As a libertarian who used to work at National Review and who counts conservatives among my friends and political allies, I have long searched for the unifying thread that ties together the seemingly disparate positions typically advocated by people on "the right." Why does opposition to gun control tend to go hand in hand with support for drug control (National Review's editors being an honorable exception on that score)? What does banning flag burning have in common with repealing restrictions on political ads? Why does pro-life on abortion and assisted suicide become pro-death on capital punishment? How does support for freedom of contract jibe with opposition to gay marriage? What do lower taxes have to do with prohibiting cloning? How is support for free markets reconciled with bans on migrant labor and online gambling?
Now Michael Medved, who complains that "most of the common efforts to define the fundamentals of conservative thinking fall short in their explanatory power," has made it all clear to me: The "core of conservatism," he says, is "distinctions and consequences," to which other political persuasions are oblivious or indifferent. "Conservatives feel impelled to make clear distinctions between right and wrong," Medved avers. "We reject all notions of moral relativism." Not only that, he says, but conservatives want society to "encourage the good and discourage the bad." They always ask, "Will a given policy or initiative help society to encourage good behavior and discourage destructiveness?" Everyone else, I guess, wants to know how to discourage good behavior and encourage destructiveness.
I'm not a conservative, so by definition I'm not very good with distinctions, but that seems like a pretty clear one to me. Still, it does not go very far in "resolv[ing] some of the apparent conservative contradictions," as Medved promises to do.
"It's impossible to say that conservatives want 'small government' above all," he concedes, "when most of us want expanded governmental efforts to crack down on terrorists, crooks and illegal immigrants. Yes, we generally favor 'less regulation,' but we also want more restrictions on abortion, pornography and desecration of the flag." Is there some theory about the proper role of government underlying those policy preferences? Medved never really says, beyond the idea that the government should foster good things and crack down on bad things.
One of those good things is capitalism, except when it isn't (emphasis added):
We favor free markets and small government not for their own sake but because the profit system represents the best possible means to encourage wholesome, constructive choices. The only way to make money in a free marketplace is to benefit and bless other people: to provide them with a product or a service they choose to buy. You enrich yourself and enhance your own power by providing your neighbors with what they want.
As long as it's not drugs. Or gangster rap. Or pornography. Or lap dances. Or abortion. Or an opportunity to bet on football. Presumably Medved-style conservatives see no benefit or blessing in these activities because they are not wholesome or constructive. (Does that mean no one makes money by providing them?) Yet many left-liberals are willing to tolerate such transactions, even while seeking to ban the sale of handguns, trans fats, harp seal fur, or drinks in smoky bars. Is this because they do not draw distinctions or care about consequences? Or is it because they draw different distinctions and care about different consequences?
Likewise, Medved asserts that "liberals want us to continue to pour foreign aid into the most dysfunctional nations on earth." Like Iraq? No, not like Iraq, because Saddam was evil! The rulers of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia "aren't all that good," Medved concedes, but they're our friends. So much for eschewing moral relativism and making clear distinctions between right and wrong.
Instead of elucidating the differences in values and principles that distinguish modern American conservatism, Medved settles for smugly assuming his own moral and intellectual superiority. The "core of conservatism," it seems, is a dark, mushy mess.