Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Paul vs. Grayson: Where will Kentucky social conservatives go?

There is a palpable sense of interest in the candidacy of Rand Paul, but you also get the sense that neither candidate Jim Bunning's U. S. Senate seat--neither he nor Trey Grayson--has even remotely closed the deal with an important part of the Republican electorate in Kentucky: the social conservatives.

Both candidates seem to be solid on the pro-life position. Some pro-life leaders seem satisfied that Grayson has demonstrated his bona fides on the issue. Paul's statements tend to focus on his opposition to federal funding of abortion, and prefers a legislative solution to the issue rather than the Constitution amendment preferred by many pro-life activists. These statements have caused some concern over his position.

Still, he has stated his belief that life "begins at conception," and that abortion results in the deaths of unborn children. That certain puts him solidly in the pro-life camp.

Grayson too will have live down his past flirtation with casino gambling as a way to fund the government, making some work for him to convince the largely anti-casino church voters that he is one of them.

Part of the initial reticence on Paul (and to a certain extent Grayson, whose stated political positions--when you can determine them--tend toward the same fundamental assumptions) has to do with his libertarian political philosophy. On past occasions, I have referred to libertarianism as "conservatism without a soul." What I mean by that is that the libertarian philosophy is centered around an animosity toward government coercion. But that is a procedural position, and covers only procedural issues, like free market economics and school choice.

Libertarians tend to avoid issues that call on them to make any kind of value judgment, which makes them uncomfortable on questions like abortion and same sex marriage and casino gambling. These issues require value judgments that their libertarianism does not equip them to make.

Traditionalist conservatism, on the other hand, is more universal in its assumptions, and does not limit itself to the mechanics of governing. It acknowledges the classical idea that there is such a thing as the common good, and that our goal as citizens is not to stay out of each other's way, but to approximate the common good. That doesn't contradict the position of small government, it just puts it in its proper place: subordinate to the common good.

William F. Buckley used to like to quote Richard Weaver's famous definition of conservatism: "The true conservative is one who sees the universe as a paradigm of essences, of which the phenomenology of the world is a sort of continuing approximation." If you think about that long enough, you'll realize that what he means is that the conservative recognizes that there are transcendent standards which are applicable to our lives together as citizens and that facilitate our ability as a society to approximate justice. The traditionalist conservative will balance this with the Burkean idea of tradition.

What many libertarians fail to see is that freedom is itself a value like any other, and they need to ask themselves, "Why this value and no other?" They actually make value judgments all the time. It's just that they recognize only one value.

Social conservatives are more in line with traditional conservatism, and do not shy away from talking about the larger body of issues affecting the common good.

Both Paul and Grayson have work to do here to flesh out where they stand on issues that social conservatives find important. Right now, Paul has slight edge, since his positions on a number of issues (not all) are plainly stated and freely available. Grayson's are not.

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