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Conservatives, Condoms, and Compassion

Among the sharpest analysts of contemporary conservatism and its pathologies is the American Enterprise Institute’s Henry Olsen—a long-time friend, generous and understanding ex-boss, election analyst and poll expert extraordinaire. Some time ago, I discussed his views here. In his latest talk here, Henry renews his call for a return to Reagan-esque values and rhetoric—less burble about entrepreneurs and marginal tax rates on capital gains, and more concern for the common man; less libertarian theorizing, and more recognition of the fact that folks who fall on hard times may need a (government) hand up, though never a handout. For various reasons (the disintegration of the family, the dynamics of the “information society,” etc.), I worry that this agenda has lost much of the appeal it had three decades ago. Still, there’s much in Henry’s talk that I agree with, at some level of abstraction. Then comes this:

The sense that the average person has a moral life that is worth leading and pursuing—and sometimes needs government to help them on their way and keep them from falling—is central to American political identity but disconnected from much of conservative thought today. And the Obama campaign ran against this disconnection relentlessly.

Think about the contraceptive question. The question of whether or not to mandate religious employers to cover contraceptives was a classic wedge issue: one designed to raise precisely that point among single women and other people who were concerned that their ability to succeed in modern America was imperiled if they could not control their own bodies. …

There are many people who will look and say, “If you’re with the priest, you’re not with me. If you’re with the religious entities, you’re not with me.” Democrats harnessed this issue in a manner that was very calculated. They were running and saying, “You know you need to control your body. Republicans not only are opposed to abortion, but they don’t even want you to get contraception.”

Where to begin? Maybe at the top: contraceptives aren’t for people who want to “control their own bodies.” They’re for people who can’t or don’t want to do so because they think that sex is a ton more fun than self-control.

That’s obviously true. What’s not at all obvious is why other people should pay for the fun. That question ought to impress itself all around—on believers, agnostics, atheists, and folks who just plain hate clerics; on anyone who has the slightest comprehension of insurance markets; on anyone who suspects that making some people pay for other people’s fun is neither fair nor a viable social principle;  and on anyone who suspects that, inasmuch as this kerfuffle can’t possibly be about a $2 condom, it has to be about something else—most likely, a creepy campaign to cram a postmodern mentality down everyone’s throats.

Nor is it clear what this has to do with a government that occasionally lends a hand to deserving individuals in distress. For all those who need a condom to “keep them from falling,” as well as those whose “ability to succeed in modern America [is] imperiled” for want of a rubber, here’s my crude, heartless, I’ve-got-mine-Jack advice: pursue your dreams and buy one. We are not talking about paraplegic orphans. We are talking about Georgetown law students—the most privileged members of our society, who are training for their future calling (government, or hanging on to it) by haranguing us: you owe us.

I don’t suggest for a moment that Henry actually believes this claptrap. The point, which I think he underestimates, is that a country that doesn’t simply laugh the “free condoms” crowd out of town—without need of explanation—is in serious trouble. The very fact that clever pols can turn this no-brainer into a “wedge issue” makes you wonder about the reservoir of good sense out there.

Maybe conservatism has become disconnected from the thought that “the average person has a moral life that is worth leading and pursuing,” and maybe it neglects or slights the fact that government can at times foster that pursuit. But even if so, that ain’t the major problem. The contemporary transfer state is not about moral worth and aspirations. The administration’s “Julia” had no aspirations and no coherent plan of life, and the government in her story had no objective beyond assuring her that whichever way she might drift or be tossed, there’ll be a government program. To put the point in a sentence: while one can perhaps imagine a government that would help “average” people to realize their transcendent hopes and aspirations, our actual government is designed to wring any meaning out of life. The cheap, nasty free condom campaign encapsulates that agenda.

Henry Olsen is searching for a distinction between a hand up and a handout—between the uplifting and the tawdry, the compassionate and the grasping. But that’s hard to articulate even on paper, and harder still to observe in practice. And against it stands liberalism’s limitless, all-encompassing ethos: If I can’t have my condom, you might as well kill widows and orphans. If conservatism and the GOP often seem disconnected from “average persons” and their need, in distress, for government help, maybe that’s because they sense that before you can explain the needed distinctions, you have to explain that enough is enough and indeed, altogether too much. That strikes me as the right impulse. The hard question is whether even that much, or that little, can still be explained.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on May 24, 2013 at 08:46:56 am

[...] Conservatives, Condoms, Compassion – Michael Greve, L.L.B. [...]

