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da mihi castitatem et continentam, sed noli modo — St Augustine
Ricochet contributor Rachel Lu wrote an article in the FEDERALIST yesterday, taking the left-anarchist wing of the libertarian movement to task for wanting to dissolve the bonds of family and community. At least I think that is who she is attacking — it is never quite clear who actually holds the views she disagrees with (although she almost implies it is Ben Domenech). Nevertheless, the core of her argument is that, yes, freedom is great and all, and small government is a fine idea in theory, but until a strong conventional morality is re-established in society they are just too dangerous.
Small government will not succeed unless people have a strong ability to govern their own affairs. That requires a culture that provides people with clear norms and expectations, and replaces the hard and impersonal boundaries of law with the softer forces of social approval and sanction. What we need, in short, are traditional morals.
I don’t think Lu ever explicitly says that the state — and, by the logic of her argument, it must be the not-small state — should be the vehicle for fixing the culture, but it is implied by everything she says.
[N]eutrality [ed. which I take to mean ‘state neutrality’] [in the culture war] won’t work either, at least if we’re thinking about the broader conservative outlook. All conservatives agree that government should be smaller than it is. But the culture also needs to recover its moral bearings if freedom is to have a chance.
This view seems rooted in a conception of big government as a mechanism detached from the culture war, so that all it takes is the right set of policies to animate the vast bureaucratic apparatus and the decline of civil society will be reversed. Thus Lu takes the small-government reasoning (which she rejects) to be:
The main reason culture wars have reached such a fever pitch is because the state is too big. If we can limit the size of the state, then people can simply live as they like without settling hotly contested moral questions.
But there are those who would argue quite differently. The reason we have a society of atomized individuals is precisely because big government inevitably accrues power at the expense of family and community. Big government is a player in the culture wars, has its own side, and — by its own ineluctable logic — dissolves the conventional morality Lu would like to see restored.
In short, small government is not a way of surrendering in, or stepping away from, the culture wars, but the indispensible first step in winning them.
Add into the balance the undeniable fact that, in the big government we already, the apparatchiki are all on the other side. One can but conclude that this attempt to smuggle big government ‘conservatism’ back on to the agenda under the ‘libertarian moment’ flag will do much for the government part of the equation, and, like all the attempts before it, nothing for conservatism.
Image Credit: Flickr user penguincakes.Published in