A Frothy Mixture of Collectivism and Conservatism
America's Anti-Reagan Isn't Hillary Clinton. It's Rick Santorum.
In 1960, a Republican senator named Barry Goldwater published a little book called The Conscience of a Conservative . The first printing of 10,000 copies led to a second of the same size, then a third of 50,000, until ultimately it sold more than 3 million copies. Goldwater's presidential candidacy crashed in 1964, but his ideas did not: For decades, Goldwater's hostility to Big Government ruled the American Right. Until, approximately, now.
Rick Santorum, a second-term Republican senator from Pennsylvania, has written a new book called It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good . The book is worth taking seriously for several reasons, not least of which is that it is a serious book. The writing and thinking are consistently competent, often better than that. The lapses into right-wing talk-radioese ("liberals practically despise the common man") are rare. Santorum wrestles intelligently, often impressively, with the biggest of big ideas: freedom, virtue, civil society, the Founders' intentions. Although he is a Catholic who is often characterized as a religious conservative, he has written a book whose ambitions are secular. As its subtitle promises, it is about conservatism, not Christianity.
Above all, it is worth noticing because, like Goldwater's Conscience, it lays down a marker. As Goldwater repudiated Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, so Santorum repudiates Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. It's now official: Philosophically, the conservative movement has split. Post-Santorum, tax-cutting and court-bashing can hold the Republican coalition together for only so much longer.
As a policy book, It Takes a Family is temperate. It serves up a healthy reminder that society needs not just good government but strong civil and social institutions, and that the traditional family serves all kinds of essential social functions. Government policies, therefore, should respect and support family and civil society instead of undermining or supplanting them. Parents should make quality time at home a high priority. Popular culture should comport itself with some sense of responsibility and taste.
Few outside the hard cultural Left—certainly not Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) who makes several cameos as Santorum's bete noir—would disagree with much of that. Not in 2005, anyway. Moreover, Santorum's policy proposals sit comfortably within the conservative mainstream. But It Takes a Family is more than a policy book. Its theory of "conservatism and the common good" seeks to rechannel the mainstream.
In Santorum's view, freedom is not the same as liberty. Or, to put it differently, there are two kinds of freedom. One is "no-fault freedom," individual autonomy uncoupled from any larger purpose: "freedom to choose, irrespective of the choice." This, he says, is "the liberal definition of freedom," and it is the one that has taken over in the culture and been imposed on the country by the courts.
Quite different is "the conservative view of freedom," "the liberty our Founders understood." This is "freedom coupled with the responsibility to something bigger or higher than the self." True liberty is freedom in the service of virtue—not "the freedom to be as selfish as I want to be," or "the freedom to be left alone," but "the freedom to attend to one's duties—duties to God, to family, and to neighbors."
This kind of freedom depends upon and serves virtue, and virtue's indispensable incubator and transmitter is the family. Thus "selflessness in the family is the basis for the political liberty we cherish as Americans." If government is to defend liberty and promote the common welfare, then it must promote and defend the integrity of the traditional family. In doing so, it will foster virtue and rebuild the country's declining social and moral capital, thus fostering liberty and strengthening family. The liberal cycle of decline—families weaken, disorder spreads, government steps in, families weaken still further—will be reversed.
"Freedom is not self-sufficient," writes Santorum. He claims the Founders' support, and quotes John Adams ("Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people") and George Washington to that effect. But as University of Maryland political scientist William A. Galston notes, Washington and (especially) Adams stood at one end of a spectrum of debate, and it was a debate that they ultimately lost.
Other Founders—notably James Madison, the father of the Constitution—were more concerned with power than with virtue. They certainly distinguished between liberty and license, and they agreed that republican government requires republican virtues. But they believed that government's foremost calling was not to inculcate virtue but to prevent tyranny. Madison thus argued for a checked, limited government that would lack the power to impose any one faction's view of virtue on all others.
Freedom, for Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and others, was an end, not just a means. A government that allows individuals to pursue happiness in their own fashions, they believed, is most likely to produce a strong society and a virtuous citizenry; but the greatest benefit of freedom is freedom itself. Civic virtue ultimately serves individual freedom, rather than the other way around.
It was in this tradition that Goldwater wrote, "Every man, for his individual good and for the good of his society, is responsible for his own development." Note that word "and": Individual and social welfare go together—they're not in conflict. All the government needs to do, Goldwater said, is get out of the way. "The conservative's first concern will always be: Are we maximizing freedom?" Reagan spoke in the same tradition when he declared that government was the problem, not the solution to our problems.
Goldwater and Reagan, and Madison and Jefferson, were saying that if you restrain government, you will strengthen society and foster virtue. Santorum is saying something more like the reverse: If you shore up the family, you will strengthen the social fabric and ultimately reduce dependence on government.
Where Goldwater denounced collectivism as the enemy of the individual, Santorum denounces individualism as the enemy of family. On page 426, Santorum says this: "In the conservative vision, people are first connected to and part of families: The family, not the individual, is the fundamental unit of society." Those words are not merely uncomfortable with the individual-rights tradition of modern conservatism. They are incompatible with it.
Santorum seems to sense as much. In an interview with National Public Radio last month, he acknowledged his quarrel with "what I refer to as more of a libertarianish Right" and "this whole idea of personal autonomy." In his book he comments, seemingly with a shrug, "Some will reject what I have to say as a kind of 'Big Government' conservatism."
They sure will. A list of the government interventions that Santorum endorses includes national service, promotion of prison ministries, "individual development accounts," publicly financed trust funds for children, community-investment incentives, strengthened obscenity enforcement, covenant marriage, assorted tax breaks, economic literacy programs in "every school in America" (his italics), and more. Lots more.
Though he is a populist critic of Big Government, Santorum shows no interest in defining principled limits on political power. His first priority is to make government pro-family, not to make it small. He has no use for a constitutional (or, as far as one can tell, moral) right to privacy, which he regards as a "constitutional wrecking ball" that has become inimical to the very principle of the common good. Ditto for the notions of government neutrality and free expression. He does not support a ban on contraception, but he thinks the government has every right to impose one.
The quarrel between virtue and freedom is an ancient and profound one. Santorum's suspicion of liberal individualism has a long pedigree and is not without support in American history. Adams, after all, favored sumptuary laws that would restrict conspicuous consumption in order to promote a virtuous frugality. And Santorum is right to observe that no healthy society is made up of people who view themselves as detached and unencumbered individuals.
"But to move from that sociological truism to the proposition that the family is the fundamental unit of political liberty," says Galston, "goes against the grain of two centuries of American political thought, as first articulated in the Declaration of Independence." With It Takes a Family , Rick Santorum has served notice. The bold new challenge to the Goldwater-Reagan tradition in American politics comes not from the Left, but from the Right.
© Copyright 2005 National Journal