David Michael Miller
Donald Trump’s election proved that pitting Americans against each other can be a wildly rewarding political strategy. With a masterful divider now at the helm, civility will surely deteriorate even further over the next four years.
As a libertarian-leaning conservative living on the isthmus, I am used to being the odd man out, politically. It’s never really been a problem, in terms of keeping up neighborly relations.
But intense polarization, coupled with the widespread misidentification of President Trump as a conservative, has me feeling a little defensive lately. Some people have misconceptions about why I believe what I believe. These misconceptions do not reflect well on my character. So please indulge me while I clear a few of them up.
Though I oppose most aspects of the welfare state, I genuinely care about poor people. Charity is a moral obligation. Like many conservatives, I voluntarily hand over a portion of my income to organizations that help the needy. I am grateful to be in a position to do so. I also give quite a bit involuntarily, through the taxes I am forced to pay. I have considerably less enthusiasm for this portion of my giving. For one thing, the systems through which government redistributes wealth are inefficient. Sometimes, they’re even counterproductive. But my main gripe about government-forced charity is that it really isn’t “giving” at all.
Americans are, by nature, among the most generous people in the world. Witness the outpouring of donations any time there is a mass disaster.
But when it comes to giving a routine hand-up, we have largely ceded our moral duty to the state. If, at some point, the government becomes unable to maintain its “safety net,” will we have it in us to rekindle the mutual aid associations of yesteryear? Or have we been conditioned to believe that only government, through its massive bureaucracies, can bear such responsibility?
Speaking of massive bureaucracies, I sometimes oppose federal action because, and only because, it encroaches on powers reserved for state and local governments. We conservatives take constitutional federalism — the vertical separation of powers between levels of government — very seriously. As the U.S. Supreme Court put it, in a unanimous decision from 2011, federalism “secures to the citizens the liberties that derive from the diffusion of sovereign power.”
Congressional conservatives who opposed the 2012 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act were savaged by feminist groups. The dominant media narrative at the time held that insensitivity toward domestic violence was the only possible reason for opposing the legislation. But, as many of the holdouts correctly insisted, the text of the Constitution claims only a few enumerated “police powers” — authority over matters of law and order — for the federal government. Policing domestic violence is not among them.
Of course, supposedly conservative lawmakers can be terribly hypocritical when it comes to issues of local control. But my point is that constitutional federalism is a perfectly legitimate reason to oppose an otherwise worthy federal law.
There are other reasons one might oppose an ostensibly laudable government intervention. So my sensitivity to a problem cannot always be judged by whether I want the government to fix it.
I would not patronize a bakery that refuses to service same-sex weddings. And I agree that there is a social benefit when government steps in to sanction bakery owners who engage in such discriminatory behavior.
But there is also a cost. These interventions debase the property rights of bakery owners. Conservatives like me care an awful lot about property rights.
I am actually undecided on the bakery issue. But if I were to conclude that government should leave demurring bakers alone, it would not be because I support same-sex marriage any less fervently than progressives do. It would be because I care more than they do about property rights.
Progressives, on the whole, strike me as quite cavalier in their cost/benefit analyses of such issues. Though they profess to value personal freedom, they seem to take no account of its diminution when government intervenes to coerce behavior. Progressives see the benefits of society-by-design, but are apparently blind to its costs.
Finally, to address a particularly irksome accusation, I do not hate government. In fact, I love it. Hobbes was correct that life in its absence would be “nasty, brutish, and short.” But it’s true what they say about too much of a good thing. At some point in its growth, government inevitably starts violating rights instead of protecting them.
I understand why people attack the motives of their political opponents. It’s easier and more emotionally gratifying than engaging through reason. But aside from being an affront to civility, attacking motives is a groundless stratagem. Most everyone I know, be they right or left, is motivated by what they perceive to be the best interests of their city, state, country and world. We would do well to keep that in mind when dealing with those on the opposite side of the political divide.
Michael Cummins is a Madison-based business analyst.