The Pennsylvania Senate race between social conservative Rick Santorum and his Democratic challenger, Bob Casey Jr., is one of the most closely watched contests in the nation. Ryan Sager’s recent book, The Elephant in the Room, argues that the 25-year conservative coalition between evangelicals and libertarians may finally be unraveling. His suggestion is that the Republican party steer away from the religious Right and replace those voters with new non-religious allies in the West. This, he believes, will rebuild the minimum government ideological core of the party.
However true this may be at the national level, a Republican in a state-wide race obviously can’t reach out to Western voters. The real question is whether Santorum can attract enough voters with sufficient enthusiasm to defeat his lackluster opponent. I think Republicans should shore up their coalition by offering libertarian reasons for social-conservative positions. Many of the issues that resonate most with religious voters can be framed as fiscal issues or as minimum government issues to appeal to the non-religious libertarian voter, Sager thinks the Republican party should court.
Project Vote Smart shows how various advocacy groups rank elected officials. Scroll down to the “family and children’s” issues. The Children’s Defense Fund scores Rick Santorum as voting with their issues 11 percent of the time, meaning he agreed with them on one issue out of 9. On the same category of issues, Senator Santorum voted with the interests of the Family Research Council 100 percent of the time in 2004, the most recent year for which they produced Senate rankings.
So what kinds of policies toward “family and children” are we talking about? The Children’s Defense Fund opposes the Bush tax cuts. They call it “Paying for Wealthy Americans Tax Cuts.” They oppose repealing the death tax. They advocate increased government spending for health and education. Not one word from the Children’s Defense Fund about children being raised in married couple, two-parent households, which would in the end result in less necessity for government assistance. Just item after item of increased government social spending.
Their approach to helping children and families is for the government to take over the economic function of the family. Hardly a libertarian organization. If they don’t like Rick Santorum, that’s probably a good sign for advocates of minimum government and fiscal restraint.
On the other hand, Santorum gets high marks from the Family Research Council, an organization widely associated with the social-conservative movement, and strongly supported by religious voters. What issues have they cared about recently?
Among the 13 issues they listed as important for 2005, not a single one required additional federal expenditure. The Family Research Council supported positions that would reduce taxpayer expenditures, including reducing taxpayer funding for abortions in military hospitals, for coercive U.N. abortion policies, and reducing funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. The Family Research Council favors making the repeal of the death tax permanent. The FRC supported legislation preventing enforcement of the Kelo private-property seizure decision, opposed extending federal hate crimes to additional protected classes, and supported parental notification for abortion. These policies are much more closely attuned to libertarian sensibilities than anything the Children’s Defense Fund has offered, or is ever likely to offer.
As if that weren’t enough evidence for fiscal conservatives, the National Taxpayers Union Foundation rated Santorum either A or B for all of his twelve years in the Senate.
A libertarian might consider children and family issues intrinsically unimportant. But if you are going to be in the political game at all, you need to accept the fact that these issues are important to large numbers of people. If we don’t address them, non-conservatives will. We will get the Children’s Defense Fund, big government approach by default. Besides, the question of how a society supports the next generation is intrinsically important, too important to leave to chance, or to ignore, or to give the statists among us a free hand.
Some libertarians might say they can’t support Santorum because of his positions on gay rights. But the gay-rights movement as it currently exists in the United States is not a libertarian movement. First, it advocates using the power of the state to impose its vision of non-discrimination on private individuals and organizations. Second and more importantly, a truly free society requires a vibrant sphere of civil society, a realm made up of nongovernmental organizations solving problems and building community. True civil society includes a plurality of institutional forms and reflects a plurality of beliefs, values and styles.
The gay-rights movement has particularly targeted the institutions of civil society. Attorneys from the Lambda Legal Fund have used the power of the state to impose its vision of “tolerance” on one private social institution after another. They shut down adoption agencies and sue private schools. They have literally chased the Boy Scouts from one end of California to another, simply because the Boy Scouts refuse to conform to their agenda.
Let’s put it this way: If you’d vote for Bob Casey Jr. over Rick Santorum because of their respective positions on gay rights, you’re not a libertarian. You are a single-issue gay-rights voter.
Rick Santorum and other social conservatives may not be every conservative’s cup of tea. Some of his issues and rhetoric may make you uncomfortable. Personally, I can’t think of any politician who doesn’t give me the heebie-jeebies some of the time. But fiscal conservatives and libertarians, can vote for Rick Santorum with a clean conscience.
– Jennifer Roback Morse is senior research fellow in economics at the Acton Institute, and the author of Love and Economics and Smart Sex: Finding Life-long Love in a Hook-up World.