Lawprof Rob Vischer, writing over at the incomparable Mirror of Justice, asks conservatives a good question. Using as his starting point, a statement from Rush Limbaugh on his personal desire to be independent from other persons. Rush said, although not everyone can do it, more people can that that's what conservatism is. Vischer asks us:
I understand -- and agree with, in many contexts -- conservatism's skepticism toward government as the most effective provider for human needs. But Rush seems to be taking that skepticism to another level, turning it into a principle that stands in direct conflict with the nature of the human person, as expressed through the ideas of solidarity, reciprocity, subsidiarity, and the common good. I know there are many different currents within the mighty conservative river, and so I'm likely to get many different answers, but let me try to simplify the question: is Rush disconnected from mainstream American conservatism, or is mainstream American conservatism disconnected from an authentic understanding of the human person?
There follows an interesting discussion among MOJ's contributors. I am inclined to agree with Rick Garnett who doubts that Limbaugh is stating a sophisticated, anthropological point.
But Vischer's question is still very important. Let's take the anthropological view of Professor Garnett (who I think can fairly be described as a conservative):
We [Catholics] have . . . an alternative vision to propose, one that turns the received anthropology on its head, one that emphasizes not so much our autonomy and moral self-sufficiency as our dependence and incompletion. After all, the fact that freedom of choice is a gift, and even that its value is “inestimable,” does not make it the only valuable thing; that we are distinguished by our capacity for choice does not mean that our dignity is reducible to that capacity. We are not merely agents who choose; we are people who belong, who exist in and are shaped by relationships. We live less in a state of self-sufficiency than in one of “reciprocal indebtedness;” A Christian anthropology acknowledges our limits.
I think that he has it right but of course this informs, rather than decides, our policy debates. Recognizing human interdependence does not mean that human persons ought not to be held to some measure of individual responsibility. Indeed, living into this relationship of reciprocal indebtedness and radical regard for others may well require it. Acknowledging how we live in relationship does not really tell us to what extent those relations need to be managed coercively - from the top down - by government. Understanding that human dignity lies in more than the capacity to choose may have some implications for social policy that are more identified with American conservatism than liberalism.
But - at least for Christian conservatives (and my impression is that Jewish and perhaps other theologies have the same implications), shouldn't this understanding of humanity must remain at the heart of our thinking?
In any event, Professor Vischer will be presenting a work in progress to the Marquette law faculty later this semester. I look forward to that.