Constitutional Conservatism

Jacob Sullum at Reason Magazine weights in on the “constitutional conservatism” advocated at CPAC and by the Mount Vernon Statement. This appeal to constitutionalism seems to signify a more libertarian emphasis among the Republican Party, which I think is a good thing, but Sullum questions just how dedicated some Reopublicans may be to the notion of constitutionalism when it goes against their moral and religious ideals.

The most conspicuous signatories of the Mount Vernon Statement include several conservatives who are famous for using the federal government to advance their moral agendas, even when there is no constitutional authority for such crusades.


The apostles of constitutional conservatism also include Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, and Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America. In addition to supporting the unauthorized wars on drugs, pornography, and broadcast indecency, Perkins and Wright both favor national restrictions on abortion, cloning, suicide, and gay marriage, all matters that the Constitution leaves to the states (which are in turn subject to the limits imposed by their constitutions).

My point is not that Perkins and Wright are wrong to think that pornography, abortion, and gay marriage should be banned (although I do disagree with those positions). My point is that their avowed commitment to respecting the Constitution cannot be taken seriously if they do not care how they reach those goals.

By enlisting the federal government in their moral crusades, conservatives do not merely alienate potential allies who reject their premises about the appropriate use of force. They sanction the idea that the federal government can do whatever the Constitution does not explicitly forbid, as opposed to the Framers’ vision of a federal government that can do only what the Constitution explicitly allows.

Ronald Reagan said that libertarianism is the heart of conservatism. I don’t thing this means that conservatives have to endorse or actively support activities that are against their moral, social, or religious precepts, such as pornography or drug use, but they must recognize that appeals against these things must be made on a personal level, not a legal, coercive one. Limited government is the most basic principle of conservativism, and it is embodied in adherence to the Constitution. Ignoring the doctrine or limited government or the restrictions of the Constitution in order to satisfy a moral crusade is not conservative.


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