Is Social Conservatism Necessary?

January 15, 2009

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Is Social Conservatism Necessary?

The voices of conventional wisdom are telling us once again that the Right should reinvent itself, or rather return to its true principles, by abandoning the social issues. Dwight Eisenhower and Barry Goldwater got along without them, so why can’t we do the same today? Instead of worrying about how people live their lives, we should concentrate on trimming government and getting its basic functions right.  Let’s create a “conservatism that can win again!”

The argument sounds appealing, in a go-with-the-flow sort of way. It’s nice to think we can make messy issues vanish by ignoring them. The problem, though, is that the argument has no connection to politics as it is now.

Comparisons aren’t always odious, but they’re often unhelpful. The social issues weren’t issues for Eisenhower because they weren’t public issues at all then. Nobody in public life favored abortion or homosexuality, and people thought of Christianity and the more-or-less traditional family as good things we should all support. They were seen as basic to the social background against which political disputes played out. No one was demanding their eradication as a violation of inclusiveness and tolerance.

That was then and this is now. The situation was changing rapidly by the time of the Goldwater candidacy, and by the late sixties the transformation of social relations had become a driving force of politics. “Change” is now the slogan, and that means giving political will a free field of action. The result is that politics now emphasizes abolition of the inherited social background that precedes politics—that imposes limitations, stabilizes human relations, and facilitates informal social functioning, thus making limited government possible.

You don’t get social justice if you don’t deal with social issues. Those who want “change” are the ones most concerned with them. That is why “getting government out of our bedrooms” has turned out to mean sensitivity training, sexual harassment law, compulsory radical redefinition of marriage, and training children to put condoms on cucumbers. To tell a political movement it should avoid comment on such things is to tell it to give up on politics as it actually exists today.

At bottom, the situation is quite simple. Left-liberals believe that society is made up of individuals and legal structures. The only rational and legitimate purpose of the structures is to give the individuals whatever they happen to want, as much and as equally as possible. It follows that the purpose of government, and indeed of morality, is regulating individuals and structures so that career, consumption, and the free choice of hobbies, lifestyles, and indulgences are secured for everyone.

That’s a big ambition—if it weren’t “change” wouldn’t be the ideal—and big ambitions impose big demands. The goal is to give people what they want, and it can only be achieved if what people want fits into the liberal scheme: that is, if it respects the needs of the system and the equal validity of the desires of other individuals.

That means that what people want has to be controlled. Left-liberalism requires us all to become virtuous, where virtue consists in pursuing only legitimate desires—in other words, supporting the system and otherwise minding our own business by concerning ourselves only with tolerant and private goals. Hence PC, and hence the constant re-education initiatives to which we are now subjected.

As long as other people don’t threaten liberalism, we are allowed only positive opinions about them and how they live. The requirement isn’t fad and foolishness, it’s fundamental to present-day politics. The point is abolition of all non-liberal institutions, loyalties, and standards. Those things lead to inequalities not justified on liberal grounds. They propose non-liberal goods—God, country, family, virtue, whatever—that interfere with the smooth operation of a system based on the efficient and equal pursuit of individual desire simply as such.

It is therefore basic to the liberal view that people must be made to view non-liberal goods and institutions as wrong and shameful. In particular, they must be taught to reject with disgust distinctions not related to the functioning of liberal institutions. That’s what “inclusion” and “tolerance” mean.

For example, the system depends on certified expertise, so it’s OK to distinguish between high school grads and college grads, or even between Harvard grads like Obama and State U grads like Palin. There’s nothing wrong with that. In contrast, distinctions related to family, culture, religion, and inherited community must be suppressed. They have at least as much effect as formal education on what we are and do, but they’re bad because they offer an alternative method of social organization and so threaten liberalism. That is why those who make distinctions based on sex, marital status, or community and cultural background must be squashed

Hence the extraordinary moralism and intolerance of liberalism, its tendency to treat any tolerance for non-liberal standards and distinctions as the worst human quality imaginable. People become intolerant and moralistic when they confront views and conduct that they believe threaten the basis and functioning of social order. And liberals confront such things everywhere. All history, all nature, all culture, and all religion threaten the basis and functioning of a liberal social order. They tell us that human beings cannot be reduced to orderly productive consumers who do what they’re told and only want a life of measured private self-indulgence.

Since human nature is a problem for liberalism, as all indications tell us it is, it has to be denied and stamped out. That is why liberals see hatred, bigotry, and intolerance everywhere. Crypto-Nazis are under every bed. The people can’t be trusted, so they’ve got to be disarmed, supervised, regulated, re-educated, and kept away from anything serious. Popular self-government has to be reined in by courts, bureaucrats, experts, and therapists, and as opportunity offers the government has to dissolve the people and elect a new and more pliant and multicultural one through mass immigration.

If liberals are so moralistic and intolerant, though, why is it rightists who get the rap? That’s mostly a matter of who’s doing the rapping. Mass media, megaversities, and the bureaucratic organization of life generally means that it’s the voices of people who take to large formal structures that get amplified. Those people are left-liberals, because left-liberalism stands for a comprehensive system of top-down social management. It’s an apparatchik’s dream.

From the standpoint of those who identify wholly with that system, right-wingers are indeed bad people. They have their own ideas about what’s required for a tolerable social order, and those ideas usually rely on family, religion, and particular community and culture. That makes rightists squishy-soft at best on racism, sexism, homophobia, and hate. And if they view their left-liberal opponents as the real threat to social order, they’re likely to add moralistic intolerance and the politics of fear to their sins.

Still, the fault is not wholly in the eyes of our opponents. We’re stuck in a slump and need to raise consciousness. Liberalism is based on something very simple, a principle of equality together with a technological approach to human life that reduces rational action to using whatever is available as a means to get what we want. As such, it seems rational, philosophical, and scientific. It’s taught in all the schools because the schools are integrated with mass bureaucratic society, which is happy with a technological approach to things, and it’s easy to train masses of people to understand something so simple and accept it as correct.

Any worthwhile Right must base itself on a more complex, subtle, and adequate understanding that tells us there is more to reality than equality and technology. There are also, it must say, qualities, essences, irreducible particularities, transcendent goods, and what not else. You won’t get far understanding human life if you ignore them. On the other hand, recognizing them makes political life much more problematic than a slogan like “change” suggests. After all, if the social issues are basic, and the most basic social issue is the need for the prepolitical, what do you do about that politically?

So what should the Right do? Not abandon the intuitions that make it Right, especially not for the sake of joining the party that looks stronger at the moment. Instead, we should develop our own views, so that we’re better able to articulate, apply, and press our position. If things aren’t going well the sensible thing is to ask ourselves just what we’re trying to do, and then find new ways to do it.

That process will require courage, grace, high spirits, and intellectual seriousness, together with a freedom of discussion that doesn’t seem to exist anywhere today. That’s good in a way, because it gives us all lots of opportunities for action. Recognition of the situation is the reason for publications like Takimag and organizations like the H.L. Mencken Club and even, on a personal level, for attempts like my own book on liberalism. It’s not likely that any of these efforts will be successful soon, but the point is the trying. On issues that are so basic, giving in for the sake of having an easier time of it is a disgrace.

James Kalb is an attorney who lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. His writing has appeared in Telos, Modern Age, and other publications. He authors a blog, Turnabout, focused on politics, culture, and traditional Catholicism.

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