Rod Dreher (a.k.a., the “Crunchy Con”) has a really interesting post up as the latest installment in his gay-marriage debate with Andrew Sullivan and Damon Linker. It isn’t so much about that specific debate, as it is about the philosophical divide that this debate exposes. “Debates about debates” can get pretty tiresome, but I think that this one is quite important.
Rod begins with a long quote from Alasdair MacIntyre about the concept that I have called moral axioms, and their inescapability in political debates. Here’s an excerpt of a post in which I give my version of this basic idea:
Those who believe that basically all non-coercive behavior should be legal can surely make many such arguments. Any such moral argument, however, will ultimately rest on a set of beliefs that could be characterized as being “coughed up by an unconscious emotion”. We might call these, in a less loaded term, moral axioms. You don’t get a free pass out of this game by just saying you favor any non-coercive behavior, because either the restriction on coercion must itself be a moral axiom, or it must, in turn, rest upon some other more fundamental moral axioms.
The funny thing about axioms is that if they are so basic that pretty much everybody agrees with them, then reasoning from them to conclusions about specific policies will often lead different people to very different conclusions. If, on the other hand, they are highly developed, then lots of people won’t agree that they are axioms. Similarly, advocates for such a system of laws can surely make many smart prudential arguments that the vast majority of people will be vastly better off materially under such a system of laws. Of course, lots of people will be convinced by these arguments, but lots will not. In fact, many, many millions of people in the world actually believe that Sharia-level restrictions on personal behavior are appropriate.
What do we do to resolve this impasse when we’ve said all we have to say and there is no reasonable prospect that more talking will create agreement? Our choices are “whoever controls the most guns rules”, or toleration. This is what leads me, for all but the most fundamental of issues, to subsidiarity.
Rod’s post then goes on with a couple of very long quotes from traditionalist conservative Jim Kalb who sounds, at some points at least, like he’s channeling Hayek. I tried to put this into political context in a more recent post in which I said that a tactical alliance of social conservatives and libertarians is advisable for both groups:
I think that the prevalence of the social conservative worldview, broadly defined, is on a long-term downward trajectory in the United States. I make this as an attempt at a descriptive, not normative, statement.
This obviously might change. To some extent, this trend is a product of increasing material abundance, and a truly catastrophic reduction in living standards would likely reverse it, as an example. But the environment in which we live increasingly is one in which it grows ever-more-difficult to maintain a national legal regime that permits any implicit or explicit preferences for a traditional way of life.
What this means for traditionalists is that the best they can hope for is a national government with minimum scope of authority, because it will tend to use whatever authority it has for ends that they don’t like.
As I’ve argued previously, I think that a proper understanding of libertarian thought should call for restraint in imposing uniform national rules, even some rules designed to prevent localities from restricting some individual autonomy.
This is not an alliance of soul mates, but one of shared interests. This also implies a view of politics that is more about building sewers than cathedrals. It’s necessary work, and in a certain frame of mind can be inspiring in its effects; but it’s low to the ground and full of muck.