THE CONSERVATIVE MOMENTUM
Center of the American Experiment 1993 Annual Dinner Minneapolis, Minnesota March 24, 1993
More effectively than any scholar of his generation, Michael Novak continues to put American conservatism in its full and nuanced cultural, particularly moral, context. More importantly, he continues to make the cultural and moral case for conservatism and democratic capitalism better than any writer or politician. Or, as Paul Johnson, author of Modern Times, recently put it quite grandly:
"Novak's writings on democratic capitalism have rightly earned him a world reputation -- indeed, it is hard to think of anyone since Adam Smith who has single-handedly done more to portray the civilized and useful face of capitalism."
I never knew Adam Smith, but I can say Michael Novak is an exceedingly generous friend of mine, whom I was quick to call about delivering the keynote address at American Experiment's 1993 Annual Dinner, in March. That speech was the basis for this exceptional essay, "The Conservative Momentum."
I had asked Mr. Novak to speak to the question of refueling conservatism in Minnesota and the nation, especially in light of George Bush's defeat. This, as part of the Center's two-year project, "Reconceiving Minnesota Conservatism." He pursued his charge in three parts: first, by recalling conservatism's recent momentum and pocketing its gains; second, by laying out the "civil society project" that constitutes what he sees as the conservative future; and third, by appending a note "on that perplexing issue, abortion -- concerning compromise and principle." A few excerpts:
The collapse of socialism proves one supremely important point. What for a century has been called progressive -- the turning of more and more functions of civil society over to the state -- is in fact regressive. Our future is not the Nanny State. The wave of the future is the reconstruction of civil society. The turn to the Mommy States (to switch from a British to an American idiom) was a serious error, a turn on the road back to Leviathan. It was an odd mistake for liberals to make, but whoever said that leftists of the American variety are or want to be liberals? . . .
And so today the conservative momentum imparted to human history under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher again awaits a leader able "to animate the public passions of men, to rouse them to seek out the means of promoting the happiness of society." Such disquisitions will have to touch on the three great departments of the free society: the free polity, the free economy, and the "cultural ecology" or "moral ecology" that at one and the same time makes the free polity and free economy practicable and gives them point.
And . . .
Politics begins in the human spirit, and the human spirit always expresses itself in politics. One cannot duck the responsibilities of being human. The political party that best discerns ways of respecting the human spirit -- in its liberty and in its responsibilities -- is more likely than any other to be built upon bedrock reality, and to have the vivacity and flexibility to grow and change. Where we are today is not where we will be a decade hence.
Mr. Novak holds the George Frederick Jewett Chair in religion and public policy at the American Enterprise Institute, in Washington, D.C., where he also serves as director of social and political studies. His most recent book (the list is long) is The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. He has served under both Republican and Democratic presidents, including a period as head of the U.S. Delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, in Geneva.
American Experiment members receive free copies of all Center publications, including this one. Additional copies are $4 for members and $5 for non-members. Bulk discounts are available for schools, civic groups and other organizations. Please note our phone and address on the previous page for membership and other information, including a listing of other Center publications -- including the first paper in our "Reconceiving Minnesota Conservatism" series, Vin Weber's superb "What's Next for Conservatism?"
Great thanks to my friend Michael for his repeated courtesies to me over the last decade, and for his countless contributions to learning and freedom for many years longer than that.
I welcome your comments.
Mitchell B. Pearlstein
A favorite joke of Pope John Paul II is that there are only two solutions to the crisis in Central and Eastern Europe: the realistic solution and the miraculous solution. The realistic solution is that our Lady of Czestochowa, with Jesus and Moses and all the angels, prophets, and saints will suddenly appear and solve the Central European crisis. The miraculous solution is that the Central and Eastern Europeans will cooperate to solve the crisis. The question for us is this: Is the same miraculous solution available to American conservatives?
It is always thus in American coalition politics. "I'm not a member of any organized party," Will Rogers once said. "I'm a Democrat." No American really belongs to an organized political party. We're either factional Democrats or factional Republicans, factional Independents or factional nonvoters (nonvoters simply refuse to encourage politicians -- for different reasons), Reagan Democrats or Clinton Republicans, or fascinating mixes of all these. Mostly, we moil around, waiting for a leader to give voice to a consensus. In America, parties are forged by leaders. We wait for someone to spin the kaleidoscope and show us a lovely pattern that a majority of us will support, sometimes with enthusiasm.
