Thursday, December 08, 2005

Santorum's "Conservatism and the Common Good"

Jonathan Rauch reviews Senator Rick Santorum's It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good:
Santorum wrestles intelligently, often impressively, with the biggest of big ideas: freedom, virtue, civil society, the Founders’ intentions. Although he is a Catholic who is often characterized as a religious conservative, he has written a book whose ambitions are secular. As its subtitle promises, it is about conservatism, not Christianity.

Above all, it is worth noticing because, like Goldwater’s Conscience, it lays down a marker. As Goldwater repudiated Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, so Santorum repudiates Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. It’s now official: Philosophically, the conservative movement has split. Post-Santorum, tax cutting and court bashing cannot hold the Republican coalition together much longer.

As a policy book, It Takes a Family is temperate. It offers a healthy reminder that society needs not just good government but strong civil and social institutions, and that the traditional family serves essential social functions. Government policies, therefore, should respect and support family and civil society instead of undermining or supplanting them. Parents should make quality time at home a high priority. Popular culture should comport itself with some sense of responsibility and taste.
First, as my previous post has shown, the conservative movement has never really been of one philosophy, so Rauch's idea that it has "split" is not really correct. Nonetheless, the fact remains that Santorum is promoting a new kind of conservatism.
Where Goldwater denounced collectivism as the enemy of the individual, Santorum denounces individualism as the enemy of family. “In the conservative vision,” he writes, “people are first connected to and part of families: The family, not the individual, is the fundamental unit of society.” Those words are not merely in tension with the individual-rights tradition of modern conservatism. They are incompatible with it.

Santorum seems to sense as much. In an August interview with National Public Radio, he acknowledged his quarrel with “what I refer to as more of a libertarianish Right” and “this whole idea of personal autonomy.” In his book he comments, seemingly with a shrug, “Some will reject what I have to say as a kind of ‘Big Government’ conservatism.”
Especially since he offers a litany of government programs to foster this promotion of the family. Though the goals may be laudable, the turn to government as the dispenser of a pro-family will concern many conservatives.


Gary Monro said...

...the turn to government as the dispenser of a pro-family will concern many conservatives.

I can live with that.

In fact, conservatives regard the state as having a role in supporting established institutions and social mores anyway so some government support for that particular institution wouldn't be a major blow.

Of course, if government (ie tax-payer) financing of 'alternative' lifestyles were to end then marriage would enjoy a resurgence all on its own.

Marc said...

Gary, As I see it, many conservatives would agree with you, though those of a more libertarian sort would probably object. I should have been more clear that it was these to which I was referring. I see that you're from Great Britain, which has a conservatism that is a bit different than the States. To the degree that the "average" English conservative holds your position, how much is it based on religious belief? Or is it more of a maintenance of traditional society and culture that informs that view? I wonder because the U.S. is viewed as "more religious" than Europe and I'd be interested to see the similarities between the religious (American) and a more secular (G.B.) arguments for a more active state in the family realm.

Thanks for the comment.

Gary Monro said...


I think that within the Conservative Party itself the appreciation of family will have some religious underpinning - perhaps more than you will find in the wider population.

Then again, we have a Christian Prime Minister who does not value traditional family values while we have atheists (like myself) who strongly do.

Support for family structure will be based on either religious conviction or the pragmatic recognition of that structure's general effectiveness - or a mixture of both. I really do not know in what proportions these factors exist in the population of England generally although the pragmatic view may have the edge over the religious.

Actually, I think the pro-family argument here regards the existence of welfare as being one of the principle reasons for its demise rather than any lack of government support. Given a choice between govenrment intervention or a rationalising of welfare I would opt for the latter.

Coincidentally, I blogged today about the atheist take on Christianity, based on a newspaper article written by an atheist conservative.

I sometimes think we value Christianity more than the Christians here do.


Marc said...

Gary, That was a very interesting post that you put up. It has echoes of some of the concepts that Lee Harris has written about. One can disagree with the Christian theology, but the approve of the societal structure--in fits and starts--that has arisen because of it. Again, thanks for the feedback and Merry Christmas!

Gary Monro said...

Thanks Marc - all the best to you too...