Rediscovering our libertarian side
Conservatives are often accused of a major contradiction: We are said to be interested in maximizing individual freedom in the economic sphere but contemptuous of freedom when people want to live contrary to traditional values in the social sphere. In short, we stand accused of opposing big government in the boardroom while championing it in the bedroom.
Occasionally, this is unfair. Some champions of legal abortion, for example, are all too happy to talk about choice until it comes to the taxpayers' choice not to subsidize abortion. Then their reluctance to impose their values on others quickly goes out the window. Ditto for some proponents of gay rights who don't just want to be free of restrictions on personal behavior, like oppressive anti-sodomy laws, but are actually willing to drive the Catholic Church out of the adoption business because of the church's opposition to placing children with same-sex couples.
"Freedom for me and not for thee" is a very common refrain in politics. But the right is indeed often guilty of some serious inconsistencies when it comes to individual liberty. Let's leave aside for a moment conservatives' increasing tolerance for high levels of federal spending, provided that the spender has an "R" next to his name. Conservatives no less than liberals often trample on the principles of federalism or seek to serve as lifestyle police.
Frank Meyer, former National Review senior editor, explained the conservative balance between liberty and virtue this way: "Truth withers when freedom dies, however righteous the authority that kills it; and free individualism uninformed by moral value rots at its core and soon brings about conditions that pave the way for surrender to tyranny." The pendulum has swung too far away from conservatism's libertarian tendencies.
Conservative politicians have become doctrinaire about the federal war on drugs, supporting a massive expenditure of tax dollars and high rates of imprisonment. Without minimizing the destructive consequences of drug abuse, many conservative intellectuals -- including the recently departed William F. Buckley Jr. -- have argued that our federal drug laws often do more harm than good. Few of us encourage the Republican elected officials we support to do much to liberalize them.
Even greater flexibility for states in regulating medical marijuana use would be a positive step. Alas, we are trending in the opposite direction. When Californians sought a measure of freedom in this realm, the current administration was quick to assert its jurisdiction. We understand the virtues of federalism in other areas. Maybe the laboratories of democracy could cook up a better drug policy.
We may also be too cavalier about the balance between civil liberties and national security. Let's be clear: The federal government needs the tools to prevent terrorist attacks. But we shouldn't automatically dismiss all concerns about warrantless searches and surveillance on the grounds that this means giving rights to terrorists. We should jealously safeguard the rights of Americans. It is not an easy balance to reach, but it is essential that we try.
I know you have your differences with Grover Norquist. But sometimes, even when the issue isn't economics, we should listen to the American people when they say, "Leave us alone."
W. James Antle III is associate editor of the American Spectator.
Our government isn't the enemy