So it is with conservatives today. There is nothing wrong with conservatives that leadership won't cure. We work hard for what we believe in; we form small groups; we organize locally. All this is essential. Without this, leaders would find no one to lead. But in the end, naturally, we need one leader who will say: "Here's the pattern of our time; this is the way to go. I'm carrying the attack this way, come along, let's win this one!" Americans are serially recruitable for causes that we believe in.
We love our presidents, too much perhaps, and too unfairly for we soon become impatient with their failings -- but what we love them for most is giving our nation meaning, purpose, and direction. No other heroes in any other field of action -- neither in literature nor war nor church nor business nor science nor art -- have the substance to stand with Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Reagan and the others. The presidents are our one set of certified national demigods. We love them for bringing coherence out of national confusions. They give us meaning, secular meaning, and we need meaning every bit as much as bread.
(This was, incidentally, George Bush's greatest failing. He tried to govern without providing meaning. He was a good man and even a president who exhibited, in the Gulf War, preeminently, touches of greatness. But he eschewed meaning. He was aversive to vision and people of vision and, ultimately, this was the flaw that did him in. He misunderstood the presidential office.)
My aim in this paper is twofold: First, to recall the recent history of conservative momentum, and to pocket the gains, while recalling, as well, the self-destruction of "progressivism." Second, to lay out "the civil society project" that constitutes the conservative future. At the end, I append a note on that perplexing issue, abortion -- concerning compromise and principle.
(II) 1. The Reagan-Thatcher Momentum
For many decades, the Republican Party was regarded as the stupid party. It hated vision. It renounced vision. Its reason for being seemed to be accounting. When the people grew weary of Democratic excess and quixotic programs (romantic but self-destructive), Republicans were there to straighten out the books and make the country solvent enough for another go at Democratic visions. The Republican motto for two generations seemed to be: "Not yet! Not so fast! A little less." There has always been a need for such a party. I used to think of it as "the G.O.P.
School of Dentistry," whose motto was: "It isn't good for you unless it hurts." The Democrats would spend years giving people things they couldn't pay for, cheerfully allow the G.O.P. an interregnum in which to inflict the requisite pain and pay the bills, and then drive the Republicans out by screaming "Too much pain!" and pointing long thin fingers against "the rich!" who, of course, seldom suffer much pain.
The first Republican I ever heard unmask this ritual dance was Jack Kemp, at a camp in remote Minnesota on a cold day in 1978. Before an audience of traditional Republicans who were skeptical, if not hostile, he pointed out how crazy it is to be a party without a vision -- without something positive to give the voters, like the chance to keep more of their money out of the hands of predatory government. This was in the days when tax rates were a punitive 70 percent, and when inflation at more than 12 percent was pouring confiscatory taxes on nonexistent capital gains into government treasuries. As a teacher, I was surprised by Kemp's mastery of the debate and his ability to give powerful examples. His was the clearest exposition of what was actually going on that I had ever heard.
I particularly remember Kemp's example of a garbage truck driver in Buffalo who had resented George McGovern's 1972 plan to take $1,000 from everybody making over $15,000 (then the median income) in order to give the same amount to everybody making less. "You make less than the median," Kemp had taunted him. "Yes, but my son may not," the man replied. "I don't want them changing the rules just when my son gets a chance to do better than his old man." Kemp understood the concerns of working people, and although his congressional district was mainly
Democratic, he used to get as much as 80 percent of the vote, talking about lower tax rates both on income and capital gains.
I think I was not the only one impressed by Jack Kemp's argument in those days. Others noted that every time Kemp campaigned with Ronald Reagan during 1980, the Gipper's spirits tangibly lifted. But when Reagan's economic advisors persuaded him to back away from tax cuts, the campaign sank into the old morass.
The rest is history. Ronald Reagan made the Republican Party the party of vision, ideas, and meaning and made the Democrats look like the "me too" party. At the same time, he made the Republican Party the party of internationalism, the advance of democracy around the world, and the forced retreat (not containment) of communism. For decades the Democrats had a vision of arms control; Reagan was the first to trump that, too. He was for arms reductions. On the international stage, he made the Republicans the party that put the pants on.
