What do Americans want from politicians?
Surprise: They want moral values, says a survey taken before the 2002
According to a Greenberg, Quinlin, Rosner Research, Inc. poll (July 9-
14, 2002), 16% of Americans said "moral values" would be among the
most important issues they considered when voting for Congressional
To put that in context, more Americans say moral values are a
defining issue than say taxes are important (12%), or federal
spending (9%), or the environment (8%), or crime and illegal drugs
In a related question, 11% said moral values should be a top priority
for Congress and the president.
The poll results are somewhat ambiguous, since they don't make a
distinction between Americans who want politicians who are moral
(the "impeach-Bill-Clinton" crowd), and those who want politicians to
impose morality on others (the "run-Pat-Buchanan-run" crowd).
In fact, voters probably want a bit of both.
Americans look at government, and they see politicians tarred by
scandal -- from Richard Nixon caught not being a crook with the
Watergate burglars to Bill Clinton caught not having sexual relations
with "that woman."
And they see a nation beset by social problems -- crime, teenage
pregnancies, broken homes, intergenerational welfare, school
shootings, drug abuse, corporate malfeasance, and "vulgar" pop
What do those problems have in common? They're caused by a breakdown
of what many Americans see as traditional moral values: Decency,
chastity, honesty, commitment, and hard work. Americans yearn for a
simpler, more decent time, when crack was something that happened to
your windshield, XXX was a winning strategy in tic-tac-toe, and
Eminem was a candy.
So it's not surprising that 11% say moral values should be
a "priority" for Congress and the president. It's not surprising that
Americans see morality as a political issue.
Despite this, Libertarian candidates have been curiously silent on
the subject. As a result, some critics have charged that Libertarians
don't care about morality. Or, pointing to Libertarian positions on
abortion, pornography, and drugs, they charge that Libertarians are
Joseph Farah, editor of WorldNetDaily.com, echoed this all-too-common
assessment when he wrote on June 18, 2002: "Libertarians fail to
understand the moral dimension so critical to self-government. Too
few [Libertarians] comprehend a laissez faire society can only be
built in a culture of morality, righteousness, and compassion. A
libertarian society devoid of God and a biblical world view would
quickly deteriorate into chaos and violence."
Farah is wrong; most Libertarians do understand the moral dimension
of liberty. They embrace "morality, righteousness, and compassion."
And they certainly don't want a nation beset with "chaos and
But Libertarians view morality differently than Farah -- and
differently than most liberals and conservatives.
"Many libertarians are Œsocially conservative' in the sense that they
believe in traditional moral values like monogamy and two-parent
families," noted the introductory libertarian website,
"But a libertarian believes that moral values must be freely chosen.
If someone else doesn't agree with your morality, you may avoid them,
argue with them, or verbally condemn them, but you should not
physically control them."
In other words, Libertarians see morality as intensely personal or
religious -- and outside the scope of government. That's one reason
why so many Libertarian candidates have been reluctant to talk about
And Libertarians pride themselves on being tolerant, so they are
loathe to impose their views of morality on others.
However, since many Americans see morality and government as
intertwined, it may be time for Libertarians to end their
squeamishness -- and start using the "M" word in campaigns.
In fact, it's past time for Libertarians to proudly extoll the link
between morality and freedom. Here are some points they can make:
* Giving the government the power to impose morality is dangerous.
Getting politicians to impose your vision of morality has a seductive
allure -- but it is a fool's game, argued 1996 and 2000 LP
presidential candidate Harry Browne in The Great Libertarian Offer.
"When a politician promises to raise moral standards, it's easy to
think he's referring to the moral standards in which you believe,"
wrote Browne. "You think you've found someone who's going to use the
force of government to impose your moral values on others.
"But when government acts, the values imposed won't be yours and they
won't be mine. Moral values will be set by whoever has the most
political power -- people like Teddy Kennedy or Newt Gingrich."
That's a sobering point. Consider:
If conservatives control the levers of power, we face increased
censorship, new laws against gays and lesbians, an escalation of the
War on Drugs, and mandatory prayer in schools -- all in the name
of "Christian" morality.
Conservatives want to use government to make sure you're not bad.
If liberals gain power, we face mandatory racial sensitivity
training, greater redistribution of wealth, more anti-hate crime laws
(read: "thought crimes"), and more affirmative action programs -- all
in the name of "compassionate" morality. Liberals want to use
government to make you good.
The moral agendas of liberals and conservatives are quite different.
