This is not to say that the law must prohibit every vice or mandate every virtue, as libertarians often suggest. Aristotle, Aquinas, the Declaration itself all make clear that “prudence will dictate” whether the costs outweigh the benefits in concrete circumstances (e.g., difficulty of enforcement; more pressing needs with scarce resources; the danger of encouraging underground crime, etc.). But this is prudence in the service of principle, not mere pragmatism.
7. Government should not interfere in the free market. Because they oppose commerce in things that are intrinsically immoral and harmful, such as hard drugs, prostitution, or obscene materials, conservatives are accused by libertarians of opposing the free market. This is false. Conservatives value the free market as much as libertarians, as a means for mutually beneficial exchanges, as an occasion for the exercise of virtues such as creativity, cooperation, industry, honesty, and thrift, and as an indispensable source of information (through the pricing mechanism) for individuals on the best use of resources.
But conservatives oppose the “total market,” in which all human associations, such as families and churches, are falsely remade in the image of ordinary contracts, and in which all voluntary (short of force or fraud) contracts between consenting adults are enforced by law. In the libertarian universe there are no citizens, only consumers.
For conservatives, private property and the free market are important institutions for human flourishing, but their value and success critically depend upon non-market institutions such as the family and the political association, as well as a moral and cultural milieu favorable to honesty, trust, industry, and other important virtues. When the use of private property and market exchanges have spillover effects that adversely effect these other institutions and individuals, they are subject to reasonable limits by law. This is the understanding of law and morality that lies behind the common law, was embraced by the states after the American Revolution, and although under steady assault by modern liberals and libertarians, continues in America to this day.
8. The only alternative to libertarianism is totalitarianism. This is a false dilemma. Between the fantasies of libertarianism and totalitarianism is the wide spectrum of governments that have actually existed through most of human history. The false dilemma is often associated with the slippery slope fallacy: If people are given the power to coerce in one area, they will eventually coerce in all areas. Libertarians rarely give the cause or reason why this must be true, and conservatives deny that it is true.
Conservatives recognize the dangers of moral fanaticism, but they insist, with historical evidence to back them up, that the remedy is not to facilitate the debauchery of society by eliminating the props to good moral character, but to reinforce and support those props.
9. Libertarianism is based upon a realistic understanding of human nature.Libertarians accuse conservatives of being utopian or naïve about human nature. Self-regarding actions are sufficient for producing a free and prosperous society, they argue. Moreover, power by its very nature corrupts human beings and therefore should be narrowly circumscribed and vigilantly watched.
Conservatives reply that it is the libertarians who are utopian for failing to give proper weight to the full range of human motives, and to the exigencies of a free society and limited government. They concur with James Madison’s observation in Federalist No. 55: “As there is a degree of depravity in mankind, which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust: so there are other qualities in human nature, which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these [latter] qualities in a higher degree than any other form.”
Public virtue alone is not sufficient to secure limited government, but it is foolish to think that it can be dispensed with altogether. If the despotism of George III caused the American Revolution, the virtue of George Washington was necessary to conclude it. “The aim of every political constitution,” Madison writes inFederalist No. 57, is “first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust.” Here, from the “Father of the Constitution,” is a sober constitutional principle based upon a true realism.