Thursday, May 08, 2003

I haven't been paying attention to the Bennett flap, to be honest, because I haven't really been inclined to follow such a "dog bites man" story. The spectacle of "do what I say, but not what I do" moralizers getting hung by their own petard is older than the forms of media that are used to report them. Bennett is no different.

The chief interest I've had is the wars over what it means, if anything. The entertaining spectacle of Jonah Goldberg defending hypocrisy, for one, is especially amusing considering that he makes such a defense while at the same time denying that hypocrisy has taken place. I think there is a point to the "he never denounced gambling if one can afford it, so is therefore not hypocritical" argument, but why on earth try to mix that with a defense of hypocrisy? I'm sure Bennett wouldn't be pleased by this sort of "and anyway" defense (as in "I didn't steal the pie from your sill and anyway it tasted lousy), and everybody else that has picked up on it are probably just shaking their heads.

(Goldberg pulling out a classic anti-Clinton insinuation ploy was pretty sad too, and not only because "never mind the steamer trunk of lies and other sins he lugged into the Oval Office" is an abundantly cheesy metaphor.)

I personally think the issue here is, oddly enough, less moral and more political. It's about the enduring tension between two main fragments of the Republican coalition- the social conservatives, and the libertarian conservatives.

(Both claim ownership of the word. Both are wrong).

The central conceit of the libertarian conservatives is that they want to be left alone to do what they please, so long as it does not directly hurt somebody else. This includes (but is not limited to) a small, uninterventionist state. The social conservatives' central conceit, on the other hand is that there is a set of (usually religion-derived) guidelines that everybody in a society must follow, regardless of whether they wish to or not, and regardless of whether the actions those guidelines proscribe are harmful. It is the state's role to enforce this ruleset.

This distinguishes them from most liberal "moralizers", by the by, as liberals are chiefly concerned with actions that in some way affect the rights of other individuals. Liberal proscriptions are usually aimed at state intervention and regulation of individual actions that negatively affect others (whether directly or indirectly), whereas social conservative ones are aimed more generally at actions and behavior that "breaks the rules". Many social conservatives support their arguments by saying that not following these rules will affect others, and that's legitimate, but the point is the rule set, and not the effects. This is a distinction that Goldberg doesn't understand or deliberately ignores when he attacks "liberal moralizers"; I'm inclined to believe the latter, because one of the central tenets of neo-conservatism is that it isn't important what those rules are, just that they exist and are followed.

(This is why I'm not naming the source or nature of the ruleset. It isn't important.)

These two groups (social and libertarian conservatives) make up the Republican coalition. They are brought together, I believe, largely by a common enemy. The libertarians don't like the idea that liberals forward of the state blocking actions by individuals because of indirect effects that those actions might have; such as, say, the negative effects of unrestricted and unregulated commerce. The social conservatives don't like that liberals could largely give a rat's ass about their rulesets, and actively oppose them when the rights of various individuals are (directly or indirectly) harmed by the rules themselves.

Up 'till now, this has worked relatively well, as they've been quite aware of the necessity of unity. The great contribution of the Movementarians is that they've added a near-Leninist dedicatation to the success of the coalition, largely by casting the coalition as opposed to "liberal governmental elites" and promising to bring down said elites if they're brought into power. This satisfies both camps. The libertarian side chortles with glee over their increased financial resources post-tax cut and the freedom that comes with being able to spend their own money instead of having the "nanny state" do it for them The social conservatives are happy because they're rooting out the liberalism that is supposedly blocking the successful implementation of their ruleset. Both get what they want, but only until they succeed. Once they succeed, they're going to start wanting to pull in different directions, because there are going to be inevitable conflicts between those who prize freedom and those who prize order.

The battle over Santorum was the first step. The conflict over his deliberately and unapologetically anti-gay remarks strikes to the heart of this, but Bennett fits into it as well. See, while Bennet's specific vice was not something he personally attacked, it was something that is generally frowned upon by the dominant ruleset in the United States. This creates a problem. If he defends his vice as a personal freedom, then the libertarian wing has that much more ammo in its battles against the social wing, of which Bennett is a key member. After all, if this freedom is ok, then why not others, like (say) smoking marijuana? (The debate has already started on NRO's Corner between Goldberg and Andrew Stuttaford). Yet to allow too many of these freedoms would hurt the ruleset as a whole, which social conservatives cannot abide. The demonstration of inconsistencies in the ruleset also creates a huge problem, because the only reason that social conservatives can convince people to follow the ruleset is if they present it as necessary, universal, and inevitable- the whole point is that it isn't a matter of personal choice. Raising the question of "which one" raises the answer of "none of the above". Neo-conservatives like Goldberg are presented with a huge conundrum by this, because to them it is the existence of any ruleset that is key, not any specific one, and the "none of the above" option threatens that existence.

Many people after the 2002 election, myself included, predicted that the Republican coalition would begin tearing itself apart as it tried to head in different directions. That has already started, but it's not going to be a quick process, as there are a lot of people dedicated to keeping things together. No matter how it is defended, however, Bennett's "personal choice" threatens that Republican coalition. It won't necessarily cost them votes, but Lincoln had a point when he said that "a house divided cannot stand". And it's rather sweet schadenfreude for those of us who are sick of having to deal with the divisions within the left.

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