This article is from The Objective Standard, Vol. 3, No. 4.
The presidential election of 2008 was more significant than the mere defeat of John McCain; it was a resounding defeat of the Republican party. Conscientious Republicans are now faced with the question: Why? Why did so many Americans either not vote, or vote for third-party candidates who had no chance of winning, or vote for a man who openly vowed to “spread the wealth around”? How Republicans answer this question will determine whether they discover the road to victory for themselves and their country or stumble toward further defeat.
Several claims about the Republicans’ loss can be quickly dismissed. Their defeat was not due to their advocacy of smaller government or freer markets, because they advocated no such policies. On the contrary, President Bush, along with congressional Republicans, increased spending massively, doubled the national debt to fund social programs, passed the prescription drug entitlement, doubled the size of the Department of Education, and engaged in countless other schemes to coercively redistribute wealth. They also enacted McCain-Feingold, a vicious attack on free speech; condemned Barack Obama for refusing federal campaign funds; smothered businesses with Sarbanes-Oxley; and hatched a de facto nationalization scheme that would have made FDR blush. McCain represented all of this, and he underscored his predilection for nationalization by scurrying to Washington to throw his weight behind the bailouts.
Nor did the Republicans lose on account of their drive toward victory against foreign enemies, because they engaged in no such drive. The Republican commander in chief, with general Republican support, put our soldiers into battles they were not allowed to win decisively, while he held hands with the terrorist-financing Saudis, made deals with the once-KGB-agent Vladimir Putin, and negotiated with the American-murdering Taliban. Again, McCain represented all of this and said he was willing to commit our troops to another hundred years of such “war.”
Most important, the Republicans’ loss was not a consequence of their failure to uphold religious values. The most fervent zealots in this election cycle, such as Mike Huckabee, lost in the primaries just as those in the last cycle, such as Rick Santorum, failed in their campaigns. McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin, a Pentecostal foe of science, homosexuality, and abortion rights, did not help him; it hurt him. Other Republicans who invoked religion, such as Elizabeth Dole, also went down in defeat. American voters were not of a mind to elect those who would breach the wall between church and state.
The reason for the Republicans’ defeat is this simple fact: Over the past fifty years, they have ceased to be Republican in anything other than name. For two generations, Republican leaders have abandoned reason, individual rights, and freedom—the founding values of the American republic—in favor of religion, tradition, and “family values.” The Republicans’ tendency to coin terms such as “compassionate conservatism,” “neoconservatism,” and “big-government conservatism” is a consequence of their adherence to the sacrificial morality of religion, which, logically, demands an ever-widening welfare state.
Millions of voters said good riddance to all that. Many of them are trying to tell the Republicans something—namely, to drop their obsession with so-called “family values,” to stop their efforts to bring religion into government, and to cease being RINOs (Republicans in Name Only). These conscientious voters are looking for Republican politicians who are willing to stand against those who have led their party astray, and to become the new intellectual defenders of the founding principle of the American republic.
Republicans who wish to assume such intellectual leadership must first understand why their party has so energetically adopted the basic economic policies of the left. The answer begins with the positions that Republicans have used to distinguish themselves morally from Democrats. Most Republicans stand against abortion, for prayer in government schools, against embryonic stem-cell research, for religious icons in courthouses, against gay marriage, and for censorship of the media. All of these positions assume Christian doctrine as a moral base for political action.
The same Christian doctrine, far from differentiating Republicans from Democrats, is the basis for Republican agreement with Democrats about the welfare state. Republicans have anchored their “compassionate” welfare state in the ethics of Christianity. They have become fiscally indistinguishable from Democrats because Christianity and Marxism share the same moral premise: “give unto the poor” or “to each according to his need.” This premise, whether grounded in dialectical materialism or in biblical spiritualism, tells those who embrace it that they can be moral only by caring for “the least among us” through the sacrifice of others. The “compassionate conservatism” that has motivated Republicans to outspend Democrats in social programs is a search for moral goodness by the standard of altruism: the morality of self-sacrifice.
Republicans want to be moral, which is a lofty goal, but under pressure of commandments to be selfless, they cannot defend the heart of free enterprise: the selfish pursuit of profit. Many Republicans admire successful businessmen for their productive success but grant them moral credit only when they give away their fortunes.
Because the Republicans’ embrace of altruism has rendered them unable to defend the profit motive, they have abandoned capitalism and accepted the legitimacy of every government program that redistributes money to those in need. The welfare state is the direct application of the morality of self-sacrifice to the realm of politics.
The antidote to this rising tide of socialism is a moral principle that runs counter to altruism, the principle of individual rights: recognition of each individual’s inalienable right to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. This is the principle on which our nation was founded, and it is the moral principle that Republicans must grasp, accept, and defend if they wish to end their malevolent alliance with the left, reverse the malignant expansion of government power, and rescue individual rights from the morality of self-sacrifice. But to defend rights, one must first understand them.
Rights are not gifts from “God,” who demands payment for his generosity by calling for the continual violation of those rights. Nor are rights gifts from the state to be created or destroyed by majority vote, constitutional convention, or pragmatic jurisprudence. The source of rights is neither faith nor feelings but facts.
Individual rights are moral principles arising from the requirements of human life in a social context. In order for people to live, they must be free to think and act on their own judgment. Rights specify this fact and prescribe government protection for each individual against those who seek to infringe on his freedom.
