Monday, March 2, 2009

Dangerous Elisions

In the midst of his take-down of Rush Limbaugh, Rod Dreher offers an interesting moment of syntax (emphasis mine):
Let me tell you who we conservatives are: We love people. [Applause] When we look out over the United States of America, when we are anywhere, when we see a group of people, such as this or anywhere, we see Americans. We see human beings. We don't see groups. We don't see victims. We don't see people we want to exploit. What we see -- what we see is potential. We do not look out across the country and see the average American, the person that makes this country work. We do not see that person with contempt. We don't think that person doesn't have what it takes. We believe that person can be the best he or she wants to be if certain things are just removed from their path like onerous taxes, regulations and too much government.

This is a comforting lie. It is Rousseau conservatism: the idea that man is born innocent, but corrupted by society, or government. Remove the chains of government, and man will return to his natural, good state, which is one of limitless possibility. This denies two bedrock truths of philosophical conservatism, which are that 1) human nature is fallen, and 2) man must learn to live within limits. A conservatism that is not founded on a conscious recognition of those two truths is a false conservatism, and has a shaky foundation from which to criticize liberal utopianism.

While perhaps there is a trace of utopian sentiment in this passage quoted from Limbaugh, the idea that certain government regulations can stifle individual achievement is hardly a Rousseauian idea. Limbaugh's statement is also hardly one of a radical Rousseauian anarchist. He is not attacking all forms of government but merely "onerous taxes, regulations, and too much government."

Moreover, there is a huge distinction between society and government. Society involves the complex of our daily interactions and habits; government is but a single institution of society. Most (if not all) conservative and all authentically liberal political philosophies depend upon recognizing that distinction between government and society. It is quite possible to criticize the extent of government power and to still acknowledge human limitations. Indeed, it would seem as though an acknowledgment of human limits could very easily align with the support of political and economic liberty. (This alignment was itself one of the principles of the American Founders.)

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