Scold War

There is another side to It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good, however–a serious argument that deserves respectful consideration. Santorum contends that the idea of individual autonomy, which he takes to be the core of contemporary liberalism, constitutes a conception of “no-fault freedom” that undermines an older ideal of ordered liberty on which republican self-government depends. The propensity toward ordered liberty is not innate; it must be carefully nurtured in “traditional families” and in neighborhoods and communities that take responsibility, so far as possible, for their own fate. Liberal individualism is blind to the essentially social nature of human beings. Not the individual, but rather the family, is the basic unit of society. Individual rights take their place within, and are subordinate to, institutions and practices that promote the common good. In the last analysis, republican government rests more on virtue than on freedom; otherwise put, genuine freedom is oriented toward virtue and especially toward duty and self-sacrifice.

In the body of this book, Santorum examines what he calls the “five pillars of American civilization”–otherwise put, the arenas within which individuals may cultivate the virtues needed for individual success and for the survival of the American experiment in self-government. Expanding on Robert Putnam’s discussion in Bowling Alone, Santorum examines society, the economy, morality, culture, and the educational system as sources of “capital” on which individuals can draw–that is, if these sectors are in good order. But they are not, he contends; in each, the influence of pernicious liberal ideas is weakening their capacity to promote virtue. Conservatism, then, means more than limiting government; indeed, it may mean expanding government. (Santorum proposes to create or expand numerous public programs.) Instead, conservatism requires a comprehensive struggle against liberal thought and policies.

As Santorum emphasizes, his interpretation of America draws heavily on Catholic social thought–especially on its pre-Vatican II version. (Vatican II’s emphasis on social justice and individual conscience are conspicuous by their absence in Santorum’s rendering.) The question is whether Catholic social thought, so understood, provides a sound basis for interpreting American constitutionalism.

It is certainly true that some of the Founders–notably George Washington and John Adams–argued that republican self-government depends on a virtuous citizenry. It is also true, as Santorum suggests, that the silence of the U.S. Constitution concerning institutions that form virtuous citizens does not necessarily mean that its drafters believed we could do without them. But it does not follow that they understood individual freedom the way St. Thomas did, or that they embraced an anti-individualistic, organic view of society.

In the first place, Santorum seems not to have reflected very deeply, if at all, on the Declaration of Independence. If he had, he would have been forced to observe that whatever the basic unit of society may be, the basic unit of political community is the individual. Equality is an attribute of individuals; rights attach to individuals; the securing of individual rights is the great object of government; and the consent of individuals defines its “just powers.” For better or worse, the Declaration adopts a classic social contract view, in which individual rights precede duties and the aggregation of individuals, not some larger organic whole, is the basis of political community.

Second, Santorum seems never to have read the key passages of the Federalist Papers in which James Madison–the father of the Constitution if anyone is–reflects on the relation between freedom and virtue in American political institutions. How can we avoid the concentration of governmental power that leads to tyranny? One possibility is to inculcate republican virtue–Cincinnatus voluntarily surrendering power after saving the Roman republic, Washington returning to his farm after leading the American revolutionary army to victory. This is not the road Madison takes. I quote from Federalist 51: “The provision for defense must… be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

Perhaps government is especially likely to bring out the worst in human nature; maybe society is the natural home of virtue and selflessness. Madison anticipates this move, and he rejects it: “This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect [that is, the absence or weakness] of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public.” The key to economic liberty lies in the multiplication of competing economic interests; the key to religious liberty lies in the multiplication of sects; and so on. Does this mean that there is no room for virtue, or no need for it, in American politics and society? Of course not, says Madison; but we should not assume that formative institutions–the family, schools, civil associations, religious institutions–will produce enough of it, even when they are working well. American constitutionalism, and American social thought understood through the prism of constitutionalism, argues that selfless devotion to the common good will always be in short supply, and that liberty is best secured through institutions and practices resting on darker but more realistic assumptions about human motivations.

One might have thought that Santorum would be drawn toward this kind of view. After all, he insists, the hallmark of conservatism is belief in original sin, unlike feckless liberals, who believe either in man’s natural goodness or in human nature as a tabula rasa on which society can work its formative powers. There is in fact a long tradition of what might be called “original sin liberalism,” the Christian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr. It was Niebuhr who cautioned us against the sin of pride, the belief (so conspicuous in the current administration) that we are an especially virtuous people. And it was Niebuhr who declared that “The sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world.” Santorum claims to believe in original sin, but in comparison to the Christian realists his outlook is closer to the soggy sentimentality of Norman Rockwell and Hallmark cards.

