together, the more Republicans were neatly confined to the back of the bus politically speaking.
It has been an idea in my fertile brain before that part of the confusion on these matters is because the term conservative is not the most helpful description of the American right.
As with any type of conservatism the question must be considered what exactly is being conserved. And from there an understanding can be assented too.
We live and work in a nation in which the rule of law is specifically set up to distrust collective capacity of citizens. Meanwhile, too many on the right continue to try to impose dogmatic social policies on the nation at large without coming from the spirit of the constitution.
And can we honestly look at the political right – especially when out of power – as holding to the solid blue flame – as a moth to light – to the idea that our premise of government ought to of considerable humility; that we think deeply of what it means to ask government to be more and more involved because of our subjective (and well intentioned) aspirations continue to add to the girth of big government statism more and more – from sun up to sundown.
One of the reasons ordered liberty is slowly being dismantled happens to be our fault. We have asked of the government too much – to erect civil religion and religious norms of morality outside of all constitutional imperatives.
And it is not working – a slow gander will reveal such is the case and always has been the case when government is called upon to make the kind of value judgments social conservatives require of government.
And that is not a limited government – but an immensely fat-ass version of it.