It Takes A Family
I recently completed Rick Santorum’s It Takes A Family. I quipped on Twitter that had I read this before the campaign started then Santorum would have been my top Rick pick before that other Rick entered the race (though I still maintain that Governor Perry would have been an outstanding nominee, but no need to go there). At times Santorum slips into politician speak – you know, those occasions when politicians feel compelled to tell stories of individual people in order to justify some larger agenda. And some of the book is a little plodding, especially when he gets into wonkish mode (which fortunately is not all that often). Those quibbles asides, there are large chunks of this book that could very well have been written by yours truly. That isn’t meant to be a commentary on my own genius, but rather a way of saying I agree with just about everything this man has to say.
The book title really says it all. The heart of Rick Santorum’s political philosophy is the family, meaning that to him strong families are the heart of any functioning society. The family has been undermined both by big government programs and by the culture at large. Santorum mocks the “village elders” who view more government programs as the solution to all problems. Santorum acknowledges that many of the problems we face don’t have quick and easy fixes, and often no legislative action can be taken. Santorum offers a series of small policy proposals that are aimed at giving parents and individuals in tough economic circumstances some tools to help, but he also emphasizes the doctrine of subsidiarity. Ultimately we must rely principally on local institutions, starting with the family.
Santorum understands what even some on the right fail to appreciate, and that is we can’t divorce social issues from economics. The breakdown of the family coincides directly with economic hardship. If we want a healthier economy, we need healthier families. It’s a central tenet of conservatism that is somehow ignored by large swathes of the political right.
His approach to politics can be summarized in a passage on page 341 of the hardback edition:
Government has a role in promoting the common good, but it should do so by equipping and empowering families and communities: it should follow the path of subsidiarity.
Santorum finds the “you can’t legislate morality” trope as risible as many of us do. That said, he doesn’t want to impose his moral beliefs on American society. He merely wants to give parents resources with which they can engage the wider culture. So, for example, he opposes censorship but he supports labeling systems that help parents identify the contents of music, movies, television, and other forms of entertainment.
I also found his exploration of the founding ideals to be refreshingly non-superficial. Usually when a politician discusses the founding era he or she does so in the most jingoistic way possible. When Santorum talks about the Framers he sounds like someone who has actually read them and about them. In particular his discussion about moral inculcation, and the lack of it in the Constitution, is fairly nuanced. As he says, liberals believe that the lack of virtue-talk in the early republic signifies that the Framers weren’t at all concerned with inculcating virtue. Rubbish. To men like John Adams, Santorum points out, it is the very foundation of republican government.
The reason for this absence of formal constitutional provisions concerning virtue and morality was the founders’ view that moral cultivation is properly carried on by churches and families, not by the government. (At least, not by the federal government. Too often we forget that the federal government is not the whole government of the United States: the state and local governments, under the original federal Constitution, retained traditional jurisdiction over morals legislation.) The key to a virtuous public, they believed, would be vibrant churches and stable, traditional families.
Santorum then adds that “the idea that the traditional family might need any kind of special constitutional protection would have been met by the founders with universal disbelief. It would have been the same as asking for constitutional protection for the sun to shine.” The framers would never have envisioned a government being downright hostile to the family.
Not only does this passage make an important distinction between the powers of the local and federal governments, but it raises an interesting point about the framers’ assumptions about political society. That they did not introduce mechanisms into the Constitution to inculcate virtue does not mean that they weren’t concerned about it. Sure, there were men like Jefferson who had slightly naive views of human nature and of democratic governance, but the Framers were men who understood that the form of government created by the Constitution was indeed a republic, but only if we kept it.
Santorum hascome in for criticism on this. James Taranto recently linked to a (poorly titled) critique by Jonathan Rauch. Rauch insists that virtue-minded founders like John Adams were in the minority camp, and were ultimately losers in the great debate of the time. He writes:
Other Founders—notably James Madison, the father of the Constitution—were more concerned with power than with virtue. They certainly distinguished between liberty and license, and they agreed that republican government requires republican virtues. But they believed that government’s foremost calling was not to inculcate virtue but to prevent tyranny. Madison thus argued for a checked, limited government that would lack the power to impose any one faction’s view of virtue on all others. . . .
