Commonwealth Men

A Failed u2018Commonwealth’

by Ryan McMaken by Ryan McMaken

Dissatisfied with wasting everyone’s money in the ordinary public schools, the homosexual lobby in New York has now managed to get their very own school, courtesy of you the taxpayer. And no, it isn’t just New York taxpayers who will have the joy of funding the nation’s first "homosexuals only" public school, but anyone paying federal taxes too, since you can be sure that federal money, one way or another will filter its way down to Harvey Milk High School thanks to Bush’s relentless drive to federalize all government school systems in America.

The fact that through this, Americans will be forced to pay for programs that are a direct affront to the lifestyles and values of a significant portion of the American population is certainly nothing new. For decades, Christian Americans have had the privilege of paying for "art" that mocks and degrades their way of life, while paying school administrators to distribute condoms and confiscate bibles. Thanks to recent Supreme Court decisions, American also get to pay federal marshals and attorneys to prosecute school districts and local governments who dare allow public prayer or the placement of a nativity scene in the town square. Americans may soon also be required by their courts to recognize all types of "unions" as legally protected marriages, along with all the taxpayer-funded privileges and protections accompanying such status.

While all of these developments are just reminders that Christian conservatives have been miserable losers in the culture wars of the 20th century, they are also the product of a machinery of government that conservatives themselves set up decades ago to enforce the "virtue" of the American people. The irony seems to be lost on some conservatives who never tire of claiming that if we can only elect more Republicans and appoint more Republican judges, then everything will be turned around, and we can start using our government power to harm the bad guys instead of the other way around.

It is the duty of the State, we are told by these conservatives, to control and regulate the core institutions of society — like marriage, education, and religion — in order that citizens might be made virtuous and productive members of the "commonwealth" or whatever other euphemism they choose for the State.

This theory took on its current form in the 1950s and 1960s as some conservatives, infected with the idea that big American government was the only answer to big Soviet government, took to calling for a strengthening of the American State to better produce a better love of the West among the American people while supposedly strengthening Western civilization against the Communist hordes. This argument was possibly best articulated by L. Brent Bozell who, contending that Lord Acton didn’t really mean what he was saying when he claimed liberty to be the highest political end, set to work claiming that "virtue" was in fact the real business of government:

"When a commonwealth builds according to the divine patterns of order, then it is in a position to help man conform to his nature, which is the meaning of virtue. The institutions the commonwealth promotes are the important thing — its family arrangements, its schools, its churches, the kind of government it has; for all of these combine to generate…its public orthodoxy…[The good commonwealth] will look upon the state…as one potential instrument among many others for articulating and thus defending the community consensus about such things."

While Bozell does not deny that some limitations should be put on State power, the State remains a central and indispensable force in solidifying the bonds of social control that he claims societies must put upon their members in order to maintain a peaceful and functioning society. Bozell most certainly did not believe that a "commonwealth" could "promote" desirable traits in families, schools, etc. by simply leaving them alone. Indeed, the use of the word "commonwealth" is intended to obscure the very real separation between the voluntary institutions like family, and the monopoly of coercion that is the modern State. Rather than admit the antagonistic relationship that exists between State and society, the "commonwealth conservative" instead seeks to convince that some kind of mutually beneficial relationship exists.

The libertarian position of course has been much different, and dating back at least to Lysander Spooner in the 19th century, libertarians have identified a great gulf between not only the goals of the State and of society, but of its methods as well, with civil and religious institutions being founded primarily on social pressure and voluntary membership and States being founded on violence and coercion. For libertarians, it is ironic that the great defenders of the so-called commonwealth should be so enthusiastic about using an instrument of violence to force brotherly love on everybody else, but given the assumptions about degenerate human nature that the moralist State depends on, it is not surprising that supporters of the commonwealth theory maintain that while power might corrupt, it only corrupts those foolish commoners who haven’t had the good sense to seek government jobs. The fact that virtually always and everywhere the State has increased in power as societal institutions disappear (save for a bloody revolution here and there) is never explained.

As a result, when libertarians complain that government efforts to "improve" schools or marriage or any other institutions that the politicians plan to give a good dose of "Christian values" are bound to fail, conservatives insist that the libertarians are just being "naïve" or "unrealistic" about what is necessary to protect the valued institutions of Western civilization. Rather than strip the government of its power to meddle with — and thus destroy — marriage, religion, education, and so on, conservatives are constantly dreaming up new and politically popular ways to supposedly set things straight with laws requiring recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, or a "moment of silence" or some other meaningless band-aid to slap on the ruins of American Christian civilization that the now unchecked American State has been so efficient in bringing down.

There can now be no doubt that the conservative experiment with "commonwealth conservatism" has failed. What are the fruits of these conservative dreams of using the power of the State to teach everyone a bit of virtue? Where are all the government universities dominated by "virtuous Christians"? Are the public schools bastions of defenders of Western civilization? Has the Supreme Court — even with all its Nixon, Reagan, and Bush appointees — stood in the way of runaway multiculturalism and government handouts to "victimized" interest groups?

The answer of course, is that we find all the "virtue" that the commonwealth was supposed to be producing solely within the private sector where home-schoolers, religious groups, and other non-government organizations have taken a stand against the power of the State. The State has long used the "wall of separation" canard to keep religion — its main competition — out of the lives of its subjects. A wall of separation is surely needed, except it’s the State that needs to be relegated beyond the pale of civilized society.

While the "conservative" (and un-conservative) politicians continue to tax, spend, and promise better times ahead (as long as they’re re-elected) many Americans, concerned about the future of their families, their schools, and their churches continue to be taken in. Rather than abandon the State that has lost them the culture war, conservatives continue to tell themselves that with just a little more money, a few more votes, and some time, they’ll really be in charge, and then surely, success will be right around the corner.

Ryan McMaken Archives

Political Theatre

LRC Blog

LRC Podcasts