Private Actions and Public Good


Last week, I overheard a soccer dad from another town talking to friends on the sideline making the assertion, for some reason that I didn’t catch, that Republicans are hypocrites because they claim to be all about the Bill of Rights and yet they love to have government tell people what they should and shouldn’t do.

Presumably, he meant such things as same-sex marriage and abortion and has been repeating that cliché for decades — even before Tipper Gore (wife to Democrat Bill Clinton’s vice president) became the face of crusaders against objectionable language in popular music.  At any rate, I’ve been hearing such statements that long, but in 2016, it seems strikingly anachronistic, ignoring Democrats’ and progressives’ love of telling people how to live in almost every area of life.

One response to this observation (which I’ve had progressives counter to me in the past) is that there’s no hypocrisy because Democrats and progressives aren’t as slavishly devoted to the rights described in the Constitution, so there’s no hypocrisy.  Whatever one might think of a political philosophy that picks and chooses among rights as convenient, hypocrisy requires breaking an espoused principle.

Progressives’ worldview is constructed contingently, based on the needs of power and emotion at any given moment moment, so they don’t require dedication to intellectual consistency.  They therefore can find it an affront worthy of national attention and legislation if a small-town baker declines to make a cake for a homosexual couple and instead directs them to another baker, even after spending years insisting that same-sex marriages couldn’t conceivably affect anybody else.  Thus, they can say that Republicans are all about telling people what to do, even as Democrats attempt to dictate everything from employee benefits to soda sizes.

A post by The Political Hat (via Instapundit) gets to another, broader, more-profound point, although I think another significant observation is missed (emphasis in original):

The private actions of two individuals in the privacy of a private bedroom in a private house, indeed, does not directly affect others in the 1st degree.  Re-writing social norms, mores, and folkways, however, does unequivocally affect others by the tyrannical and conniving mutation of society, taking advantage of and abusing the natural tolerance of a society that has become so used to great liberty with the concomitant wisdom to choose virtuously, in order to unintelligently design a utopia ex nihilo in vacuo that is antithetical and ablative of the very virtue and liberty that made such tolerance possible!

What two people do in their home next door may very well have no effect on you, but a society that doesn’t care what they do can be very different than one that does.  The wave of legislation in Rhode Island going after animal abusers proves that progressives know this.  A neighbor who doesn’t provide “adequate living conditions” for his hamster is not harming his neighbors, but progressives want to live in a world in which animals have rights.

Of course, there is no segment of American society that is going to put up a fight to protect pet-owners’ ability to harm animals, so such bills only run into snags when they overreach or would do things that are plainly insane, like creating an online animal abuser registry so people can make it their business to know what their neighbors are doing.  On the more traditional moral matters, however, some actions conflict with large numbers of Americans’ understanding of the universe, which means they’ll stand up for their right to hew to what they believe to be true even if, as a practical matter, they really don’t care whether two particular people violate it.  For them, it is as if animal rights were the traditional law of the land and radicals were trying to enshrine animal abuse as a right.

Faced with this opposition, progressives are pushing the West down the dangerous road of changing of process in order to make the change, often arbitrarily and dependent on declarations from an elite who supposedly know better how things should be done.  That is, not only do the new mores affect us all, but they come with a complete rewrite of the organization of our government and our society.

The importance of this consideration comes to mind every time I hear somebody complain that the Catholic Church doesn’t allow people with wheat allergies to finds some substitute wafer for the Eucharist or that the Church still won’t allow female priests.  When they get angry at a particular priest for enforcing this rule, they aren’t merely attacking the specific tradition that they don’t like, but the entire process by which the Church attempts to understand God’s will, and that gets to a core, defining part of what makes the Roman Catholic Church the Roman Catholic Church and, indeed, what makes God God, by our understanding.

(This, by the way, is why I’m very concerned about things I’m reading on the topic of Pope Francis and the ability of divorced Catholics to receive the Eucharist.)

I want to emphasize, here, that none of this is absolute.  The point isn’t that we cannot make changes and sometimes even change the way we make them, but as we consider new ideas, we have to be aware of what they require, and when other people disagree, we have to be respectful of their rights, as well.