Goldwater and Reagan, and Madison and Jefferson, were saying that if you restrain government, you will strengthen society and foster virtue. Santorum is saying something more like the reverse: If you shore up the family, you will strengthen the social fabric and ultimately reduce dependence on government.
Taranto himself has a great rebuttal to this, and it is worth quoting in full:
To recruit Ronald Reagan for the libertarian cause is problematic to say the least. True, the Gipper did say, in a 1975 interview with Reason, that “the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.” But the subject of that interview was not social issues. When interviewer Manuel Klausner (who has moved up in the world and is now a frequent contributor to this column) asks the future president to elaborate, he goes on to talk about such esoteric questions as whether fire departments should be privately or publicly owned.
By 1980, Reagan was a social conservative, if a less fervent one than Santorum is today. One of his main initiatives as president was the “war on drugs,” a term nobody uses today except libertarians in arguing that we should end it.
As for Goldwater, it’s true that in his dotage he was a strong opponent of social conservatism. “Every good Christian ought to kick Jerry Falwell right in the ass,” he memorably said in 1981. But it’s also true that Goldwater in 1960 and Madison and Jefferson at the time of the Founding had no knowledge of the sexual revolution, which had yet to occur.
Santorum’s argument is that what Charles Murray calls the “founding virtues” have been eroded as a result of the sexual revolution. Goldwater disagreed 30 years ago, in part because of his own ideological predisposition but also in part because the evidence was much sketchier back then.
Libertarianism, which values liberty above all other values, has always had an uneasy relationship with conservatism, being either a distinct strain of it or a different ideology altogether. It’s understandable that libertarians sided with the sexual revolution, since it did expand a certain variety of liberty.
But it is far from clear that in embracing this very modern form of freedom, libertarians are being true to the timeless verities embodied in America’s founding documents. Santorum has a strong case to make that they are endangering those verities by disparaging the virtues that the Founders had the luxury of being able to take for granted.
I had hoped to write more broadly about the libertarian-conservative divide, but haven’t been able to get around to it. (In addition to giving up television for Lent, I’m also on a no-internet in the evening fast, so that severely limits the amount of time I have for blogging.) This seems to get to the heart of the disagreement. On policy matters there isn’t that much daylight between conservatives and libertarians. The point of departure really is about ends, not means. For libertarians, liberty marked by limited government is an end in and of itself, whereas for conservatives it is a means to an end. Conservatives value limited government because we are wary of disruptive social changes. Government can be a force for ill, and so we tend to look warily upon reforms. Indeed, take the HHS mandate controversy for example. Conservatives are fighting against government encroachment upon morality. In other words, we’re the ones fighting against an imposition of morality upon us.
Libertarians shriek at Santorum’s language because talk of virtue and traditionalism smacks to them of collectivism. It’s an understandable reaction in the age of progressivism. When leftists see something that they dislike, their first reaction is to legislate the problem away. So when conservatives speak out on a societal problem, the assumption is that they, too, want to legislate the problem away. We’re frankly not speaking the same language.
I would like to end on a personal note. When I was a kid I dreamed of running for the presidency in 2012 – the year I turned 35 and became constitutionally eligible. Obviously that has not happened. Yet, running for the presidency now is a slightly dweebish, socially conservative, Italian-American. It’s kind of the next best thing to running myself. Well, when I see the passion with which Santorum writes about issues that matter to me, I can’t help but respect the man. The second half of this book is terrific, and the sincerity of his convictions particularly shines through when he is discussing abortion. Some of you remain skeptical that such a man can actually win a general election. I am not gonna link to the polls that suggest otherwise. I just want you to consider that if you’re like me and believe as I do on the issues that matter most, we might not ever again get a chance to put someone who shares so many of our convictions in the White House. So don’t cast your vote out of some fear of what might happen in November.