While Santorum claims to be founding a new kind of conservatism, he misses the opportunity to explore key differences between his outlook and that of other conservatives. One example must suffice. For nearly two centuries, conservatives have wrestled with the tension between a market economy and social solidarity. Markets are competitive and dynamic; they innovate by destabilizing settled arrangements (whence Joseph Schumpeter’s famous characterization of capitalism as “creative destruction”). By contrast, social ties depend on a measure of stability, a pace of change consistent with the rhythms of everyday family and community life. Santorum quotes ur-conservative Russell Kirk on “stewardship of a patrimony,” which he labels a “major theme” of his book, and he devotes hundreds of pages to the importance of traditional social bonds. But when he turns his attention to the economy, he presents himself as an orthodox, Reaganite supply-sider on taxes (in the finest libertarian tradition, he calls it a “freedom issue”) and as a proponent of George W. Bush’s “ownership society.” Not a word about what happens to main streets in small towns–the hub of social life–when WalMart arrives; not a word about the impact of trade and technology on long-established manufacturing facilities or about what happens to communities when they shut down; not even a passing mention of the link between a deregulated media market and the cultural coarsening he rightly deplores. A newly moralized conservatism, sure, but not if it offends the business community.

Santorum does tackle, however, a number of issues in a direct and honorable manner. He is right to discern a tension between the version of natural law he endorses and freedom understood as virtually unfettered autonomy. Many contemporary thinkers reinterpret, as arbitrary and malleable social constructions, human relations long regarded as natural. While such arguments are exposed to legitimate criticism, the devil is (as always) in the details. For example, in the course of an argument against gay marriage, Santorum speaks of the “given natures” of men and women. Does he mean to suggest that men and women “naturally” have different roles within the family or in the larger society, and that deviation from these roles is somehow unnatural? As he knows, or should know, nature-based arguments have been used throughout history to justify arbitrary and oppressive social relations. This does not mean that arguments from nature are always and in principle wrong. It does means that he owes his readers a much fuller argument about what nature requires and rules out.

Santorum is also right to focus on the family as a key site of character formation, and on the negative consequences for society when families fail to discharge this responsibility effectively. Taken together, however, these observations create a difficulty that goes to the heart of his argument. On the one hand, freedom rightly understood (as distinguished from no-fault freedom) requires an orientation toward duty and the common good. Choosing to act selfishly or immorally is an abuse of freedom that society may discourage or prevent. On the other hand, Santorum wants to insulate families from public power, especially when the upbringing of children is at stake. So families are free to raise children who are ignorant of, even hostile to, the “basic moral truths” at the heart of decent social and political life. As he puts it, “If you as a parent seriously do not want your child to be educated in these basic moral truths, then in our new family-focused educational model you can take your educational scholarships and head over to the Moral Relativism Academy, or for that matter the Church of the Golden Calf Elementary School, or wherever else you can find someone teaching the values that are important to you.”

In other words: Parents’ freedom is the highest value even when they reject moral truths and foster traits of character opposed to the virtues a decent society requires. This proposition resembles what Santorum castigates through his book as no-fault freedom, with the difference that the locus of freedom without virtue is the family rather than isolated individuals. But isn’t it worse for parents to abuse freedom than for isolated individuals to do so? In the latter case, the harm is diffuse and indirect; in the former, direct and highly concentrated.

In the end, Santorum does not have the courage of his convictions. The logic of his argument should lead him to conclude that parents are not free to raise and educate their children in ways that undermine universal moral truths and socially essential virtues. He shrinks from this conclusion, I suspect, because he understands that his fellow citizens would never accept it. Yet, his premises point straight toward the ultimate concentration of state power we call theocracy. Nothing could be farther from the intention of the Framers in whose name Santorum claims to speak.

William A. Galston is Saul Stern Professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy and was Deputy Assistant to President Bill Clinton for Domestic Policy from 1993 to 1995. His most recent book is the Practice of Liberal Pluralism (Cambridge, 2004).

William A. Galston is Saul Stern Professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy and was Deputy Assistant to President Bill Clinton for Domestic Policy from 1993 to 1995. His most recent book is the Practice of Liberal Pluralism (Cambridge, 2004).

William A. Galston

William A. Galston is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.