The Spectacle Blog

What Social ‘Policy’ Should Mean to Conservatives

By on 3.18.14 | 2:52PM

With Rand Paul's declaration today that the GOP must "agree to disagee on social issues," social conservatives are questioning just how effective the Republican Party can be on the issue of same-sex marriage.

Last Tuesday, a panel of conservatives hosted by the Manhattan Institute weighed in on the future social policy of the GOP.

Unanimously, the panel agreed that the GOP's pro-life position is here to say, but the right has to admit cultural defeat on obstructing same-sex marriage.

For Avik Roy, former health care advisor to Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, the leftward turn of culture means scrapping social conservatism altogether:

[The GOP needs a] coherent political philosophy about what culture should look like that would accept the post [1960’s] reality.

Putting aside the fact that there is nothing socially conservative about the 1960's conception of “reality,” admitting defeat on legislating a traditional definition of marriage does not require conservatives to become socially progressive. 

At the core of social conservatism is support for the traditional family—what yields opposition to same-sex marriage in the first place.

Recognizing that families are in need of repair, Reihan Salam championed the idea of government-funded parenting coaches. He embraced a paternalistic approach to policymaking, justifying it by urging “conservatives [to feel] more comfortable that they’re not libertarians.” 

True, conservatives are not fundamentally libertarian, but is there anything really conservative about government-sponsored parenting coaches? Salam's point rasises the question of what characterizes policy as being authentically conservative.

Michael Medved, discussing a possible harmony between social conservatives and libertarians at CPAC, argued that social conservatives need to adopt policies that use “libertarian means for conservative goals.” In the case of marriage, Medved wants to form an alliance with libertarians on the issue of religious liberty. If traditional marriage cannot be won legislatively, religious liberty can minimally be supported. 

In fact, Medved cites abortion as evidence of a conservative goal being won outside the political arena:

The pro-life movement has achieved, without changing law or government, cutting abortion to its lowest point in thirty years.

Where government action was lacking, conservatives succeeded “by preaching, teaching, and reaching people.” A loss on the policy front does not entail a permanent cultural loss. 

On the Manhattan Institute panel, Megan McArdle echoed Medved, arguing that “cultural policy” may be more effective in strengthening marriage than actual government policy. Consider the role social icons and Hollywood played in shaping cultural attitudes on same-sex marriage. The social conservative's culture war should not be fought on the November ballot, but through culture.

McArdle finds some space for government involvement, but not in direct marriage promotion:

Instead of making the state a substitute for intact families, try to do things that make it easier to form an intact family…The wage situation is such now that men cannot get steady work for fifty weeks out of the year that pays anything and therefore they’re not of any use around the house.

Utilizing "libertarian means for conservative ends" doesn't sacrifice conservative means. Conservatism doesn’t come pre-packaged with specific policy methods. Conservatism is concerned with the ends of society, and how those ends are obtained is precisely where policymaking enters.

McArdle's strategy employs what Yuval Levin describes as the purpose of government: "to create the space in which society can flourish." Pro-family policy need not be about fixing families, but using the government to ensure certain foundations for strong families, all while advocating traditional families through the force of culture in the private sector.

This doesn’t mean that conservative policy takes the Machiavellian approach that "the ends justify the means." There simply isn’t always a clear set of means for reaching ends. It isn’t absolutely morally wrong for the federal government to fund parenting coaches, but government intervention can cause more harm than good, and there’s no way to evaluate a bureaucrat's ability to parent. Conservatism realizes that determining what policy works is a matter of prudence, considering the diverse needs of different communities, and preferring local involvement to distant micromanagement.

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