Ronald Reagan stole the Democrats' shirt, too. He cut off their allowance. The tax cuts that the pundits predicted he could never get through the Democratic House passed by just enough votes. In one of the neatest Robin Hood maneuvers ever seen in history, Reagan got more actual tax revenues from the rich than they had ever paid before -- more in actual real dollars and a considerably larger proportion of all taxes paid. He shifted the burden of the federal income tax from the poor and the middle class decisively toward the top quintile of all taxpayers. (He could not do the same to the Social Security tax, which the Democrats dared him to touch.) Nonetheless, Reagan persuaded the rich not to complain, by pointing out that with lower tax rates they would actually keep a larger share of their own money even while paying higher dollar amounts of income tax, as well as paying a larger share of all income taxes.
Economic growth for all is caused by incentives, Reagan insisted, and he was right. Every one of the nine income groups measured by the IRS showed a higher real income at the end of Reagan's two terms than they had at the beginning, and the median income rose substantially. (The lowest decile gained very little, because most of the income of that decile does not come from earned income. Those who are out of the labor market, and almost entirely dependent on others or on the state, do not have earned income.)
Under Ronald Reagan, along with Britain's redoubtable Margaret Thatcher, the United States led the world out of the terrible near depression of the late 1970s. Not only that, the economics of Thatcher and Reagan became the model to be emulated by virtually all the other countries of the world, including the socialist countries, East and West. The grand socialist experiment of Francois Mitterand, launched in 1980 as socialist alternative to Reaganomics, crashed in flames, and pretty soon Mitterand, with Gonzalez of Spain and Soares of Portugal, were taking liberalization and privatization even to the right of Reaganomics. Imitation is the sincerest form of capitulation. It goes without saying that after the great Revolution of 1989, Reagan and Thatcher were not only the political heroes of those who had suffered so long under communism but their economic mentors, as well.
2. "Progress" = Regress
But "the vision thing," supplied by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, was not the only engine of conservative momentum as the world headed toward the twenty-first century. The second factor was the collapse of the hundred-year rival of the conservative vision, socialism. In 1985, socialism began tumbling like a house of cards, like the Empire of Oz, or perhaps best (for its delicious irony) like a curving row of tumbling dominoes.
First, "real existing socialism" fell with the Berlin Wall, which Ronald Reagan had in biblical tones commanded to fall down. But not only that. The implosion of socialism in its heartland disrupted the magnetic field of socialism everywhere. Left-wing compasses all around the world oscillated madly. The left lost all direction.
Even the social democratic countries of Western Europe went into crisis, first in Finland and Sweden, then in Italy and France. For social democrats, too, it turned out, had set their economic compasses by Marxward attraction. They, too, began to lose left-ward faith. Liberalization, privatization, cuts in tax rates, the protection of civil society and mediating structures from the boa constriction of the state -- all these were driven straight into the heart of their ideology like the silver spike that killed Dracula. They had wed themselves to Leviathan and, drunk with ideology, convinced themselves of her beauty and charms. It was awful to awaken in the morning with a beast on the pillow. On March 21 of this year, Francois Mitterand's beloved socialist party was spurned by margins unprecedented in French electoral history, and in the second round of voting on March 28 the humiliation was complete.
It is not only real existing socialism and social democracy that have been blown into tatters in our time by a cataclysm of reality tests. It is widely recognized in Europe, especially on the left, that the entire welfare state is in crisis -- and not only the fact of the welfare state, but its ideal, its radical conception. As one leader of the German Social Democrats put it, "We paid too little attention to the individual, and we forgot personal responsibility." Everywhere the welfare state has gone, the family has been undermined; out of wedlock births have multiplied (the illegitimacy rate in Sweden is twice as high as in the United States, which itself is in crisis); and public morality has fallen precipitously. Before his death, the great Gunnar Myrdal, one of the architects of social democracy in Sweden, confessed mournfully that he had never thought the renowned personal morality of ordinary Swedes could be corrupted -- that was only right-wing scare tactics -- but it had, and his beloved social democracy had done it.
The peoples of the democratic nations have been learning in recent decades to have contempt for their mammoth, mothering governments. They are becoming sick and tired, in the words of Michael Joyce of the Bradley Foundation, of being treated as clients, poked at by experts conducting therapeutic and social science experiments on them, ridiculed as incompetents incapable of governing their own lives, overregulated, overtaxed, and overpromised. They have come to regard government officials who promise to help them with bemused, and finally angry, cynicism. They have come to regard big government as a falsely promising and incompetent underachiever; it promises too much, then charges too much, and nearly always makes matters worse, not better. Following the dream of progress through big government, the people have lived to see regress.
