A Libertarian Defense of Social Conservatism

Social conservatism is taking a beating lately.  Not only did it lose in the recent elections, it is being blamed for the Republican losses.  If only the religious right would get off the Republican Party's back, the GOP could win like it is supposed to again.  I beg to differ.

I'm anything but a social conservative.  In nine presidential elections, I voted Libertarian in six.  I am a hard core "limited government" conservative/libertarian; I want government out of my pocket-book and out of my bedroom.  Concerning my religion, it's none of your business, but I'm somewhere in the lapsed-Catholic-deist-agnostic-atheist spectrum; let's just call it agnostic.

Having said all that, I have no problem with "social conservatives" or the "religious right" and their supposed influence on the Republican party.  I base this not on the Bible or historical authority, but on the love of liberty and the evidence of my own eyes.

Who are the true liberty killers? 

The most obvious point to me is that it is the do-gooding liberals who are telling us all what we can and can't do.  The religious right usually just wants to be left alone, either to home school, pray in public or not get their children vaccinated with who-knows-what.  Inasmuch as the "religious right" wants some things outlawed, they have failed miserably for at least the last 50 years.  Abortion, sodomy, and pornography are now all Constitutional rights.  However, praying in public school is outlawed, based on that same Constitution.

Just think for a moment about the things you are actually forced to do or are prevented from doing.  Seat belts.  Motorcycle helmets.  Bicycle helmets.  Smoking.  Gun purchase and ownership restrictions.  Mandatory vaccines for your children.  Car emissions inspections.  Campaign ad and contribution restrictions.  Saying a prayer at a public school graduation or football game.  Trash separation and recycling.  Keeping the money you earned.  Gas tax.  Telephone tax.  Income tax.  FICA withholding.  Fill in this form.  Provide ID.

For the most part, the list just cited is post-1960.  Neither Pat Robertson nor James Dobson ever forced any of that on us.

How powerful is "social conservatism"? 

I can get pornography right at my keyboard, or drive a mile and get all the sex toys I can fit into my car.  I can walk to the nearest casino to gamble (but can no longer smoke there).  I do need to travel to Nevada for a legal prostitute.  If my teenage daughters had wanted abortions, they could have had them free and without even notifying me.  (However, had they taken Advil to school, we'd all be in trouble.)


There is one thing I can think of that is actually outlawed and that the religious right wants outlawed: illegal drugs.  But the criminalization of drugs enjoys broad bipartisan support; it is not exactly an issue owned by the religious right.  Last I heard, 70% of those polled wanted to keep drugs outlawed.

But recall that in the Supreme Court decision that ruled against medical marijuana, Gonzales v. Raich, it was the "social conservative" contingent of Rehnquist and Thomas who dissented.  Clarence Thomas began his dissent as follows .

Respondents Diane Monson and Angel Raich use marijuana that has never been bought or sold, that has never crossed state lines, and that has had no demonstrable effect on the national market for marijuana. If Congress can regulate this under the Commerce Clause, then it can regulate virtually anything-and the Federal Government is no longer one of limited and enumerated powers.

I'll take that kind of "social conservatism" all I can.  It sounds like freedom to me.

It was also the very conservative William Buckley at the very conservative National Review (and who was not alone among conservatives) who said this to the New York Bar Association:

I leave it at this, that it is outrageous to live in a society whose laws tolerate sending young people to life in prison because they grew, or distributed, a dozen ounces of marijuana.  I would hope that the good offices of your vital profession would mobilize at least to protest such excesses of wartime zeal, the legal equivalent of a My Lai massacre.  And perhaps proceed to recommend the legalization of the sale of most drugs, except to minors.


Let's talk about the unavoidable issue: abortion.  Who made it a federal issue?  The ACLU and then the Supreme Court.  Before 1973 it was left to the states; some allowed it, some didn't.  Different states could adopt different criteria.  Some might allow it under all circumstances. Some other none.  Some at 12 or 20 weeks.  Some might define "health" of the mother in different terms.

But all that flexibility was halted with Roe v Wade.  Since 1973 abortion has been a Constitutional right.  Do you know where that right is found in the Constitution?  In these words of the 14th Amendment: "[No state shall] deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law."  Those words, according to our finest Constitutional scholars, mean it's OK to shove scissors through the skull of a baby and suction its brains out, as long as that skull has not yet left the birth canal.  I'm sure you see that in those words of the 14th Amendment.  Look hard, into the penumbras and emanations - it might take a little imagination.

Regardless of what you think about abortion, to find it in the 14th Amendment is an act of ink-blot reasoning.  It might almost be OK, if it meant the court said we have true sovereignty over our own bodies.  But the court explicitly said otherwise.

The privacy right involved, therefore, cannot be said to be absolute. In fact, it is not clear to us that the claim asserted by some amici that one has an unlimited right to do with one's body as one pleases bears a close relationship to the right of privacy previously articulated in the Court's decisions. The Court has refused to recognize an unlimited right of this kind in the past... We, therefore, conclude that the right of personal privacy includes the abortion decision, but that this right is not unqualified...

So you do not have the right to do with your body as you please.  Neither women nor men own their own bodies.  That's what Roe v Wade said.  In short, the decision was not "pro-choice".  It was pro-abortion, pure and simple.  That is the only choice it protected. 

