The challenge of reconciling the socially conservative and economic-libertarian wings of conservatism and the Republican Party has garnered a lot of attention in print as well as on this website. [Editor's note: Please see the comments by readers under this article.] As many contemporary commentators have recognized, a possible "fusion" of traditionalists and libertarians has challenged the movement and party for decades.
The debate is of more than theoretical interest to Catholics and other people of faith because the Republican Party is the only politically viable vehicle for the right-to-life movement at this moment in U.S. history. While the recent elections did bring some successes for pro-life Democrats, it will be a long time before this movement gains critical mass in the modern Democratic Party.
On October 7, 1986, I offered these thoughts on the matter in the pages of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, no longer in existence. I believe they are still relevant to the ongoing debate. With the permission of Martin Duggan, the former editor of the Globe's editorial page, I offer it for readers of Catholic Exchange.
Within the Republican Party, the economic and social conservatives warily eye one another as they co-exist, apprehensively, as part of the Reagan Coalition. These two factions of the GOP, along with the proponents of a strong military and foreign policy posture, have accounted for the phenomenal staying power of President Reagan since his 1976 attempt to unseat fellow Republican Gerald Ford.
The economic conservatives view the concerns of the social conservatives — abortion, family values, school prayer, welfare reform, and the like — as distractions from what they consider to be the real business of America and the Republican Party: business. The economic conservatives may differ amongst themselves as to the various matters such as tax reform or free trade, but they are united in their view that economic growth and prosperity is the primary object of the political enterprise. To squander valuable political capital on such risky issues as, for example, pornography or busing, undermines the effort to create jobs and wealth.
The social conservatives, while agreeing with the economic conservatives on most of the pro-growth agenda, believe passionately that man does not live by bread alone. In their view an exclusive preoccupation with the material or economic dimension in national affairs is more appropriate to hedonists or Marxists. They point to Abraham Lincoln, the founder of the Republican Party, as an example of a political leader who discerned the priority of moral and philosophic concerns over those of a purely economic outlook. Slavery was evil, period.
Many Republican candidates, out of sheer political opportunism, give lip service to the conservative social agenda without really internalizing any consistent philosophy reconciling this agenda with that of the economic or free market conservatives. Upon election to office, they soon put the social issues behind them and get on with the economic agenda.
This pattern, repeated too often, is certain to alienate those very constituencies which have energized the Republican Party beyond anything ever contemplated by the traditional business interests which have dominated the GOP for decades. Is it any wonder that George Bush [Senior] and Jack Kemp, hearing footsteps over their shoulders, turn to find Pat Robertson closing fast in the 1988 Presidential Primary?
If the Republican Party is to continue as a party of governance, capitalizing on the desertion of the Democratic Party by Catholics, Fundamentalists, and younger voters concerned about the future of the economy, it must search out the means to justify the ways of the social conservatives to the free marketers.
The social conservatives need to articulate more fully the indispensable role that religion, morality, family, and social order play in sustaining and protecting a relatively free market system found in America. This truth has been lost sight of in this libertarian age. In other words, "economic life naturally does not go on in a moral vacuum."
This at least was the view of one of the greatest free market economists, Wilhelm Röpke, usually referred to as the architect of the post-war economic boom of Western Germany. In his book, A Humane Economy, which appeared in this country in 1960, Röpke set out clearly the essential fusion of a free market and the social context necessary for its survival:
Self-discipline, a sense of justice, honesty, fairness, chivalry, moderation, public spirit, respect for human dignity, firm ethical norms — all of these are things which people must possess before they go to the market and compete with each other. These are the indispensable supports which preserve both market and competition from degeneration. Family, church, genuine communities, and tradition are their sources.
The free market does not spontaneously generate the morality and virtues vital to its existence. Without them, competition degenerates into a dog-eat-dog struggle inviting government intervention; welfare programs fall victim to insurmountable problems of family breakdown; and crime, drug addiction, and other self-destructive behavior debases the citizenry and the work force.
Neighborhoods, churches, families, and the like offer mediating structures between the atomistic individual and the monolithic state. The family must be restored as the primary focus of economic, social, political, and legal policy. Without it the Welfare State is, at best, an irrelevancy; at worst, an immense burden on those family units still intact.
The Republicans wandered in the political wilderness for decades, barely surviving on the gruel of an exclusively economic and business orientation. If they now jettison those constituencies grouped around the social issues, they will have forgotten the lessons of the 1972, 1980, and 1984 Presidential elections.
G. Tracy Mehan, III, served at the U.S. E.P.A. in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. A consultant in Arlington, VA, he is also an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.