Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Trads and Rads

The American conservative movement since World War Two has been described as a fusion between traditional conservatives and libertarians. In the 1950s that made real sense -- liberty was seen as under threat at home by the growing welfare state and abroad by communism. The marriage was an imperfect one but despite skeptics (such as Ayn Rand or Russel Kirk), the coalition lasted. With the destruction of the old liberal consensus by Ronald Reagan and the fall of the Soviet Union, those old ties began to loosen, though the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress temporarily stopped the break. But under the weight of Iraq, increasing spending, and government intervention, the old fissures are showing.

An exchange between my old neighbor Rod Dreher and Andrew Sullivan show the fissure. Dreher is an ex-Catholic self described "crunchy con" -- a real traditional conservative. Andrews Sullivan is a self described libertarian. The two have little in common -- Dreher is very concerned about public morality while Sullivan (though Catholic) tends to call anyone more concerned with public morality than he is a "Christianist." Yet they both consider themselves "conservatives."

Dreher notes that both libertarians and traditional conservatives fear excessive concentration of power in the state. To him, the difference is that libertarians want maximum liberty while traditionalists want "free people living virtuously". Sullivan counters that he wants free people living virtuously too, he just does not want to control them (or more precisely, control their sex lives -- with Sullivan, it usually comes down to sex).

I believe that they both somewhat miss the point. I ask, can someone be virtuous if virtue is enforced? Inherent in Sullivan's beliefs (I believe) is that if you enforce sexual mores, it simply pushes the immoral stuff underground, where it gets really nasty and really immoral. And if I understand Sullivan correctly, I think he has a point there.

But suppose that is wrong. Suppose you could enforce perfect virtue. If the virtue police could go around and really force people to not engage in immoral activities, are those people virtuous or simply scared of the law? Or is virtue really a function of freedom -- that you have the freedom to do something legal but immoral BUT CHOOSE not to do it. For me, that is the measure of virtue.

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