One would have thought that the American people had learned unforgettably hard lessons under Carter. The ranks of the poor in America were swollen by more than 40 percent cumulative inflation during four short, nasty, and brutish Hobbesian years. Interest rates stood at 22 percent; inflation was in double digits; and unemployment was heading upwards toward its ultimate 11 percent. But, once Reaganomics got going, its seven straight years of peacetime prosperity seem to have made people forget the mistakes of Jimmy Carter. The cultural elites that despised Reagan had obviously sleepwalked through the '80s; they didn't learn a thing. This includes young Bill Clinton, for whom a day without committing government is a day to mourn. The cultural elite masks its will to power by calling the financial elite greedy. It diverts attention from its contempt for common people (obvious in the television shows and movies it makes) by trying to teach people to hate "the rich." By which, of course, the glitterati do not mean the rich who make money by providing entertainment, but the rich who sweatily produce goods and services, imagine whole new industries, and create real private sector jobs.
In America, alas, the people are as vulnerable as anyone to envy and covetousness, which the Good Lord forbade five times in the Ten Commandments. (The Creator who made us knows how common covetousness is and how much emphasis it needs.) For four years, George Bush allowed liberals generally, and the Clinton team in particular, to establish the major premise of the 1992 campaign: That the rich had benefited under Reaganomics at the expense of the middle class and poor. George Bush lost because he committed himself to the policies of Richard Darman -- social Darmanism. With Darman's advice, Bush never defended Reaganomics. He was busy abandoning it. He did not see that he was elected because of it, and would be committing electoral suicide by not defending it. As Bob Dole (naturally) was the first to note, it was the
first presidential campaign to accept advice from Dr. Kervorkian.
The upshot is that the conservative momentum in the United States seems to have been set back to square one. But not quite. The truth is that the goals President Reagan set for the nation were almost all met -- and too quickly for the nation to absorb them. When, at his very first dinner in the White House, hosting (who else?) Margaret Thatcher, Reagan said that Marxism was even then falling into the ash heap of history, sophisticated elites laughed for weeks. They laughed fast but he laughed last. Reagan was right. Still, as Clare Boothe Luce always said, "No good deed goes unpunished." There were wonderful effects from Reagan's victory over communism but there was also punishment. One consequence of Reagan's victory over Marxism was the loss of two million jobs in defense -- a rise in the unemployment rate (especially in California) that Mr. Bush did not need in 1992.
Worse, the nation never had a proper chance to enjoy this great victory, perhaps the greatest in history, against a far more heavily armed and formidable military force than Adolf Hitler had ever mounted. We never had a proper celebration. There was never a gigantic "Victory over Communism Day," no mad ticker-tape parade down Fifth Avenue, no massive celebration of the thousands of unsung heroes who had given their lives on secret and hidden missions, or of the hundreds of thousands of young Americans who had fallen on a score of battlefronts in an effort to contain, and finally to roll back, communism. There was no great public thanks to a democratic people that had, cheerfully enough, exhibited the hardest kind of courage -- the courage to persevere during 41 long years of sacrifice. What made this victory especially sweet, and deserving of a great celebration, was that the endgame was mostly nonviolent. The fall of Karl Marx came not with a bang but a whimper. Even our former enemies admitted that the rival system just did not work. Even they said, "Reagan was right, it was an evil empire." "If anyone ever wants to try another experiment like socialism again," an artist in the newly rechristened St. Petersburg told me on September 11, 1991, "please tell them, 'Don't try it on human beings, it hurts too much -- use animals.'"
The collapse of socialism proves one supremely important point. What for a century has been called "progressive" -- the turning of more and more functions of civil society over to the state -- is in fact regressive. Our future is not the Nanny State. The wave of the future is the reconstruction of civil society. The turn to the Mommy State (to switch from a British to an American idiom) was a serious error, a turn on the road back to Leviathan. It was an odd mistake for liberals to make, but whoever said that leftists of the American variety are or want to be liberals? That is not what the arrogance of power and political correctness have ever been about. The left loves power -- loves power much more than truth. (And that is why so many on the left have been suckers for the deconstructionist argument; to them the claim that all truth claims are simply disguised bids for power sounds perfectly convincing.)