It is right to value one’s own life and to think and act by one’s own judgment; thus every individual has a right to life and liberty. It is right to keep what one produces and to trade with others voluntarily; thus every individual has a right to property. It is right to act for one’s own benefit; thus every individual has a right to pursue his own happiness. It is right to restrain, and if necessary destroy, those who attack us; the right to self-defense is a corollary of the right to life. All of this is true, because it is right to live, to love one’s life, and to prosper—by one’s own effort.
Rather than placing each of us under an injunction to serve others, the moral principle of individual rights sets each individual free from such unfounded “duty.” Rights enable each individual to pursue his own happiness by his own thought and effort, neither sacrificing himself for others nor sacrificing others for himself. The only purpose of government, on this account, is to protect the freedom defined by man’s rights. When these facts are recognized, politicians cease to be collectors of sacrifices; they become protectors of life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness.
The fact that many people fail to recognize such moral truths reveals a deeper error shared by the left and the right. Leftists claim that moral principles cannot be validated by reference to facts. In their view, no “is” can lead to an “ought”; moral principles are conventions that we invent or intuitions that shift with the tides of popular opinion. To illustrate this idea, we have the amoralism of the 1960s: free speech as pornography, drama as gratuitous nudity, literature as plotless profanity, political activism as smashing “the system.” Leftists treat rights the same way they treat all moral principles: as conveniences that we may change at whim.
The basis of this moral agnosticism is subjectivism—the idea that we create reality in our minds, rather than grasp it through our senses by means of reason. There are no absolutes in this world-view, only the whims and feelings of the crowd: vox populi.
The political right was and is rightfully appalled at this mindlessness, hedonism, and anarchy. But what alternative do they offer? There are moral principles, conservative leaders say, but (agreeing with the left) such principles are not derived from facts. Where do they come from? They come from faith, say the conservative leaders, faith in the supernatural as commanded in the Bible, or faith in moral traditions embedded somehow in society by a “higher” power. Moral principles, they say, are dictates from beyond this world: vox Dei.
But what is faith? It is acceptance of ideas in the absence of evidence supporting them. It is acceptance of ideas not because one has reason to accept them, but because one wants to accept them. It is acceptance of ideas on the basis of feelings.
Vox populi tells the leftists to satisfy the desires of the majority, as revealed in the latest poll. Vox Dei tells conservatives to give to the poor, to turn the other cheek, and to lose their fortunes, as revealed in scripture. Leftists seek to impose their feelings, conservatives seek to impose theirs—and both seek to mandate sacrifice by governmental force.
Neither side recognizes the existence of the individual, much less the moral implications of his existence: that every individual has a right to his own life and to the products of his own effort. The result is a two-front war against the most productive and successful people among us, with ever-increasing demands for sacrifice to an allegedly “greater” good.
To end this immoral war against the individual, Republicans must grasp that the only valid purpose of government—and the definitive task of those who wish to defend the American republic—is the protection of the rights of individuals; they must acknowledge that the cultural destruction all around us today is the result of the abandonment of rights; and they must dedicate themselves to the unwavering defense of individual rights from here forward.
In possession of the principle of individual rights, it becomes easy to evaluate the specific issues of the day. What should we do, for instance, about Social Security, Medicare, and government funding of science, agriculture, energy, and education? The government may not violate the rights of an employee, a CEO, a doctor, a researcher, a farmer, an engineer, or a teacher—nor may the government violate the rights of others in order to “help” them. These programs must be phased out. What of corporate bailouts? The government may not violate the rights of some people in order to forestall the bankruptcy of others—even if their failure is huge. Republicans must oppose all such redistribution as a matter of principle.
What about war? The American government must defend the lives and liberty of Americans by whatever means necessary. And the government may not enter into war without that purpose or without a full-scale effort to win quickly and unambiguously. Republicans must advocate a foreign policy of rational self-interest.
What about immigration? The right to immigrate is an aspect of a person’s right to act for his own benefit. If a would-be immigrant passes a proper background check and a basic health examination, the government may not bar him from seeking the American dream; indeed, he should be welcomed to America. And those who hire immigrants are exercising their right to voluntary association. Republicans must support the repeal of rights-violating immigration laws.
What about abortion? A woman is a human being—not a piece of protoplasm—and her right to pursue an abortion is a corollary of her right to life. Government power must not be unleashed against the intimate functions of a woman’s body. Nor may the matter be left to the states—because the states may not violate rights, either. Rights are absolute. Women and doctors who disapprove of abortion are free to avoid it. And the government may not finance abortion. But Republicans must understand that a woman’s right to life includes reproductive rights.
The moral contradiction between the biblical mandate of self-sacrifice and the factual need for human beings to pursue and protect their life-serving values is destroying the Republican party. Republicans face a decision. They may conclude that they have failed their faith and that they must seek redemption by injecting religion more deeply into politics. Or they may realize that their faith has failed them and that they must abandon the crusade, commit themselves to individual rights, and set forth to defend freedom, limited government, and capitalism.
If Republicans choose the former, they should expect to suffer the fate of Senator Dole, who was voted out after accusing her opponent of speaking with the “godless Americans”—as if talking to atheists is a sin.
If, however, Republicans choose the latter, they will have taken the first step toward becoming principled, intellectual advocates of the American republic. They will be free to build a Republican party of individual rights from the ashes of the Grand Old Party of Lincoln. And if they do, they will deserve to win the next election.