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On Jack Kemp, Jackalopes, and Jacobins

I’ve always been an admirer of Jack Kemp, and it’s nice to see him remembered as Jonah Goldberg does in a recent column. As in death, so also in life was Kemp a korrektiv to politicians who had lost their committment to ideas – whatever their politics.

I’ve never been a big fan of jackalopes, those stuffed rabbits sporting antlers at roadside attractions all across our great land, but I laughed out loud when I read about socially liberal, economic conservatives as the “jackalope of American politics”. I do wonder if they are “exceedingly rare”, or rather less a Griffen-like mythologicaI creature than a joke. If, as Goldberg writes, “most people who are socially liberal are economically liberal as well”, is it because economic conservatism and social liberalism fundamentally incompatible with each other, or is it because some people who are socially AND economically liberal have actually managed to square the circle? I really don’t know the answer.

In my arguments with people who consider themselves socially liberal fiscal conservatives, it’s always the case that they really aren’t economically conservative. Always. To some extent it depends on the definition of “socially liberal”. I guess I could consider myself “socially liberal”, in the sense of letting others do what they want as long as they don’t harm others. Want a silver bone in your nose? That’s cool. You like the Princeton First Year with your German Shepherd? Not cool … but if you have to, just please pull the blinds.

The problem is that most socially liberal people I know sooner or later come around to favoring more government benefits. Then, even if it’s demonstrated that more government benefits generally lead to less initiative in the private sector, my SLFC friends will maintain their belief in their own fiscal conservatism. It seems to me this is because they favor socially liberal government action, which requires greater spending, which then justifies the need for more taxes, which is fiscally conservative because it is economically responsible. The “tax and spend liberal” sooner or later turns into a “spend and tax liberal,” or vera-vice, but it seems to me a stretch to call this “fiscally conservative”.

One of Goldberg’s most cherished anathema is the Jacobin, referring to French revolutionaries in favor of one centralized power after doing away with another – namely the monarchy. Unless I’m mistaken, Goldberg uses the term not so much in favor of bringing back the monarchy, as to describe contemporaries in favor of a bigger, faster, and stronger federal government. There’s a good reason to beware this, and I think socially liberal fiscal conservatives should keep an eye out for creeping Jacobinism on their watch. Now it’s the norm. Gay marriage, national health care, legalizing marijuana … would it be so wrong to try these out one state at a time? Thanks to Article IV and the full faith and credit clause, this is often unlikely.

And yes, this concerns many Republicans as well as Democrats. But Jack Kemp wasn’t one of them.


  1. Jonathan Webb says

    Excellent. To no one’s surprise I agree with all of the above.

    I’ve always wondered why the left is so down on federalism. What’s wrong with having a socialist utopia in Massachusetts, a libertarian one in Wyoming and a neutral federal government. In fact, it kind of pisses me off. Where can a person go to get away from the central planning? If federalism were truly the state of affairs I think it would neutralize much of the division in this country.

    What would Limbaugh and Olberman do then?

  2. Anonymous says

    How are you defining ‘economically liberal’ and ‘economically conservative’?

    To me economically liberal means in favour of the free market (ie classically liberal), but nowadays ‘economically conservative’ means the same thing, unless you mean paternalistic. But perhaps I misunderstand the US use of the terms?

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