Hillsdale’s Wenzel vs. Schlueter on Conservatism: My 2 Cents

Whenever two Hillsdale College professors get into an argument, everybody wins. At the Public Discourse, economics professor Nikolai Wenzel makes the case that “conservatism is misguided, arbitrary, inconsistent, and ultimately inimical to liberty and human flourishing; in response, philosophy professor Nathan Schlueter argues that Wenzel mischaracterizes conservatism and misunderstands its conception of liberty.

I didn’t have much interaction with Dr. Schlueter during my time at Hillsdale, but by all accounts he’s a marvelous professor. I did take Dr. Wenzel’s introductory course on Political Economy, and can personally attest that it was equal parts informative and intellectually challenging. Were I to undertake the difficult task of ranking Hillsdale’s professors, Dr. Wenzel would unquestionably make my top five.

I say this to make clear that the libertarian-conservative debate couldn’t ask for more formidable combatants, and there is precious little I could possibly add to the philosophical side of the exchange. However, in defending conservative philosophy, Dr. Schlueter’s response didn’t cover my main objection to Dr. Wenzel’s argument: whether his characterization of conservatism matches what we see in practice.

His chief objection seems to be that, rather than being truly committed to liberty, conservatism is all too comfortable with the “enlightened few” using government to impose “private preferences” on the individual. But Dr. Wenzel doesn’t elaborate on how that translates to anti-liberty policies. I’d like to explore just how illiberal conservatism’s non-libertarian causes actually are.

Abortion—It never ceases to amaze me that libertarians and pro-lifers quarrel as much as they do. The rationale for legally protecting unborn life is exactly the same as the rationale for protecting adult life: that life is one of the individual rights that justice demands government protect. Both groups have the exact same conception of liberty; it is a separate question—are the unborn people?—which leads conservatives to look at the evidence and conclude that fetuses deserve to be grouped with the individuals government already protects. Libertarians should either concede that abortion is a liberty issue and join forces with us, or explain why the unborn don’t have the same individual rights as everyone else.

Marriage—As Jennifer Roback Morse argues, civil marriage is “society’s institutional structure for protecting these legitimate rights and interests of children.” Through incentives and obligations, it binds couples together to give their offspring a stable home with a mother and a father. The rationale for limiting this union to man-woman couples is that men and women bring unique sets of characteristics to parenthood, and children need both sets for an ideal upbringing.  Further, there’s nothing coercive about it—obligations are only placed on those who voluntarily agree to them by marrying, and no gay Americans are denied their rights to form relationships, live together, have sex, hold marriage ceremonies, consider themselves married, share property, visit one another in hospitals, make medical decisions for one another, or receive domestic partner benefits from employers who wish to offer them. Current law could easily be revised to extend the incidents of marriage (hospital visitation, bereavement leave, etc.) to gay couples without redefining marriage.

Religion—In controversies over religion in public, conservatives are almost exclusively on defense, warding off legal assaults on benign religious expression in public schools and benign religious monuments on public property. They are pushing against coercion, not trying to impose it. Granted, conservatives also take pains to remind people of America’s Judeo-Christian heritage, but they do so out of Washington’s belief that liberty cannot survive without the “indispensable support” of religion. Further, this doesn’t translate into coercive policies, either; merely affirmation of America’s religious roots through symbolism, ceremony, and discussion.

Drugs—While some conservatives may base their opposition to drug legalization in health concerns or antipathy for drug culture, the more overriding rationale is that drugs warp one’s mind and dull one’s senses to the point where he becomes a threat to the rights of others. If government is essentially the collective exercise of the individual right to self-defense, then people are well within their rights to protect themselves from drug-related crimes and accidents via drug prohibition. It’s worth remembering that John Locke himself believed man’s power over his own body was not absolute, that liberty didn’t cover the right to enslave or destroy one’s self:
[…] a man, not having the power of his own life, cannot, by compact, or his own consent, enslave himself to any one, nor put himself under the absolute, arbitrary power of another, to take away his life, when he pleases […] though man in that state have an uncontroulable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself […]
Other—Dr. Schlueter’s reply notes that there are individual-harm components to pornography and prostitution, as well. Here, though, let’s ask a different question: how many conservatives—even devout social conservatives—rank these among their chief concerns? How many are really politically active because of porn or prostitution? To judge conservatism based on a few conservatives’ fixation on these issues is just as silly as judging libertarianism based on a few libertarians’ fixation on copyright laws.

Surely there are some conservatives out there to whom Dr. Wenzel’s critique applies, but are they really numerous enough to warrant the attention he’s given them? There’s no conservative push to turn the reins of government and society over to an “enlightened few” dispensing virtue edicts.

