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Arguing social conservatism in a technocracy

The socially traditionalist Right hasn’t been making its case in a way that makes sense to people who don’t already accept socially traditionalist views. The result is that social conservatives are made to look like crazies and people have no idea what their answers are. When the Supreme Court sees people who don’t want to have a “gay rights” ordinance the Court can’t conceive that they might have a reason other than irrational “animus.” In what passes for mainstream discussion, the relevant issues evidently never get raised.

The ultimate answer to the problem is no doubt a basic reorientation of public understandings. Still, you can’t insist on changing the world before you make your pitch. What letters do you write to the editor today? What do you say to relatives or co-workers who think things are OK and ask why you think they’re so bad?

The issue, it seems, is why ordinary people should treat the PC welfare state as their enemy. It’s not obvious to a lot of them. After all, apart from taxes left/liberal programs don’t immediately invade individual and domestic happiness. Their most obvious effect is to help people with problems, protect the weak from insult and injury, help people follow their inclinations and so on.

To see the evil done by managerial liberalism you have to take a broader perspective. That can be difficult, because the people responsible for broader perspectives — the experts — usually favor managerial liberalism. After all, the need to administer everything creates a bull market in expertise.

Still, the experts’ monopoly on knowledge and discussion isn’t absolute. The collapse of socialism has forced economically conservative arguments into the mainstream. Government can’t rearrange day-to-day life without taking it over. It can’t respond to individual details, so when it takes things over it runs them bureaucratically, like the post office. If it helps people with problems more people will claim to have problems, and fewer will avoid them or solve them on their own or with help from those who know them. And so on.

What might help social conservatives make their views seem at least sane to non-conservatives is to put them in similar functional form: social liberalism is very much like socialism. It’s an attempt to replace traditional institutions like family, religion, and cultural standards with something that seems much more rational — individual choice, contract, bureaucratic intervention, and expertise. Instead of the traditional family, which depended for its reliable functioning on traditional understandings as to parental authority, sex roles and sexual conduct, we have family court, day care centers, and therapists.

The problem with those rational institutions is that they don’t work. They can’t work, because formal public rationality can’t possibly deal with particular human motivations and relationships. On the other hand, pure individual choice isn’t steady enough to be relied on in basic social arrangements like the family. If those points can be made, it’ll be at least believable that there are problems for which progressives have no real solution and conservatives have some sort of answer. That answer — some version of traditional restraints and inequalities — is of course intolerable from the liberal standpoint, because it makes no sense as “social policy.” Much more is needed to make its meaning and justification clear. But at least discussion will have been started on the common ground of the need for arrangements that deal with basic human needs.

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