Republicans and the State
What ought our principles to be?
A few weeks ago I was called to jury duty, a day-long ordeal in which I found myself a prisoner of the state for a short while. I was not permitted to leave the courtroom, could not carry my cell phone, and was threatened with arrest should I do anything other than take the $15 parking reimbursement they offered and sit quietly. During jury selection myself and 100 other citizens were asked more than a few questions.
One stands out at me – “would you give more or less credit to the testimony of a police officer based upon his or her occupation?”
I was the only one to stand up. Less, I would later explain. The officer may have a professional relationship with the prosecuting attorney. The officer is statistically less likely to face consequences for perjury. The officer has incentives to seek conviction.
This reasoning is entirely dispassionate and it surprised me then that no one else proffered a similar response. Apparently they believed that the goodwill of the State and its officers is a sufficient bulwark against malfeasance.
That attitude appears to be the same one adopted by most of the modern political Right. We have placidly accepted an increasing role for the state in economic life, in personal life, in the doctor’s office. We have supported and encouraged a domestic securitization of all of our affairs – our communications, our movements, our loves and losses. We frequently do this in the name of freedom and equal opportunity, the two things that, if conservatism has ever meant anything, it ought to mean today. Our support for the state’s involvement in these areas has expanded the power and reach of government in each case, power that, if our actions are louder than our words, we implicitly trust.
We are not passive victims in any of these crimes. Obamacare, though a less a efficient corruption, was born in the offices of the Heritage Foundation. Wage and price controls were first enacted by Republicans in the 70s, not Democrats. In personal life we, on the backfoot, now fight for free religion – but we used to fight for and still yearn for Christendom, which is not the same thing. We support tremendous expenditure – and more than a few cartels – in order to regulate the drug habits of college students, with less efficacy than Prohibition. We support, as we ought, a strong national defense, but we have proven ourselves more likely to pursue adventure in foreign wars than we are to defend our own borders against ongoing invasion.
We demand the right to own assault weapons but seem placidly unconcerned about the militarization of our police force. We believe in small government, but the monitoring of our private communications is not considered to be exigent. We profess to believe in equal opportunity, not equal outcomes, but time and again have backed tax structures that attempt to equilibrate outcomes (progressive labor taxes) while perpetuating aristocracy (regressive capital taxes, low estate taxes). We have directed political energy into regulating bedroom behavior while submitting ourselves to an increasingly strong and independent federal regulatory apparatus.
The net result of our active, intentional efforts, aided ever so passionately by those of most Democrats, is the creation of a Leviathan more powerful than Orwell’s and more expansive than any imagined by Hobbes.
If our actions are consistent with our thoughts then we must not be concerned about any of this – in 2008 we chose a hawkish statist to represent us, and in 2012 we backed one big-government apparatchik after another in deference to a long-fallen Christendom.
Time and again we discuss principles. We must not, we say, compromise on them, whatever they might be. The Republican party suffers from not only an inability to stand for principle but also a confusion of what our principles are or ought to be. In most cases, we confuse our historical stances on issues as core principles. Issue positions flow from principles.
I believe we can reduce our cause to four principles: freedom, equal opportunity, common defense, small government.
Open religious expression, specifically, ought not be a principle. Freedom is a principle – religious freedom flows from that.
Low taxation ought not be a principle. Freedom is, equal opportunity is, small government is.
Hawkish foreign policy ought not be a principle. The growing security state ought not be a principle. Common defense is.
Free market economics ought not be a principle. Freedom is, small government is, and most of free market economics flows from them.
In some cases, articulating our principles may require us to change our positions. A voter now might justifiably wonder why our party supports military expenditure but not border security, an armed citizenry but also a heavily armed police, free speech but monitoring of all communication.
Reducing political beliefs to as few a set of axiomatic principles as possible, and matching our positions to them, should lead to better success in governance and in messaging for elections. The Democrats have a powerful message for middle and lower class voters: “take some free stuff.” Our fragmented messaging – “no gay marriage”, “low taxes”, “more military spending”, “stand against Russia”, “free markets”, etc etc is not a sufficient answer. Each stance appeals to a subset of the electorate, not the whole. These narrow issue-based words cannot beat the simplistic, uniform, internally-consistent “Would you like more government benefits?” line proffered by every Democrat.
Words like “freedom” can beat that. “Equal opportunity” can. A “common defense” can. If the GOP wants to be successful, in elections and in governing for a better future, it needs to redefine “principles” and start messaging on them, instead of offering a slowwalk towards a slightly different Leviathan. We are currently a party of the State. When did we decide to trust in it so much? In a political war between two such parties, it is not surprising that the one hewing most closely to their simple principles (the Democratic Party) is winning.