People on the left always lie. If they are socialists, they call themselves social democrats; if they are social democrats, they call themselves liberals; if they are liberals, they call themselves moderates. They never dare to tell the people who they really are. They exhale euphemism. They always lie.
(III) 1. The Civil Society Project
When Leviathan falters, civil society stirs. When Leviathan relaxes, civil society expands. The American political party that best gives life and breath and amplitude to civil society will not only thrive in the twenty-first century. It will win popular gratitude and it will govern. The reason is simple. The project that America's founders called an experiment in republican self government consists essentially in a free people doing for themselves, in their own way, what the unfree subjects of other regimes depend on the state to do. What else could self-government mean, except this: As small and impotent a state as possible; as large a space for self-government as necessary?
This is what the framers clearly meant when, in the seventh and last draft of the Seal of the United States, they inscribed NOVUS ORDO SECLORUM where during six preceding drafts the single term VIRTUE had rested. It goes without saying that no people can be capable of self-government if they cannot govern their own behavior, if they lack virtue. Apart from virtue in the citizens, the idea of a self-governing polity is, as Madison once put it, "chimerical." They took this point to be so obvious that the drafters, Madison among them, left it out in the final draft in order to call attention to the originality of their model of government, which had "no parallel in the annals of human society . . . no model on the face of the globe.1 The originality of the new order consisted, first, in this: The people would be the sovereigns, and so could no longer be called "subjects." They were now "citizens," a self-governing people. They were much and the state was minimal.
This ideal of self-government was still vivid in Jefferson's eyes when he wrote in his First Inaugural, as the nation's third president, a description of the regime he intended to preside over:
. . . with all these blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people? Still one thing more, fellow citizens -- a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.
The framers referred to this model of government as "republican" not "democratic." In their day these terms had not yet taken on the meanings they tend to have today. The framers meant by the democratic principle rule by majority vote, and they had absolutely no illusions about the danger of that. A majority can be just as much a tyrant, sometimes an even more ruthless and irrational tyrant, than a single ruler. They feared the tyranny of a majority. For this reason, they preferred the term, republican government, for they meant an experiment in self-government, a strictly limited constitutional government, amply circumscribed by checks and balances and other "auxiliary precautions," which would leave to individual citizens and minority factions the widest possible scope for self-direction and self-regulation.
The framers did not view citizens as clients of government, wards of government, dependents on government, objects of social engineering, sick persons in need of therapy and certainly, not of therapy administered by government. To repeat, the project that the framers wished to rescue "from opprobrium" (Madison) was republican government. They placed a great deal of emphasis on self-mastery, self-discipline, sober and temperate judgment, calm reflection, and reasoned choice -- in a word, on citizens conspicuous for character and virtue, that is, for the admirable, settled dispositions of "civic republicanism." The French liberal party in 1886 captured the originality and distinctiveness of the American ideal of liberty, so different from the liberte of the French Revolution, in the Statue of Liberty that they designed as a gift to the American Republic and as a beacon to the free peoples of the world.
Look at that Statue closely. It is the figure of a woman, in French iconography the symbol of wisdom. And in her one uplifted arm is the torch of reason warding off the mists of passion and ignorance, and in her other arm the Book of the Law: Liberty in this sense is ordered liberty, liberty under the sway of reason, liberty under law. This is not, as Lord Acton saw, the liberty to do what you wish; it is the liberty to do what you ought.
Confirm thy soul in self-control. Thy liberty in law.
The face of this Lady is not the face of the libertine on 42nd Street. It is a sober face, and she is a serious woman, who knows what she wants and knows where she's going. It is the face of every third grade teacher in the history of the schools of New York.
This is not exactly the idea of liberty sketched by Justices O'Connor, Kennedy, and Souter in the infamous decision Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992), wherein the Justices explain: "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." Unlike the Lady, these three describe a liberty cast free from all moorings in the commands of reason and law, and from the laws of nature and nature's God. But American liberty is not a nihilistic, solipsistic liberty, with no reference to anything outside its own sweet will. It is a liberty ordered by reason, law, nature, and reason's Creator.
The framers of the United States were nothing if not, in their fashion, systemic thinkers. They had an original and well-worked out theory of the way in which the polity, the economy, and the cultural order (including morals) fit together. Any political party which seeks to be their legitimate heirs master their theoretic vision. One can find a sketch of it in Jefferson's instructions for the University of Virginia, the founding of which (with the authorship of the Declaration of Independence) he was most proud. One can find no better study of its many roots than in Russell Kirk's The Roots of American Order, a book that every American high school senior ought to study.
