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Conservative Contradictions
If distinctions seem like hypocrisy, so be it.


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Jonah Goldberg

Continuing the grand tradition of conservatives getting published in the Washington Post solely so they can criticize other conservatives, Evan Gahr of the Hudson Institute sermonizes on a “dangerous kind of GOP hypocrisy.” Gahr is profoundly concerned by the fact that conservatives treat gay marriage with one standard and readjust the Consumer Price Index with a totally different one.

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No wait, that’s not right. Sorry. Gahr actually denounces the fact that conservatives and Republicans (he uses the terms synonymously, a very bad habit) apply different standards for drug policy than they use for gun control.

With the reporting assistance of regular NRO contributor Seth Gitell, Gahr lists a series of statements by prominent and not-so-prominent conservatives on the issues of guns and drugs, ostensibly illustrating that conservatives have one standard for drug policy and another for gun policy. For example, conservatives constantly argue in the case of drugs that we need more and more draconian measures. But, at the same, conservatives argue that passing more gun laws would be pointless. Another example: Conservatives (allegedly) denounce “root-causes” arguments when it comes to drugs but we embrace them when it comes to guns. Gahr concludes that, “Conservatives seem prepared to play John Stuart Mill on guns one minute and William Bennett on drugs the next,” he concludes.

Now, there are a lot of tendentious assertions here. For example, I don’t think cultural conservatives have ever rejected the idea that “root causes” are unacceptable modes of analysis. Rather, they’ve (we’ve) rejected the use of “root causes” as code for “poverty.” Most of the conservatives I know make root-causes arguments all the time, they’re just talking about the culture. That includes Bill Bennett, by the way, whose appeal to many people is that he (like neoconservatives generally) can make utilitarian arguments in favor of immutable standards.

But let’s stick to the 800-pound straw man. Gahr rather boldly declares that no one can “seriously dispute that guns are a far more immediate and dangerous threat” than drugs. “Who was the last teenager to massacre his classmates with a bong?” he wonders aloud.

But doesn’t this give away the store? Of course, he’s correct that nobody massacred his classmates with a bong. Similarly, last time I checked, nobody ever defended his family from a burglar or rapist with an ounce of primo Thai stick either. Moreover, the ranks of derelicts and bums are hardly teeming with folks with an insatiable addiction to Smith & Wessons. And that’s the point. Gahr simply asserts that drugs and guns are interchangeable when it comes to social policy. And, if you buy this analogy, I suppose it’s a perfectly fine argument.

But guns and drugs — like the adjusted CPI and gay marriage — are not the same thing. And, because they are not the same thing, there’s really nothing wrong about having a different standard for guns and drugs.

Gahr glibly concludes his piece, “Hey Bob Barr and friends: how about one standard for both plagues?” Um, because they are very different “plagues.” They may, from time to time, both result in premature deaths and other tragedies, but that is true of auto accidents and AIDS; surely these plagues don’t require one standard as well? Indeed, I am sure that most of the non-libertarian proponents of drug legalization favor severe prohibition of illegal firearms.

Hell, there’s nothing wrong with having different standards for different drugs. I favor marijuana decriminalization and eventual legalization because marijuana is very different than cocaine or heroin — drugs I want to keep illegal. Indeed, even the most “William Bennett” of conservatives doesn’t favor prohibition for alcohol, which may seem, or even be, hypocritical — but hypocrisy never invalidates an argument, it merely invites greater scrutiny. Regardless, surely, if we can — and do — draw serious differences between public policies aimed at different drugs, it isn’t ludicrous to draw significant distinctions between narcotics and firearms.

Gahr’s piece, entitled “Fellow Conservatives: Our Position is Hypocritical,” is billed as some much-needed truth-telling for the conservative movement (which is almost always the rationale for guest conservatives in the Washington Post). This is the greatest irony, because his critique itself is quite un-conservative. Conservatism is unafraid of superficial contradictions that violate facile — and even not-so-facile — notions of hypocrisy. Conservatism recognizes that life is far more complicated than a simple set of rules. “The nature of man is intricate,” Burke argued, “the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity; and therefore no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man’s nature or to the quality of his affairs.”

Conservatism is about drawing useful distinctions, always in the context of doing the right thing. If such distinctions seem like hypocrisy to the gang at the Washington Post or to Mr. Gahr, so be it. But, if you’re going to volunteer as a Movement Whip, at least use the right whip.



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