Mero: Why I am a conservative and not a libertarian

Below are the opening and closing remarks delivered by Sutherland Institute President Paul Mero Thursday during the 2012 Freedom Fest held in Las Vegas. He was part of a debate on the topic of whether LDS Church members (Mormons) should be conservative, liberal or libertarian. Mero succinctly outlines why (a) he is a conservative and (b) why he is not a libertarian.

Why I am a conservative

I am a conservative because I am a Latter-day Saint.

Authentic conservatism assures mankind that rights and responsibilities, by their very natures, are always in conflict, and it provides a reasonable way for free men to justly and peaceably resolve the two. It does so through a certain moral ecology – the inherent universality of the human person (in other words, a reasonable understanding of what it means to be a human being).

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints adheres to its own moral ecology: Human life is defined, purposeful and ordered; justification for any human action is based on that action’s accurate reflection of the human identity (that is, outward expressions of inherited traits as a literal child of God); and man’s happiness is largely dependent upon free-will choices that either conform to God’s will or not.

The LDS Church’s “Family Proclamation,” issued in 1995, provides a wonderful summary of its moral ecology, and from it we may begin to compile a list of “basic goods” to help us understand what it means to be a human being on the road to discovering the true meaning of freedom: Human beings are literal children of God with an inherited nature and characteristics; human beings are gender-specific, procreative, and they have a physical body integrated with the human spirit to constitute the human person. Human beings are divinely patterned with an inherent social structure – meaning, for Latter-day Saints, family is the fundamental unit of society (not the individual, not the church, not the corporation and certainly not the state).

This understanding testifies that our liberty in a free society is tied to the moral recognition and behavioral reflection of what it really means to be a human being.

Liberty, in this sense, means conforming human action to this set of basic goods regarding human identity and purpose. And slavery, then, means any human action that distances a person from this identity and purpose. For Latter-day Saints, there is no such thing as “free” agency, there is only moral agency to choose to conform to this divine identity and purpose, or not.

For skeptics who point out the obvious – that the world is diverse and not all Mormon – Latter-day Saints and conservatives fall back on natural law, as did our Founding Fathers. Just like the construct of the LDS gospel, natural law maintains that a moral order exists and that it is readily identifiable by reasonable human beings. Natural law is the basis of American liberty and, not coincidentally, natural law conforms perfectly to the refined doctrines of Latter-day Saints. Call it God or Nature’s God, it is the same thing.

Our very freedom as Americans, written into our founding documents, is based on principles we put into practice regarding what we ought to do derived from an inherited identity and purpose. From the Declaration of Independence we read how our Founding Fathers viewed their mortal existence: that truth exists, that these truths are self-evident and obvious in the nature and character of our personhood, that all human beings have inherited attributes “endowed by their Creator” such as a body of flesh and bones (life), the power to choose (liberty) and a clear idea of the object of our choices (the pursuit of happiness).

We also read that government is an expression and extension of human nature and experience; and that man is expected to exercise his personal liberty to harmonize his government to his inherent identity and purpose; and, lastly, that complementing that identity and purpose is the ultimate end of his government.

For Latter-day Saints, the “image of God” is the thread of life for how all of his children are organized in mortality. Acting individually in this fallen world the image of God is personified by the life and teachings of His Beloved Son, Jesus Christ. The Son of God is man’s example as to how we ought to think, feel and act. His exemplary life is what man ought to imitate. His personal example is the way of happiness precisely because that example – mirroring God the Father – is aligned with the great Plan of Happiness. In other words, happiness means being aligned with God in thought, purpose and action.

Latter-day Saints can identify with Lord John Acton’s statement that “liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.” For Latter-day Saints and conservatives alike, governments exist to protect the “right of being able to do what we ought.”

In the LDS Doctrine and Covenants it reads, “Abide ye in the liberty wherewith ye are made free” (D&C 88:86). Latter-day Saints know the qualitative difference between liberty and freedom, and we also know that personal choice is a continuous exercise in choosing to conform to our divine identity and purpose or not, and that choice is a means to happiness, not an end in itself. That knowledge is the intersection of Mormonism and conservatism. For Latter-day Saints, freedom and human happiness are synonymous. Human happiness is the end game, not individual liberty, and our governments exist to wisely and prudently assist us in that pursuit.

I am a conservative because I am a Latter-day Saint.

Why I am not a libertarian

I am not a libertarian because I am a Latter-day Saint.

I am not a libertarian because I don’t believe in “victimless crimes.” As a Latter-day Saint, I understand that human actions have both transitive and intransitive effects. If I punch you in the face, clearly there is a transitive result – you feel the pain of my hitting you in the face. There also is an intransitive aspect to that action – my choice to hit you in the face leaves a mark on me, on my character. The intransitive aspect of human action is precisely why any of us question the personal choices of elected officials or any person in a position of trust.

Human autonomy is a powerful and important component of human freedom. But the whole idea of a victimless crime begs the question: Is a human free, in her ability to make reasonable choices, if she’s addicted to heroin or alcohol or any other substance? And if not free, why are we so self-righteous about protecting her autonomy? Better yet, what autonomy is left to protect?

I am not a libertarian because I don’t believe in spontaneous order. As a Latter-day Saint, I believe in a transcendent moral order created by God and, in my citizenship, endowed by my Creator. There is nothing spontaneous about this moral order. And as a reasonable human being, not an ideologue, I don’t confuse natural human associations with spontaneity. That I like vanilla ice cream and you sell vanilla ice cream is hardly a moral order.

I am not a libertarian because I don’t believe that government is evil, or even a necessary evil. As a Latter-day Saint, I understand that “governments [are] instituted of God for the benefit of man; and that He holds men accountable for their acts in relation to them, both in making laws and in administering them, for the good and safety of society.”

Government is an integral part and extension of ordered liberty. In fact, limited government is only possible within ordered liberty where it is integrated and balanced against other influences of civil society. Libertarianism is a fantasy that cannot sustain the realities of limited government – its delusions of selfish individualism and abstract liberty are insufficient to withstand the pressures of statism.

Lastly, I am not a libertarian because I don’t believe that Latter-day Saint prophets and apostles support legalizing drugs, prostitution, pornography, gambling or same-sex marriage. Nor do I accuse them of being wrong-headed or uninspired in their opposition to those things.

As a Latter-day Saint, I understand the difference between legislating morality and legislating immorality precisely because I understand the proper role of government in the context of ordered liberty. I understand that there is no freedom without a good majority of citizens waking each and every day looking to become their better selves. Freedom requires us to be our better selves, not our selfish selves.

Elevating human autonomy above all other influences shaping our lives to become our better selves has the opposite effect. If government, as a legitimate extension of “we, the people,” isn’t permitted to play a limited role in encouraging our better selves through the law, it will be used to play an expansive role in facilitating the worst about us. Libertarians err in thinking that a free life has neutral corners (to which if all of us would only retreat, we’d live in peace and happiness). As a Latter-day Saint, I know neutral corners do not exist in this life. Governments are instituted of God for precisely this reason.

Libertarians have an irrational fear of positive liberty, whereas Latter-day Saints have a healthy respect for it. If our entire view of government is negative liberty, there would be no need for good, honest and wise leaders as called for in LDS scripture. It is irrational to think that any political philosophy associated with the gospel of Jesus Christ would have at its core the ideological credo of “Just leave me alone.”

The late, great conservative intellectual Russell Kirk said it best, “We flawed human creatures are sufficiently selfish already, without being exhorted to pursue selfishness on principle.”

I am not a libertarian because I am a Latter-day Saint.