Moreover, to incite in their fellow citizens a passion to serve the public interest, a party that would govern America must present to the people such a systemic vision. For that alone gives meaning to all the different parts of life, shows how they cohere into a lovely whole. Jefferson once wrote that "We are all Whigs here, on this side of the Atlantic," and on another occasion once said of that great Scottish Whig, Adam Smith, that he was "the master of all who wrote of political economy."
Perhaps, then, this passage from The Theory of the Moral Sentiments, conveys the importance to political leaders of a persuasive vision:2
You will be more likely to persuade, if you describe the great system of public policy which procures these advantages, if you explain the connexions and dependencies of its several parts, their mutual subordination to one another, and their general subserviency to the happiness of the society; if you show how this system might be introduced into his own country, what it is that hinders it from taking place there at present, how these obstructions might be removed, and all the several wheels of the machine of government be made to move with more harmony and smoothness, without grating upon one another, or mutually retarding one another's motions. It is scarce possible that a man should listen to a discourse of this kind, and not feel himself animated to some degree of public spirit. . . . Political disquisitions of this sort, if just, and reasonable, and practicable, are of all the works of speculation the most useful. They serve . . . to animate the public passions of men, to rouse them to seek out the means of promoting the happiness of society.
For Smith, there was a complex linkage between limited government, the market economy, and individual self-control that together make up the Whiggish civilizing project, a kind of civic humanism built around virtues of reasonableness, sympathy, imagination, and the traits induced by peaceable commerce. His was a philosophical vision of considerable humanizing power, not least when compared to its alternatives, then and now.
And so today the conservative momentum imparted to human history under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher again awaits a leader able "to animate the public passions of men, to rouse them to seek out the means of promoting the happiness of society." Such disquisitions will have to touch on the three great departments of the free society: the free polity, the free economy, and the "cultural ecology" or "moral ecology" that at one and the same time makes the free polity and free economy practicable and gives them point. For it would be awful to think that all the blood and sweat poured out to win our political and economic liberties, down all the centuries, had resulted only in the banal culture reflected by Oprah Winfrey, Phil Donahue, Madonna, and Dallas. There has to be more to liberty than that. There has to be.
Concerning the first two departments of life, the polity and the economy, the discussion of first principles today can be relatively brief. For as I read the twentieth century, these two great issues have been largely decided. Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo posed the first urgent question of this bloodiest of centuries: Is dictatorship more vigorous and closer to the common sentiment of the people than decadent democracy? And the communists and the National Socialists and other "progressives" posed the second great question of this bloody century: Is socialism in one variety or another more moral and just, and better for the poor, than greedy, self-interested capitalism? History has given the answer.
Nearly everywhere, especially among the poor, it is conceded that, whatever their faults (and these are many), limited government better protects individual and minority rights than dictatorship, and capitalism better uplifts the poor and demands a higher level of personal virtue than either the traditional Third World society, rife with nepotism and corruption, or socialist societies. No form of regime represents the City of God, but in the land of the imperfect, the better is trumps. Here, then, is a short statement of principles for each of the three departments of life.
consequences. In the American sense, liberty is not acting by whim, or unreflectively, or by idle preference. It is the taking up of responsibilities, the fulfillment of duties, and steadfast pursuit of the honor of being accounted among responsible women and responsible men. It is to know where one wishes to stand, in a "land of the free and home of the brave." To be free is to become responsible.
But today something more must be said. In the American system today, the weakest of its three parts is its moral and cultural system. Politically and economically, the nation is the strongest on earth. Morally and culturally, it is without question suffering from precipitous decline. Zbigniew Brzezinski writes in his new book, Out of Control, that the moral culture of the United States is so repulsive to people in several other cultures that it is gravely weakening us in our international role. The assault on traditional morality and basic standards of decency conducted in our movies, television shows, and video rock is, to much of the world, a scandal. Moreover, when combined with the crime statistics, drug usage, and other decadent habits so abundantly reported in our newspapers, this assault on traditional decencies disgraces us. Our people are losing virtue. That is why we have been losing self-government.