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Image of FRIDAY MORNING EDITION | God & Caesar
FRIDAY MORNING EDITION | God & Caesar
on May 24, 2013 at 10:24:07 am

"The point, which I think [Henry] underestimates, is that a country that doesn’t simply laugh the “free condoms” crowd out of town—without need of explanation—is in serious trouble." But sometimes it's good to supply a laughtrack. Conservatives should have insisted that HHS supply free Viagra. If they can mandate the one, they can mandate the other.

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Image of Ken Masugi
Ken Masugi
on May 24, 2013 at 12:08:26 pm

I thought it was a blunder when the Obama administration launched it. I was wrong--they read the Romney campaign perfectly: take for granted the base, and bend over backwards to show how "moderate" Romney was, and all would be well.

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Image of David Upham
David Upham
on May 24, 2013 at 12:32:08 pm

The Left would have a harder time making their nonsensical political attacks if Republicans would stop being such suckers every time. Even those who understand that the argument is crazy still are influenced by it because no one respects the sucker who allows himself to be put on the defensive so easily.

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Image of TeeJaw
TeeJaw
on May 24, 2013 at 14:27:40 pm

"... this kerfuffle can’t possibly be about a $2 condom, it has to be about something else ...." Exactly; just like the "pinch of incense" wasn't really about incense, and the insistence of Antiochus that the Jews eat pork was not really about nutrition. Make no mistake: "That at what time ye hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer, and all kinds of musick, ye fall down and worship the golden image that ... the king hath set up."

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Image of Howard
Howard
on May 24, 2013 at 14:30:21 pm

Dear Henry,
Please sir, I implore you ... get your hand out of my wallet and leave me alone.

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Image of Paul A'Barge
Paul A'Barge
on May 24, 2013 at 14:43:00 pm

Rush Limbaugh made much the same point when he supplied the laugh track for Sandra Fluke. But how many of these academic establishment types who style themselves conservative publicly stood up for Rush when the leftist academic establishment rose as one to hoot him down?

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Image of Micha Elyi
Micha Elyi
on May 24, 2013 at 15:00:07 pm

I was listening to Rush when he overreached in the way I believe David Upham was describing. He transformed the argument into one about the moral character of women who use artificial contraceptives. That of course was not the laughable absurdity. Rush's error, not my right to free stuff, became the issue. The Obama people likely anticipated this.

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Image of Ken Masugi
Ken Masugi
on May 24, 2013 at 17:01:14 pm

Here we see the problem with modern "conservatism". Now that the Cold War is over, it has nothing to hold itself together but the belief that the love of money is the root of all good. So it is not only wrong, but laughably absurd to suggest that we should all have to PAY for Ms. Fluke's contraceptives, but we dare not raise an eyebrow at her use of contraceptives itself. Mammon thy god is a jealous god!

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Image of Howard
Howard
on May 24, 2013 at 19:24:44 pm

During the hearing, someone should have walked up to Sandra Fluke, given her a dollar, and said, "Okay, can you stop whining now? Head down to Walgreen's, buy a condom, go hit the club, and tell them to thank Senator [whoever had the balls to pull this stunt]."

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Image of Fearsome Pirate
Fearsome Pirate
on May 24, 2013 at 21:32:13 pm

I support a woman's right to choose...to keep her legs closed.
I support a man's right to choose...to keep it in his pants.

I support the right of each and every person to assume responsibility for their own lives, their own choices, and the costs and expenses that are incurred along the way.

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Image of Lee Reynolds
Lee Reynolds
on May 25, 2013 at 14:29:53 pm

He's right when he said: "Democrats harnessed this issue in a manner that was very calculated. They were running and saying, “You know you need to control your body. Republicans not only are opposed to abortion, but they don’t even want you to get contraception.”"
It is not logical or consistent, but that IS the message that the Democrats gave and it is one that a lot of people agreed with. I heard it over and over from people I know -- people who had nothing but hostility to the argument, "You want birth control? Go buy it yourself." Literally, NOTHING but hostility. That's the problem right there. Those are the people the Democrats know how to talk to, and that is precisely what htey want to hear.

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Image of Gail Finke
Gail Finke
on May 26, 2013 at 13:54:43 pm

[...] Garcetti and other LA leaders may want to consider an analysis by Michael S. Greve, a professor at George Mason University School of Law. In the Library of Law and Liberty, he wrote on Conservatives, Condoms and Compassion: [...]

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Image of » L.A. economic priorities — condom distribution bus tour - Le·gal In·sur·rec·tion
» L.A. economic priorities — condom distribution bus tour - Le·gal In·sur·rec·tion
on May 19, 2014 at 01:10:33 am

Now a days peoples are more aware in the case of sex to avoid the STI and Pregnancy and they don't feel embarrassing while talking about it with friends.

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Juliet

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.