But they have one thing in common: They both know what's best for you.
In his 1996 book, Moral Politics, George Lakoff wrote that
conservatives hold a "Strict Father Model" view of government.
Liberals, he writes, have a "Nurturant Parent Model."
But in both models, government is the parent. You are the child.
That could be why Rev. Robert A. Sirico of the Acton Institute wrote
that Americans make a serious mistake when they "suppose that virtue
is something that can be enacted by politicians and implemented by
Sirico is right. When government dictates morality, your morality is
at the mercy of whatever amoral gang is in power that day.
* There is a profound difference between individual morality and
politicians who use the power of government to do "moral" things.
Former LP Executive Director Steve Dasbach touched on this in a 1997
press release commemorating the death of Mother Teresa.
"The life of Mother Teresa was a rebuke to everything politicians
stand for," he said. "Mother Teresa reached into our hearts -- while
politicians reach into our wallets."
The difference is even more clear, said Dasbach, when you compare the
typical politician to the Nobel Peace Prize-winning nun.
"Mother Teresa kissed the hands of dying lepers, she slept on a thin
mattress, and she picked maggots from the wounds of Calcutta's
homeless," he said. "By contrast, politicians make speeches in the
air-conditioned luxury of the Capitol Building, they attend $5,000-a-
plate dinners, and they spend other people's money on political
causes that will get them re-elected."
Maybe, speculated Dasbach, "that's why politicians are held in such
contempt, while Mother Teresa was revered by millions of people."
And maybe that's why Jimmy Carter gained far more respect when he
wielded a hammer for Habitat for Humanity than when he wielded the
gavel of power as president of the United States.
Individual morality is about investing your time, spending your
money, and demonstrating your values. Government "morality" is about
casting a vote, spending other people's money, and posing for a photo-
op. It's not the same.
* Many government programs subvert morality -- usually by undermining
In his 1996 essay, "The Rise of Government and the Decline of
Morality," James A. Dorn of the Cato Institute argued that government
has "weakened the nation's moral fabric."
The most obvious signs of that decay, he wrote, "are the prevalence
of out-of-wedlock births, the breakup of families, the amorality of
public education, and the eruption of criminal activity. But there
are other signs as well: the decline in civility [and] the lack of
integrity in both public and private life.
"One cannot blame government for all of society's ills, but there is
no doubt that legislation over the past 50 years has had a negative
impact on virtue. Individuals lose their moral bearing when they
become dependent on welfare, when they are rewarded for having
children out of wedlock, and when they are not held accountable for
In the past, when government was much smaller, "family and social
bonds were strong, and civil society flourished in numerous fraternal
and religious organizations," wrote Dorn.
Today, after the government has spent over $5 billion on welfare
programs, "Self-reliance has given way to dependence and a loss of
respect for persons and property," he wrote. "Virtue and civil
society have suffered."
What's the solution?
"If we want to help the disadvantaged, we do not do so by making
poverty pay, by restricting markets, by prohibiting school choice, by
discouraging thrift, or by sending the message that the principal
function of government is to take care of us," wrote Dorn. "Rather,
we do so by eliminating social engineering and welfare, by
cultivating free markets, and by returning to our moral heritage."
* Ultimately, liberty and self-responsibility are the only way to
promote a truly moral nation.
Laws can't make people moral.
"In the arena of peaceful behavior, morality and compassion mean
nothing when they are the product of force," argued Jacob G.
Hornberger of the Future of Freedom Foundation. "They are meaningful
only in the context of voluntary, willing choices of individuals."
Exactly, agreed Harry Browne. "Only free people have an incentive to
be virtuous," he wrote. "Only people who bear the consequences of
their own acts will care about those consequences.
"A free society rewards virtue and punishes irresponsibility.
Government does just the opposite. We need to do only one thing to
induce people to act more responsibly: Set them free."
According to the polls, Americans want politicians to do something
about morality. Libertarians can respond with a simple equation:
Freedom plus self-responsibility equals morality.
It's not a perfect formula. Some people will always make immoral
decisions. The free market will still produce products that some find
offensive. And Republican and Democratic politicians will continue to
wallow in scandal.
But without freedom, there will never be morality.
Civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "Hate cannot
drive out hate; only love can do that."
Similarly, government force cannot drive out immorality; only freedom
and self-responsibility can do that.
"Morality" as many Americans know it as, has only eroded since the expansion of government. Only the erosion of government will people truly take responsibility for their own actions. And with responsibility comes "morality".