Friday, May 9, 2014

GOP's Civic Virtue Deficit

William Nitze ctitiques Tea Party attempts to ally itself with the Founders and Constitution in The American Conservative.

Support for the U.S. Constitution has been a consistent principle of the collection of activist conservative groups referred to as the “Tea Party,” a name that refers back to the patriots who dumped British tea into Boston Harbor rather than pay the duties demanded by the Crown and thereby helped set the stage for Lexington and Concord. But even a cursory examination of the positions that Tea Party groups have taken on other issues—particularly their overall opposition to federal government action on economic and social issues and their desire to shift decision making authority from the federal government to state and local governments—suggests that they may have more in common with the anti-federalists who opposed ratification of the Constitution in the 1780s and the “nullifiers” led by John C. Calhoun who sought to limit federal authority in the 1830s, 40s, and 50s.

In order to be effective in inducing citizens to ask their representatives to write and enforce laws that are clear and effective and respect the Constitution, however, conservatives will first have to embrace the concept of citizen responsibility that is so central in the writings of great conservatives such as Adam Smith and Edmund Burke, and their classical forbears, particularly Aristotle. The darker passions of human nature threaten both individual well-being and social harmony. They must be checked from within or without. If they are not checked by cultivated moral sentiments from within, they will be checked by state power from without, however misguided the exercise of that power may be.

Unfortunately the modern conservative movement has operated under the false premise that economic self-interest will provide the necessary internal check. In an effort to counter so-called “liberalism,” postwar conservatives such as William F. Buckley substituted religion for the classical ideas of republican virtue and civic responsibility that are the foundation of earlier 19th and 20th century conservatism. By fusing a diffuse and undefined concept of religion with extreme libertarianism and its worship of free markets, postwar conservatives created a political philosophy that supports market competition as a good unto itself without any moral constraints based on a concept of the “common good” that transcends tribal preferences based on religion, culture, or race.

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