Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Reading Room: 'The Tyranny of Conservative Clichés'

[This came to me in yesterday's "New Common Sense" e-newsletter from The Heritage Foundation. It's spot-on, an excellent illustration of how right-wing ideologues tend to make shit up that supports a neo-conservative agenda but sabotages the cause of Liberty.]

The Tyranny of Conservative Clichés

Everyone has an ideology -- a set of bedrock principles through which to view the world. Jonah Goldberg is cool with that. But he has a problem with people -- mainly liberals -- who deny having an ideology. In his latest book, The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas, Goldberg argues that liberals hide their ideology behind tired aphorisms, such as "violence never solved anything" or the Constitution is a "living document."

Unlike liberals, conservatives admit to having an ideology (although we prefer the term philosophy). We are also comfortable enough with our intellectual history that we don't shy away from arguments, invoking authorities from the Bible and Publius to Hayek and Reagan. Nevertheless, conservatives use clichés, as everyone does. Here are some we should avoid:

"America is a Christian Nation."

It's tempting unleash this cliché when confronted with the Left’s hostility towards religion. But, fellow conservatives, resist.

Yes, Christian morals and many biblical principles influenced the American Founders, and yes, Christianity has thrived in America. But America is not a Christian Nation in the strict sense of the term: Christianity isn’t the official religion to the exclusion of all others, nor is it the basis for membership in the political community.

The better way to defend Christianity's place in the public square is by arguing for religious liberty. The Founders all agreed that practitioners of every faith have a right to the free exercise of their religion -- in their houses of worship and in the public square. They enshrined that right in the First Amendment. Why use an inaccurate cliché when you have the original meaning of the First Amendment on your side?

"States' Rights"

Yes, the Federal Government is out of control. But, sometimes we utter two little words that undermine our entire constitutional system rather than protecting it from unlimited government: states' rights.

States don't have rights. People do.

Nowhere in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution are states or any other government -- federal, state, or local -- said to possess rights. Rather, states have powers. The much beloved, if often ignored, Tenth Amendment says "the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

Not only is it incorrect to speak of states' rights, but the expression was the rallying cry of segregationists. Since no right-thinking conservative abides such arguments, let’s just drop the term "states' rights" once and for all.

If you're concerned about federal encroachments on state sovereignty or the erosion of federalism -- as you should be -- then speak of federal encroachments on state sovereignty or the erosion of federalism. Or, of the need to restore limited constitutional government, reinvigorate local self-government, decentralize power, and check the growth of out-of-control government. With so many great formulations to choose from, why weaken the case for liberty by relying on "states' rights"?

"That's Socialism"

American conservatives needlessly undermine their arguments by labeling every liberal program or policy as "socialism." This claim is incorrect -- American liberals are generally progressives, not socialists. Socialism, strictly speaking, involves the government’s ownership of the means of production in a society. In a socialist economy, there are no private corporations that manufacture goods. Factories and companies belong to the state. By contrast, progressives are more insidious in allowing for markets and private ownership of corporations, while controlling them through extensive regulation and government spending.

Conservatives need not rely on the S word to argue against liberals -- there's plenty wrong with progressivism. Better yet, demonstrate what's wrong in principle and in practice with a particular liberal program instead of relying on a debatable label.

"Small Government"

We conservatives are against "big government," so we must be for "small government," right? Wrong. We're for limited government. Here is the difference. The Constitution creates a federal government of enumerated (read: limited) powers. When Congress acts within its legitimate scope -- for instance, national defense -- then it can do a lot. There is nothing inherently contradictory about a limited government conservative supporting strong national defense, because that is within the federal government's constitutional responsibility. On the other hand, for areas outside of the federal government's constitutional scope (Obamacare, anyone?), there is no role -- big, small, or medium.

Conservatives use clichés, but not because we shy away from arguments or deny having an ideology. Clichés can be true statements summarizing a longer argument: "there's no such thing as a free lunch" demonstrates that everything has a cost that someone must shoulder. Or clichés can be incorrect arguments masquerading as obvious statements. It's the latter that conservatives should eradicate from our language.