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“Libertarianism for Social Conservatives,” You Say?

Decentralization Isn't Everything

If you’ve been following the discussion surrounding the GOP’s post-election “Autopsy” report, you’re probably aware that many are urging the party go a bit more libertarian on social issues.

Case in point: Jack Hunter’s latest piece at The American Conservative, “Libertarianism for Social Conservatives.” The subtitle of Hunter’s column expresses his thesis: “From abortion to the drug war and gay marriage, decentralization is the only answer.

Since my own political philosophy is an amorphous blob of Jeffersonian democracy and Russell Kirk-style traditionalism–both of which heavily emphasize the beauty and primacy of the local–I must confess to agreeing with much of Hunter’s argument, i.e., that most of the social issues we fight about at the federal level should really–and by “really,” I mean, “according to the Constitution”–be dealt with at the state level (preferably lower, if possible). So, I’ll concede that if we’re really following the Constitution, then each state has a right to define marriage for itself. (We’ll soon see what SCOTUS has to say about that, of course…)

But I’m afraid that Hunter’s decentralist approach could degenerate into simply kicking the can down the road. Once we hand an issue off to the states, we still have to face the question, “Now, what should my state’s policy be here?” It seems that Hunter’s answer is the typical libertarian answer (“Get the government out of it”–no matter what “it” happens to be); what’s different about Hunter’s argument is that he’s doing his best to convince social conservatives that the libertarian answer is actually the one most consonant with the convictions underlying social conservatism, as well.

But it’s not. As I argued last week, libertarians and social conservatives both hold liberty in high esteem, but they part ways over the state’s role in protecting that liberty: Libertarians don’t envision much of a role for the state with respect to reinforcement of the “pre-conditions” of a free society beyond enforcing the non-aggression principle, whereas social conservatives do (defending and rebuilding families, churches, and other civil social institutions). So then, how can a philosophy in which the state abdicates its role in defending those institutions be considered the truest expression of a philosophy which places a premium on that defense? With all due respect to Mr. Hunter, I believe he may be embroiled in a bit of a contradiction.

And then there’s this: It’s all well and good to let the states define marriage for themselves, per the Tenth Amendment, but what about Section 3 of DOMA, which defines marriage in the traditional way for federal purposes? This is an issue that, by the very nature of the case, cannot simply be handed off to the states. But I notice that Hunter didn’t really deal with that question.

It would be great if social conservatives began re-emphasizing the importance of political decentralization; I’ve no quarrel with Hunter on that point. Honestly, if libertarians and social conservatives were to join forces on that issue, it might go a long way toward restoring the Framers’ original vision of a balance of power between the federal government and the states. (One can hope, right?) But to argue that if social conservatives simply follow their decentralist logic to its conclusion they’ll find that they’re really just “closet libertarians” is simply untrue. The differences between the two philosophies run much deeper than that, I’m afraid.

So, sorry: Libertarianism isn’t for social conservatives.

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