Last week marked half a century since the then-leader of the free world squatted on Tom Fletcher’s porch in the heart of the “Big White Ghetto” and declared his War on Poverty. The 50 years that followed have seen the apparent initial success of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society stall, with the poverty rate refusing to move more than a few percentage points in any direction since the end of the 1960s, stuck in a quagmire of huge sums of federal dollars, an endless parade of programs and reform and countless broken lives — the War on Poverty’s Verdun.
There are times and places to argue over the efficacy of the government programs launched in the name of ending poverty. But this isn’t it.
There exists the popular belief, not entirely unreasonable in its formation, that social conservatism is a political philosophy predicated solely on the fundamental opposition to gay marriage and abortion. But these two issues — magnified by their emotional draw, clearly demarcated divisions and the ease with which one side can win or lose in the courtroom, the legislature or the voting booth — are merely the most visible fronts of a wider culture war. Those on both sides of either issue can espouse rational, reasonable arguments for their ideas, underpinned by a bedrock of emotion, religion and morality. Make no mistake: One side is in the right, but both are convinced it is them, and neither will be persuaded by rational debate. No amount of carefully reasoned argument will convince someone that abortion isn’t, at its core, the ending of a human life, that it isn’t murder, plain and simple, or that denying the government sanction of “marriage” to gay couples isn’t blatant and baseless discrimination. But as contentious as these issues are to social conservatives and progressives — each side with banners arrayed and battle lines drawn — they are only flash points in the culture war.
William F. Buckley, one of the architects of modern conservatism, defined a conservative as “a fellow who is standing athwart history yelling, ‘Stop!’ ” While perhaps not a dishonest description, it does rather simplify the subject. Social conservatism is concerned with investing in and building up the cultural institutions that play an important role in strengthening our society — families, churches and local communities being the most obvious. If these institutions forfeit their role in upholding social order to government, then liberty and fiscal restraint dissolve. One cannot have sustainable fiscal conservatism without its social counterpart, but neither is it possible to combat endemic social problems without the most effective tools to do so.
The government cannot mend cultural decay through legislation. Laws alone will not fix our social ills. The application of force will not solve our problems, whether poverty, discrimination or inequality; a hammer cannot be our only tool. Disagree if you will on abortion or gay marriage but understand the value of private institutions: No Head Start program will ever overcome the importance of a strong family unit, and no food stamp program will do what private and religious charities and hospitals do. No programs born out of President Johnson’s visits to Appalachia in the name of the Great Society will ever do more than make grinding, abject poverty slightly more bearable if society itself crumbles away. Nor should they. If the state must do everything, the state will control everything.
This past semester, I have repeatedly appealed to our shared sense of duty as students of the University of California, Berkeley, and heirs to all that that entails. We are, for lack of a less-abused word, privileged in that we have an opportunity to effect real change. (I would like to note that David Burge was right: “Nothing on this earth is more hilariously precious than an American college student bitching about ‘privilege.’ ”) Whether or not you truly believe in the noblesse oblige of a first-class education, or that student activism really can make a difference in the world, no one is better armed to fight the good fight. It need not involve dedicating our entire lives to a moral or legislative crusade, only that we make an effort to build up our cultural institutions through our daily lives.
It is folly to think that every problem can be solved by sweeping legislation or grand pronouncements from the Rose Garden. Government cannot be the prescription for every ill, if for no other reason than that such an approach simply won’t work. No matter how large or small a role you believe the state should play in the daily lives of citizens, it is essential to understand the importance of building cultural institutions embedded in our society — families, churches, communities, schools, nonprofits and whatever else you may believe is necessary. We will never win the War on Poverty without a strong social order.
So long, and thanks for all the fish.