January 6, 2012 12:30PM

Michael Gerson Just Can’t Get Enough of Libertarianism

Poor Michael Gerson. The former speechwriter for George W. Bush writes about libertarianism more than any other major columnist. And yet, after at least six years of attacks, he still can't grasp the concept. Take today's column defending Rick Santorum against "anti-government activists." I pointed out his error in calling libertarians "anti-government" in 2010:

Libertarians are not against all government. We are precisely “advocates of limited government.” Perhaps to the man who wrote the speeches in which a Republican president advocated a trillion dollars of new spending, the largest expansion of entitlements in 40 years, federal takeovers of education and marriage, presidential power to arrest and incarcerate American citizens without access to a lawyer or a judge, and two endless “nation-building” enterprises, the distinction between “limited government” and “anti-government” is hard to see. But it is real and important.

This time he includes me as his example of an "anti-government activist" and purports to quote my objection to Santorum:

David Boaz of the Cato Institute cites evidence implicating him in shocking ideological crimes, such as “promotion of prison ministries” and wanting to “expand colon cancer screenings for Medicare beneficiaries.”

The first quotation there is from Jonathan Rauch's review of Santorum's book, It Takes a Family, and the second is from a New York Times article on Santorum's campaign brochure listing all the pork he'd brought home to Pennsylvanians. As for Rauch's list of Santorum's ideas for an activist federal government, here's what I quoted:

In his book he comments, seemingly with a shrug, “Some will reject what I have to say as a kind of ‘Big Government’ conservatism.”

They sure will. A list of the government interventions that Santorum endorses includes national service, promotion of prison ministries, “individual development accounts,” publicly financed trust funds for children, community-investment incentives, strengthened obscenity enforcement, covenant marriage, assorted tax breaks, economic literacy programs in “every school in America” (his italics), and more. Lots more.

Out of that list Gerson picks "promotion of prison ministries" as a dismissal of my concerns. Some readers might well think that government sponsorship of Christianity in prisons is problematic enough. But others might think that you don't have to be "anti-government" to oppose the three new government transfer programs that immediately follow the reference to prison ministries.

More importantly, though, Gerson ignores my main criticism of Santorum. In 749 words rebutting the libertarian criticism of Santorum, Gerson never actually names it. Here's the core point that Gerson didn't deign to address:

Santorum had already dismissed limited government in theory. Promoting his book, he told NPR in 2006:

One of the criticisms I make is to what I refer to as more of a libertarianish right. You know, the left has gone so far left and the right in some respects has gone so far right that they touch each other. They come around in the circle. This whole idea of personal autonomy, well I don’t think most conservatives hold that point of view. Some do. They have this idea that people should be left alone, be able to do whatever they want to do, government should keep our taxes down and keep our regulations low, that we shouldn’t get involved in the bedroom, we shouldn’t get involved in cultural issues. You know, people should do whatever they want. Well, that is not how traditional conservatives view the world and I think most conservatives understand that individuals can’t go it alone. That there is no such society that I am aware of, where we’ve had radical individualism and that it succeeds as a culture.

He declared himself against individualism, against libertarianism, against “this whole idea of personal autonomy, ... this idea that people should be left alone.” And in this 2005 TV interview, you can hear these classic hits: “This is the mantra of the left: I have a right to do what I want to do” and “We have a whole culture that is focused on immediate gratification and the pursuit of happiness ... and it is harming America.”

Does Gerson think that that is a good statement of American conservatism? Is that what he thinks the Republican party should stand for? If so, I invite him to say so --- as Santorum does --- instead of using a column in one of the nation's most important newspapers to attack straw men.

At least he does understand that libertarianism is not conservatism but rather "is actually a species of classical liberalism, not conservatism — more directly traceable to John Stuart Mill than Edmund Burke or Alexis de Tocqueville. " Also traceable to the American Founders and the Declaration of Independence. And he'll find three selections from Tocqueville in The Libertarian Reader.

Gerson writes, "Oppressive, overreaching government undermines these value-shaping institutions." And then he goes on to endorse social engineering in the tax code, the war on drugs, bans on "obscenity," government transfers to charities and businesses, and by implication all the programs that Rauch noted in Santorum's book.

So maybe the most important line in Gerson's essay is the headline:

Rick Santorum and the return of compassionate conservatism

He's saying that if you liked the Bush administration, you'll like Santorum. But those of us who didn't like, as I noted above, a trillion dollars of new spending, the largest expansion of entitlements in 40 years, federal takeovers of education and marriage, presidential power to arrest and incarcerate American citizens without access to a lawyer or a judge, and two endless “nation-building” enterprises will not want to repeat the experience.

Rick Santorum has declared himself against  “this whole idea of personal autonomy, ... this idea that people should be left alone," this fundamental American idea of the pursuit of happiness. What do conservatives not get about that?