By and large, conservatives are every bit as live-and-let-live as libertarians, their understanding of the cutoff between private preference and public concern every bit as healthy. In standing for life, marriage, and traditional culture, conservatives can be trusted to leave liberty every bit as secure—indeed, even more so—than they found it.

Allahpundit Doesn’t Get It

And by “it,” I’m referring to Rick Perry’s answer on why he (now) backs a Federal Marriage Amendment.
Perry:
It’s part of the fabric of America to support traditional marriage and that being between one man and one woman. I led the charge back in the mid 2000′s in Texas when we passed a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as being between one man and one woman, passed by 75%, that’s rather overwhelming. But I do respect a state’s right to have a different opinion and take a different tact if you will, California did that. I respect that right, but our founding fathers also said, ‘listen, if you all in the future think things are so important that you need to change the constitution here’s the way you do it’. It takes three quarters of the states deciding that this is important, it goes forward and it becomes an amendment to the United States Constitution. I support that for issues that are so important, I think, to the soul of this country and to the traditional values which our founding fathers, on the issue of traditional marriage I support the federal marriage amendment.
Allah:
Why would you want an amendment in a case where you respect a state’s right to have a different opinion? The touchstone for an amendment, I would think, is when you don’t respect that right because a particular state’s legislative preference would lead to grievous harm. Slavery is the paradigm example; abortion, arguably, is another. If you can look at your opponent’s position and say, “I see your point but I think you’re wrong,” that should take the amendment option off the table and put you back in Tenth Amendment territory. Federalism is “part of the fabric of America” too, after all; as a wise man once said, “It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” Perry’s arguing, I guess, that this experiment is simply too dangerous to conduct — except, actually, he never does say that it’s dangerous. He just says it’s contrary to “traditional values,” a standard that would prohibit “novel social experiments” altogether. And the kicker is that he’s couching his argument in terms of Article V, which is the most “non-traditional” part of the Constitution insofar as it lets future generations change the law as opinions change. Well, opinions are changing. Why use Article V to stop it if you can’t articulate some sort of overweening harm?
That’s fair enough as a critique of Perry’s case for the FMA, but Allah talks as if that’s the only pro-FMA argument he’s familiar with. He’s been manning one of the blogosphere’s top center-right blogs for years, and yet he’s this ignorant about the pro-side?
To summarize, the case for a Federal Marriage Amendment is simple: first, it’s the only thing that will truly insulate marriage from judicial activism, and second, marriage is so vital to the continuance of a free society that the United States must insist on a uniform definition. For further edification, I prescribe the following articles:

On Gay Unions, Walker Restores Will of the People & Respect for the Constitution

In 2006, Wisconsin joined the many states who protect marriage in their constitutions after an ugly battle in which the misleadingly-named gay smear group Fair Wisconsin set a new standard for leftist deception. Voters decisively stood for marriage anyway, in doing so forbidding the creation of any new unions “identical or substantially similar to” marriage under another name.
In 2009, state Democrats said “screw you” to the law and the democratic process by adding to the budget a same-sex domestic partner registry. Now, Republican Governor Scott Walker has nixed the state’s legal defense of the unconstitutional registry. Pat McIlheran talks sense on why Walker made the right call:
The question now is whether a governor ought to defend a law that defies the constitution. “If the governor determines that defending a law would be contrary to the state’s constitution, he cannot order the defense of the law because of his oath to support the Wisconsin Constitution,” Walker’s attorney told the court.

It’s no different than if a past legislature installed a law to set up a state church, for instance, or segregate schools. A governor ought not and cannot defend such stuff. This is no different, since voters specifically, constitutionally banned what Doyle launched.

The only route left for defenders of redefining marriage is the sympathy play. One line, for instance, has it that Doyle’s law was all about letting gay couples visit each other in hospitals. Nonsense, of course: A medical power of attorney gives whomever you designate – offspring, friend or, yes, gay life-partner – not only the ability to visit you in the hospital but to make decisions on your behalf. It’s a normal part of making a will, which any couple of any sexual preference ought to have anyhow.

Doyle wasn’t aiming to let couples visit each other in hospitals. Who visits whom is a private matter, and there’s little evidence any Wisconsin hospital made it anything but. As with the drive for gay “marriage,” Doyle’s registry was all about public status – granting a special public recognition to a particular kind of unmarried couple so that everyone else in society would have to treat them in every important way as if they were married.

Voters already told the government not to make such demands on society. Doyle ignored them.

Walker, to his credit, is listening.