If taking abortion out of the hands of the federal government and putting it back into hands of the states, where it is legislated per each state's popular sentiment, let it be.  I can stand that kind of "social conservatism."  It sounds like federalism and democracy to me.


Now let's talk about guns.  Why is that a "social" issue?  We're talking about the Bill of Rights here.  You know, where we find the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, religious freedom, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, no cruel and unusual punishments or excessive bails, etc.  The right to keep and bears arms is No. 2 of 10.  This is a right the "religious right" wants to keep, not take away.  If you keep your gun in your bedroom, it is the religious right that wants the government to stay out of your bedroom.  Who is treading on whose rights here?

Gay Marriage

I am not dead set against gay marriage.  I'm mildly against it, but if it comes to an honest vote in my state and passes, I can live with that.  But so far, every single time the issue has gone to a popular vote, the people voted it down.  The only reason it is legal in two states right now is because of the courts in those states; a mere handful of robed Merlins made the decisions.

I also think it a bit risky to redefine such a fundamental institution that has been defined as between one man and one or more women in every successful civilization I know about, for the last 6,000 years or so.  How about we use federalism and the states as laboratories before we dive head-first into opaque water on this one?


I must say, even as an agnostic, something is creepy about a government that outlaws Nativity scenes at City Hall, but subsidizes Piss Christ.  That tries to disband the Boy Scouts but promotes gay marriage.  That disallows even voluntary, student-led prayer at public school, but teaches children how to put on condoms.

What is so funny about Bill Maher's Religulous?  What is so bad about Sarah Palin hoping to do God's will or praying for His guidance?

I am not religious myself, but I kind of like the idea that whoever makes and enforces our laws thinks that some invisible being knows his every move and will judge him accordingly in eternity.  I would not be offended if the being he prays to is the one who gave the Sermon on the Mount.

I have yet to see the absence of religious devotion replaced with true scientific rationalism.  Instead, I see it replaced with Environmentalism, Marxism, New Age "spiritualism" or any of a host of other pseudo-religions.  On the other hand, Isaac Newton, for my money the greatest scientist ever and one of our more rational thinkers, wrote way more about the Bible and God than he ever did about calculus, mechanics and optics combined.  There is nothing inconsistent between science and religion or reason.

By the way, I know enough about rationalism to know this: anyone who thinks he practices it rigorously has no idea what he's talking about.  Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead are famous for taking a thousand pages to prove, with rigorous logic, that one and one are two (I'll trust them on that).  How can anyone with an ounce of humility, or real sense, think he knows the "rational" method of improving the lot of mankind?  Lenin and Mao thought they knew, as they sent tens of millions to their graves in the effort.

Mythical Creatures

I'm still searching for the mythical creature that is the "financially conservative, socially liberal" politician.  In virtually every case, the pro-abortion or pro-gay marriage politician is the first to vote against a tax cut, the first to vote for more spending and quick to compromise principles on any issue there is.

Using the National Journal's ratings of Senators in 2007 , the correlation coefficient between "economic" scores and "social" scores is 90%.  That means they almost always go together; financial conservatives are social conservatives and vice versa.   Every Senator scoring above 60 in economic issues, scored above 50 in social ones.  Every Senator scoring below 40 in economic issues, scored below 50 in social ones.  If there is such an animal as a "financial conservative, social liberal", it does not exist in the US Senate.

Humility and hubris

Finally, there is the concept of small "c" conservative.  While we should make some changes in our institutions so that we can evolve, as F.A. Hayek might describe, toward a better society, we should also be careful.  Don't change everything at once, for example.  Try a few things incrementally and see how they turn out.  Maybe we should consider "evidence based" government.

We should be especially careful in tinkering with the most successful society ever to exist on this planet.  I would hope I wouldn't have to defend that claim.  By 1969 we put man on the moon and brought him back safely.  We were the richest and most free country on earth.  Immigrants flocked to our shores.  We had defeated some of the most despicable regimes in history.  Our schools were the envy of the world and our people produced more patents than any other country.

Shouldn't we have some humility about changing the most fundamental institutions that got us to that point?  Things like traditional marriage, the nuclear family, schools, private property, the free market and the Bill of Rights?  That is not to say we don't change them at all.  But let's be careful, incremental and be prepared to change the change.  Do not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

It was communism that tried to change everything all at once.  Karl Marx described the approach in the Communist Manifesto.  

"Abolition of private property. ... Abolition of the family! ... Communism abolishes eternal truths, it abolishes all religion, and all morality ... this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads ... In short, the Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things."

The Soviets said they would create the "new man."  Pol Pot wanted change so drastic he set his revolution in the "year zero."  The results were 100 million dead, prison camps, re-education camps and boat people.  These new societies, new men, and new calendars did not last.


When the day comes that the only thing between me and liberty are some Bible-quoting know-it-alls, I'll reconsider.  But right now, there are a lot of things between me and liberty, and the "religious right" is not one of them.  In fact, I see them voting for more liberty, not less.  If the Republican Party ever decides it really wants to be the party of liberty, rather than the slower-road-to-socialism party, I'll gladly join the religious right there.

Randall Hoven can be contacted at randall.hoven@gmail.com or  via his web site, kulak.worldbreak.com.
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