Saturday, January 26, 2008

McCain, Libertarianism, and Uniting the GOP

Benjamin Storey and Jenna Silber Storey make a compelling case for John McCain as the truest conservative in the race for the Republican nomination. As Will Wilkinson argues, theirs is essentially a case for "national greatness conservatism." They make the point that John McCain's appeal arises out of his commitment to virtue as the ultimate goal of society rather than commitment to any one ideology. For instance, they say, an ideological commitment to free markets misses the point - free markets are merely often useful tools for permitting virtue to flourish in a nation.

With McCain's sense of virtue guiding his thought rather than a commitment to any one "conservative" ideology (or for that matter a commitment to the party platform), they argue that McCain is the truest representative of conservatism in the race.

They make a major flaw in their argument, though. They assume that "virtue" (as they and/or McCain defines it) is not an ideology unto itself. But their concept of virtue is in fact an ideology unto itself- it is an ideology which holds that the goal of the state is to encourage (or require) virtuous behavior amongst its citizens. It is an ideology which I find personally distasteful, but it is an ideology nonetheless.

Still, they are correct in their implication that McCain's ideology of virtue is the best representative of the modern Republican conservative movement. This ideology of virtue in fact explains why McCain is able to (with some obvious and notable exceptions) adhere relatively closely to the Republican party line without sounding like a complete robot along the lines of Mitt Romney. The major difference between McCain and Romney, then, is that McCain's personal ideology roughly lines up with the Republican platform, whereas Romney's ideology actually is dictated by the Republican platform. As such, the Storeys' argument serves as profound support for my longstanding argument that McCain is the only candidate actually capable of unifying the old Republican coalition of interest groups, most of which have a somewhat similar concept of virtue at their core.

Alas, the Storeys' article also makes clear that there is no place for libertarians in that coalition any more:

"The problem with absolute faith in any ideology, including that of the free market, becomes evident with a glance at the flagship publication of the libertarians, Reason magazine. It is no coincidence that Reason publishes hagiographies of Milton Freedman as well as pleas for drug legalization and appreciations of cartoon pornography: economic libertarianism, elevated to the status of inviolable first principle, leads to moral libertarianism. The moral vacuity of dogmatic libertarianism is poisonous to public life. By teaching that 'greed is good,' strict free-market ideology holds out the promise that private vices can be public virtues."

This of course is a repeat of the old "libertarians are libertines" fallacy. In fact, libertarians believe that virtue is a noble and worthy goal of society; in some ways, a virtuous society is even the penultimate goal of most libertarians. However, I (and I suspect most libertarians) have a much different concept of virtue. The Storeys (and by implication McCain) think that virtue arises simply by doing good and virtuous things. Libertarians, however, see virtue as arising from the act of individual choice to do good and virtuous things. To the libertarian, an otherwise virtuous act undertaken with a proverbial gun to your head loses its virtue. It is the very voluntariness of an act that makes it virtuous, not the act istelf. It would appear that McCain's ideology of virtue does not accept this concept, but instead begins and ends with the principle that virtue comes from virtuous action rather than virtuous choices.

Although I find this ideology of virtue deeply flawed, to the extent that this ideology actually motivates McCain, he is worthy of profound respect. His is an ideology in which ends do not justify means, as the means themselves must be consistent with his principles. As such, he has admirably stood up against waterboarding, torture, and abuse of executive power. That is more than can be said about the man without a real ideology other than his own thirst for power, in which his ideology becomes simply a blind adherence to the party line. Since the party line merely represents a conglomeration of priority issues for various party constituent groups, such an ideology lacks any common theme or principle, and is utterly incoherent. As I've argued elsewhere, such an unprincipled ideology creates deep partisanship, hatred, and a deep willingness to abuse power and disregard institutions.

However, McCain's ideology of virtue is also an ideology that is extremely un-libertarian and illiberal in general. As such, libertarians must remain extremely wary of the prospects of a McCain presidency. I still think he is the least-bad Republican (of those with a real chance to win the nomination) from a libertarian standpoint, if only because his ideology is not apparently rooted in his own thirst for power. But after reading this article, it's also quite clear that he is anything but friendly to libertarians. At least he and the Storeys are being honest about that fact.