So, About That "Conservative" Who Just Flip-Flopped for Gay Marriage

You ever heard of Louis Marinelli? Yeah, me neither, but the former National Organization for Marriage volunteer is getting lots of coverage just the same for changing his mind and declaring that he now supports “full marriage equality” (hat tip: Daily Beast).
In his announcement, he sobs about the “shame” and “embarrassment” he feels for having “targeted, hurt and oppressed” so many people. He says he “came to understand that gays and lesbians were just real people,” and claims to have realized he was “surrounded by hateful people.” He says valid reasons to oppose same-sex marriage evaporate “once you understand the great difference between civil marriage and holy marriage,” and concludes by declaring that “the Constitution calls for nothing less” than his new position.
Marinelli has ably peppered his announcement with all the requisite left-wing talking points about gay marriage, but as serious argumentation, he falls flat. He doesn’t even begin to address the fact that preserving marriage as a man-woman union doesn’t actually harm gay people, nor does he respond to the case for marriage as an essential component of a free society.
Are we seriously supposed to believe that he was passionate about the issue and worked with one of the nation’s big marriage defense groups, yet isn’t even familiar with why people oppose gay marriage? What was his own former rationale for opposing gay marriage—that he didn’t think gays were “real people”?
Marinelli’s characterization of the anti-gay-marriage movement as all about hatred and religious fundamentalism is such a pitifully generic regurgitation of the liberal playbook on marriage that it’s hard to believe his conversion is on the level. At best, Marinelli is an unremarkable guy who never really thought through his original position, and was therefore susceptible to the superficial emotionalism of the other side. At worst, he’s an opportunist selling his soul in exchange for the accolades of the in crowd. Either way, he hasn’t made a substantive, meaningful contribution to the debate, and his defection is hardly the game changer the opportunists are treating it as.
To go along with his deeply, deeply personal change of heart, ol’ Louis is also claiming that NOM is working on a “secret online propaganda team,” and that NOM’s popular support is an illusion. The former story sounds ludicrous to me, and all he offers is (ahem) his word that this is going on, and as for the latter, it’s kind of hard to suggest NOM only represents the fringe when the overwhelming majority of the states explicitly reject same-sex marriage.
Unfortunately, as near as I can tell this story is spreading like wildfire on lefty websites while conservatives are all but ignoring it. I get the temptation to dismiss Marinelli as a Frumian resercon, but I think the story’s propaganda value is more potent than that. The Left can’t be allowed to engage in these heartstring attacks without forceful responses that expose their emptiness.    

Get Conservative

The American Principles Project has been at the forefront of what I believe to be the most important fight within the Right going on today: whether or not conservatism is going to remain pro-life and pro-family, or if it’s going to degenerate into a slightly less embarrassing version of libertarianism. I’d like to call your attention to their blog, Get Conservative, which has a petition you should sign to voice your support for all of conservatism’s indivisible facets.

Around the Web, GOProud Edition

There are a couple noteworthy things in Los Angeles Timesreport on the storm brewing over GOProud’s involvement in CPAC. First, the conference has lost its biggest name yet: the Heritage Foundation. Second comes a new indication that tolerating gay people isn’t the problem: “CPAC has refused to schedule a panel about traditional marriage.” Third, the paper quotes Family Research Council president Tony Perkins as emailing to supporters: “Conservatives and homosexuals cannot coexist in a movement predicated on social values.” But that’s not how the quote appears in FRC’s strong public statement: “Conservatives and homosexual activists cannot coexist in a movement predicated on social values.” Either Perkins changed his tune for public consumption, or the LA Times is lying. I’m gonna guess it’s the latter.

At NewsReal, David Swindle and the infamous Ryan Sorba are debating, “should gays be part of the conservative movement?” David’s correct as far as the debate goes, but frankly the whole conversation draws time and attention away from what the GOProud controversy is really about: not gay rights, but whether or not the radical gay agenda is infiltrating the conservative movement.

Speaking of confusing the issue, Andrew Breitbart’s take is more than a little disappointing: “even though I’m sensitive to the social conservative movement […] the treatment that they’re giving gay conservatives at CPAC deeply offends me.” Y’know what offends me, Andrew? Blatant misrepresentation of what’s going on. What treatment? Which gay conservatives have been mistreated? Details, please.

What Is Marriage?

Scholars Sherif Girgis, Robert George, and Ryan Anderson have a lengthy new paper on the question, to which NYU’s Kenji Yoshino responds here, proclaiming that the “best argument against gay marriage” has failed. I haven’t had time to sit down with the original piece, but I have read Yoshino’s response, as well as the trio’s counter-response. Judging from them, “What Is Marriage?” and its follow-ups seem like required reading, no matter where you stand on gay marriage. (Hat tip: American Power)