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May 31, 2008

A First Principle of Conservatism? Not Really.

Yesterday, Ed Morrissey wrote about returning to the first principle of conservatism: limited government. Click over to read it all, if you haven't already; I just excerpt a little bit to explain why I don't think that focusing on limited government to the exclusion of "a broad agenda of issues" will help:

With so many people writing about what ails conservatism, and so much disagreement, the basic tenets of conservatism seem to be overlooked. In attaching an ever-broader policy base to the first principles of conservatism, we have not added to our base but have increased our opposition. In fighting on the flanks, we have ignored the center, and as a result, have lost momentum through poor definition and irresponsible governance.

Take gay marriage as one example. In relation to the first principle of conservatism, why should this even be on the conservative radar screen, especially as a national issue? Instead of drumbeats for federal constitutional amendments, we should have insisted that government get out of the sacrament-recognition business. Let the churches determine the sacramental value of relationships, and let (state) governments enforce partnership contracts.

With every added issue, conservatives gain allies but also opponents. A narrow focus on reducing government would attract many more people than it repels.

For starters, I don't think you'll actually find many conservatives who are ready to throw the federal benefits and duties of marriage (as opposed to the state benefits) out the window. Libertarians, sure, but conservatives are much more likely to insist that federal law recognize married couples for the purposes of things like taxes, federal employment benefits, Social Security, and welfare eligibility. And as further programs are announced, conservatives want them to be responsive to the the marital status of participants.

More than that, conservatives are not content to let marriage be a decision of the states. The federal Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits the federal government from "treat[ing] same-sex relationships as marriages for any purpose, even if concluded or recognized by one of the states" passed with the support of every Republican in the Senate. In the House, only one Republican rep voted against it (he'd just been outed).

I understand that Ed is not describing how things exist right now among conservatives; he's saying what's wrong with "so-called conservatives." He's saying what he thinks true conservatives should be. But that's not a realistic path to election success because, whatever Ed thinks, conservatives, yes, true conservatives within the usual meaning of the term, don't actually put the principle of limited government ahead of all other concerns. Certainly limited government is important, but it's not actually the "first principle" that Ed claims. He's thinking about libertarians.

Even if he were right that true conservatives should make limited federal government their number one priority, that is most certainly not a path to electoral success for a very practical reason. Assume for a minute that Republicans had taken up Ed's suggestion and instead of seeking a federal Marriage Protection Amendment in 2004 had sought to "get out of the sacrament-recognition business." What would have happened then?

Pro-family groups would have put primary challengers in every Republican race and they would have run the same ad campaign everywhere:

[Patriotic music, maybe a waiving flag, images of happy American families]

An earnest female voice says: "Our elected officials have abandoned traditional family values and left us at the mercy of a dangerous and disastrous liberal agenda. Our families need leaders who will stand up for us, now more than ever."

Etcetera ad nauseum.

At the end of that election season we'd be back where we are right now. Because no matter how much Ed claims that limited government is the first principle of conservatism, it's not; he's thinking of libertarians. There are some issues that conservatives care about more than they do keeping the federal government small and uninvolved. Most of them are what can be termed "moral issues." And on those issues conservatives are much more likely to take up the position of Governor Huckabee: "You can't have 50 versions of what's right."

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posted by Gabriel Malor at 02:40 PM

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