Increasingly, religion and those who take religion seriously are made subjects of ridicule by sophisticated elites. People who take their faith seriously, especially Catholics, Fundamentalists, Evangelicals and Orthodox Jews, are being driven to the margins of public life, abused, and made to seem outcast. The small portion of our population that says it does not believe in God, and does not hold to the classical religious standards of Judaism and Christianity, has become increasingly aggressive and hostile and arrogant and powerful. Aggressive secularists insist on teaching students, whose SAT scores are falling, how to put condoms on bananas. In matters of civil liberties, even our courts of law now give public pornography more respect than public religion.
In the ecology of our culture, the moral ecology, who could possibly say that the air is fresh and clean? Even at the primary levels of the public schools, textbooks are increasingly filled with scurrilous materials being forced upon unwilling or reluctant parents. Even the most innocent forms of religious observance in the schools -- ecumenical and generous and open-minded -- are rejected by the courts as "unconstitutional." Moviemakers compete with one another to see how often they can insult their audiences by repetitive use of the "F" word, at least one movie being clocked at once every 39 seconds. Manners deteriorate. So does respect for ordinary decencies. So, also, does respect for life.
2. A Most Difficult Test: Abortion
Here I must pause to deal with the most difficult sort of test a republic like ours ever confronts. Factions may be dealt with, Madison pointed out, when they can be arrayed against one another and put in a position of seeking compromise. Over material things, it is relatively easy to cut a deal; they can simply be divided up. But it is not easy to have a nation that is half slave and half free, and it is not easy to have a law that allows half an abortion. On matters of moral principle, compromise at first seems impossible. Great political skill and moral courage, both are necessary.
The Republican Party was born in such a moment, in a confrontation over bedrock principle, in the matter of slavery. Stephen Douglas argued the pro-choice position; Abraham Lincoln pointed out that some choices, in principle, may be used against the chooser. If you agree that some men can choose slavery, you agree in principle that one day you might be legitimately enslaved. Liberty then has no principled defense.
Similarly in our own time, if you agree that acts of violence that kill off a developing human life can be surrendered into the hands of private persons, who may have an interest of their own to protect, then you have violated the social contract. For the social contract described by Hobbes and Locke grants a monopoly on the use of deadly force to the state. And one day, when you are old, weak and vulnerable, you will have in principle surrendered the decision to terminate your own life to some other party claiming a "pro-choice" position. The protection of human life from the private employment of force is a non-negotiable principle. All the liberties that Americans hold dear are predicated on life. If one is deprived of life, liberty is empty.
We often read that the battle concerning abortion has been "lost." President Clinton, it is said, will change the courts. Democratic majorities in House and Senate will override pro-life legislation. The legal battle has been lost, they tell us; the political battle has been lost. We must retreat to the cultural sector, in order to work solely through moral persuasion. There is some merit in this analysis. In a free society, we must always rely upon persuasion. Civilization is constituted by reasoned persuasion, as Thomas Aquinas once noted. Barbarians coerce one another with clubs; civilized peoples persuade one another through the employment of reason. We must be civil. We must go by way of persuasion and the way of reason. All that is true. But, at the same time, we cannot surrender the political and the legal battle.
We cannot surrender these, most of all because a matter of fundamental principle is at stake. Lincoln did not at first declare that the purpose of the Civil War was to end slavery; he fought first to protect the Union. For without the Union, slavery could not be ended. That was the heart of the matter then. It is the heart of the matter today. Unless we form a union, a substantial majority, around the pro-life principle, we cannot end the violent taking of human life that is now occurring all around us. But the only practical way in which a democracy can conduct such business of practical persuasion is through the proposal of laws and public argument over policies. The legal and political struggle must continue, at least to protect the principle. Moral persuasion in a democracy can only go forward via public, reasoned, civil argument concerning the law and in the political forum.
Here I want to point out that the most fervent activists in the anti-abortion movement need to face an important choice about their tactics. Is it their aim to change the culture of America, and thus to change the practices of America through changing minds? Or is their aim to satisfy their own conscience by doing whatever they feel compelled to do, no matter what its affect upon the population as a whole? In this sense, the anti-abortion movement must focus less on changing the law than on better addressing the arguments that might move people to see more honestly what they are doing.
For one of the greatest victims in the floodtide of abortions that the nation has witnessed since 1973 is the truth. Although journalists pride themselves on showing the horrors of war, we virtually never see the way in which actual abortions are conducted, thousands of them, in this city and in every other city throughout the land. We never see the methods used. We never learn about the botched abortions. Recent studies show that, while a large majority of Americans would like some abortions to remain legal (in cases of incest or rape, for example) such cases account for barely one percent of all the abortions currently committed in the United States. A full 83 percent of abortions are to single women, and 75 percent of all abortions are for purposes merely of convenience.
