Politics

The Dreamy Thing About Rick Santorum Is That He Has Met the Enemy, and He Is Individual Freedom

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Seriously, I will never make another Dan Savage joke, at least not in this election cycle.

Though we probably won't be talking unironically about a Rick Santorum presidential campaign by the time pitchers and catchers report, his boomlet has served the important purpose of reminding us just who out there really doesn't like individual freedom. For instance, former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson:

[P]erhaps the most surprising result of the Iowa caucuses was the return of compassionate conservatism from the margins of the Republican stage to its center. Rick Santorum is not just an outspoken social conservative; he is the Republican candidate who addresses the struggles of blue-collar workers and the need for greater economic mobility. He talks not only of the rights of the individual but also of the health of social institutions, particularly the family. […]

Libertarianism is an extreme form of individualism, in which personal rights trump every other social goal and institution. It is actually a species of classical liberalism, not conservatism — more directly traceable to John Stuart Mill than Edmund Burke or Alexis de Tocqueville. The Catholic (and increasingly Protestant) approach to social ethics asserts that liberty is made possible by strong social institutions — families, communities, congregations — that prepare human beings for the exercise of liberty by teaching self-restraint, compassion and concern for the public good. Oppressive, overreaching government undermines these value-shaping institutions. Responsible government can empower them — say, with a child tax credit or a deduction for charitable giving — as well as defend them against the aggressions of extreme poverty or against "free markets" in drugs or obscenity.

You can tell he's more compassionate than you, by his _________________.

This is not statism; it is called subsidiarity. In this view, needs are best served by institutions closest to individuals. But when those institutions require help or protection, higher-order institutions should intervene. […]

This is not "big government" conservatism. It is a form of limited government less radical and simplistic than the libertarian account. A compassionate-conservative approach to governing would result in a different and smaller federal role — using free-market ideas to strengthen families and communities, rather than constructing centralized bureaucracies. It rejects, however, a utopian belief in unfettered markets that would dramatically increase the sum of suffering.

In a 2005 speech at the Heritage Foundation, Santorum argued that men and women should not be treated either as "pathetic dependents" or as "radical individuals." "Someone," he argued, "always gets hurt when masses of individuals do what is only in their own self-interest. That is the great lie of liberal freedom…. Freedom is liberty coupled with responsibility to something bigger or higher than the self. It is a self-less freedom. It is sacrificial freedom. It is the pursuit of our dreams with an eye towards the common good."

Cato's David Boaz has an appropriate response. I'll just add a question, re: "a compassionate-conservative approach to governing would result in a different and smaller federal role" … well, when, exactly? Gerson's compassionate conservative splurge created debts our grandchildren will be paying off, which will eventually wreak havoc on the very social safety net he aims to shore up.

Santorum's right: It takes a family.

Santorum's anti-individualism has another unsurprising fan: David Brooks.

I'm delighted that Santorum is making a splash in this presidential campaign. He is far closer to developing a new 21st-century philosophy of government than most leaders out there.

One of Santorum's strengths is that he understands that a nation isn't just an agglomeration of individuals; it's a fabric of social relationships. In his 2005 book, "It Takes a Family," he had chapters on economic capital as well as social capital, moral capital, cultural capital and intellectual capital. He presents an extended argument against radical individualism. "Just as original sin is man's inclination to try to walk alone without God, individualism is man's inclination to try to walk alone among his fellows," he writes.

Can I interject something personal here? I, too, believe in Gerson's "self-restraint, compassion and concern for the public good." I consider myself part of Brooks' "fabric of social relationships," and, like Rick Santorum, I do not "walk alone among" my fellows. These–yes!–individual choices of mine generally are not the question. The question is, how do you plan on using the federal government to allegedly further these values? Helpfully, Brooks provides a little list of Santorum's applications:

It's the cheeks

He seeks to triple the size of the child tax credit, to make families more financially secure. He has supported flex time and transportation policies to make life easier for working parents. After initial opposition, he came to support AmeriCorps, the federal community service program.

Santorum believes Head Start should teach manners to children. He has supported efforts to police the airwaves and corporate marketing campaigns.

Do you see the problem(s) here? You don't have to be a radical individualist to think that, hey, maybe I don't want the federal government to "teach manners" to pre-schoolers (in fact, if you claim to value "subsidiarity" as much as each of these gentlemen do, it seems odd to champion a Washington role in the strengthening of local tyke-mores). You don't have to reject God to see how the phrase "police the airwaves" is a little on the troubling side, especially vis-a-vis that whole "Congress shall pass no law" stuff. And supporting AmeriCorps might something other than unacceptable if we weren't involuntarily paying for this "charity" (including $200 million in stimulus spending alone) by borrowing 40+ cents on the dollar. (And again, I'm not seeing the subsidiarity in the phrase "federal community service." What's next, federal block parties?) 

The problem with this type of applied compassionate conservatism is that it accepts no boundaries, in either price tags or intrusions on individual liberty. Which you can see by the Magical Realist kicker to Brooks' column, where he upbraids Santorum for not pursuing the final logic of his beliefs:

And I believe in the family - Mom and Dad and Grandma…and Uncle Todd, who waves his penis.

If you believe in the dignity of labor, it makes sense to support an infrastructure program that allows more people to practice the habits of industry. If you believe in personal responsibility, you have to force Americans to receive only as much government as they are willing to pay for. If you believe in the centrality of family, you have to have a government that both encourages marriage and also supplies wage subsidies to men to make them marriageable.

If you believe social trust is the precondition for a healthy society, you have to have a simplified tax code that inspires trust instead of degrading it. If you believe that firm attachments and stable relationships build human capital, you had better offer early education for children in disorganized neighborhoods. If you want capitalists thinking for the long term and getting the most out of their workers, you have to encourage companies to be more deeply rooted in local communities rather than just free-floating instruments of capital markets.

In other words, if you believe in limited, constitutional government, you want to run, screaming, away from any candidate supported by David Brooks.

Reason on Rick Santorum here. My recent piece on "The Simpletons" here.