Please pause to reflect upon this point: Between 70 and 80 percent of Americans disapprove of abortions merely for reasons of convenience. But 76 percent of abortions are for precisely that reason.
President Clinton says he is in favor of abortions that are "legal, safe, and rare." They are certainly legal, right up until the moment of birth; and they are certainly not rare. But they are, plainly, not safe. More women are today injured by botched abortions than in the years before 1973, when abortions were illegal. Former Mayor Koch of New York has said that, in his view, after the sixth month an abortion is infanticide. In Chillicothe, Ohio, President Clinton described the unborn after that time, while still in the womb, as "a child." One of the consequences of an evil principle is that good people are forced to be dishonest about what they are doing. They cannot bear to witness directly what their own hands are doing. The current widespread practice of abortion is corrupting our nation. It is corrupting our honesty. It is corrupting our politics. It is corrupting our media of communication. It is corrupting our political discourse. We are not telling the truth.
That is why it is important for one political party, let it be the Democratic Party under Gov. Robert P. Casey of Pennsylvania, or the Republican Party, to discern the underlying principle and to speak for it as clearly as Abraham Lincoln did.
It is no doubt impossible in the short term to stem the tide in favor of laws widening the scope for abortion and increasing the number of aborted ones. But we can still protect the principle. Bill Clinton has already expanded the number of abortions beyond all previous bounds, and he is even now insisting that people who conscientiously oppose abortions must also pay for them through public taxes. This is morally intolerable.
At the very least, we should work for a law prohibiting "double jeopardy." In the recent case of Ana Rosa Rodriguez in New York, an abortionist botched the abortion by slicing off the baby's arm in the womb and injuring the mother. Ana Rosa was born in a hospital the next day, armless, but is now otherwise thriving. But what if the abortionist had delivered her and then finished the task of killing her? That should be expressly forbidden, in case current law permits some ambiguity. Similarly, we should work for a law to prohibit abortions merely for purposes of gender selection (in which, almost always, females are killed).
Again, it seems entirely repulsive, further, that a nanny in the Washington area was indicted for first-degree murder because she suffocated her newborn infant within an hour or two of its birth, when if she had an abortion only 12 hours before, she would have been treated as innocent under the law.
Finally, perhaps we could achieve national consensus concerning a law that sets limits on what can be done with the remains of the aborted unborn; as human individuals, each with a genetic code entirely its own, and a human shape, each aborted one should at least be treated with a respect beyond that due to any other creature. If the law cannot at present protect them while they are living, it should at least command a certain respect for them at death. Injury should not be heaped upon injury. We are speaking here of human beings. It would be a kind of cannibalism, for example, to compact fetal remains into high-protein foodstuffs for feeding the poor.
I do not see how we can escape the moral challenge of abortion. It cannot simply be evaded. All sides in a debate need to show a greater degree of honesty with themselves, and greater civility toward one another. We will have to live according to the popular consensus enshrined in our laws. But it is precisely the function of practical reason and political discourse to argue about changes in the law, until the public reaches the essence of the matter, and human law conforms with the nature of things and with the respect due to God. Even Antigone in pagan Greece once inspired the West to believe such things.
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Politics begins in the human spirit, and the human spirit always expresses itself in politics. One cannot duck the responsibilities of being human. The political party that best discerns ways of respecting the human spirit -- in its liberty and in its responsibilities -- is more likely than any other to be built upon bedrock reality, and to have the vivacity and flexibility to grow and change. Where we are today is not where we will be a decade hence.
It is the function of political leadership to figure out where it is exactly we want to be 10 years from now, and to point out the paths for getting from here to there. My proposal is that we must devolve the many functions now gathered up into the underachieving hands of the Mommy State back to the institutions of civil society -- the family, the neighborhood, the local school (private whenever possible), the local church, and local associations of many sorts. We must restore the practices of self-government and the public ideal of civil republican virtues. And we must restore truth, honesty, and principle to the debate over abortion. All this requires political wisdom, economic practicality and moral discernment. But so do the system of natural liberty, everything the nation stands for, and everything we want to be.
l The Federalist Papers, No. 14.
2 Adam Smith (1759).