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26.4.03

As Kevin Drum has pointed out, you find something new in the Rick Santorum interview every time you look at it. What has occurred to me recently is the contradictory position he seems to have on social engineering.

The essence of Santorum's rejection of the right to privacy is that it prevents the government from regulating something that is harmful to society. Santorum advocates anti-gay measures (as well as condemning adultery, incest, polygamy, etc.) because these deviant practices undermine the traditional family. Because, according to him, the traditional family is the necessary building block of society, the government has a duty to step in to foster and maintain traditional family structures. In essence, he is calling for social engineering.

During the 2000 campaign, Al Gore's budgetary policies were attacked by Republicans as "social engineering." Gore advocated targeted tax cuts and subsidies to encourage certain behaviors, such as using environmentally friendly products and getting an education. Republicans charged that such attempts by the government to manipulate people's behavior were illegitimate. Now, I can't prove that Santorum ever made or even agreed with this line of argument, but it seems likely that he would have, and even more likely that there are Republicans out there that agree with both arguments. This is an obvious contradiction, which reveals that objections to Gore's plan were not really about "social engineering". Social engineering was just a convenient excuse for opposing a policy they didn't like.

This feeds into my general suspicion of any argument against something based on tactics or method of implementation -- that is, criticisms of the means rather than the end. I'm certain plenty of people make honest and consistent means-based arguments. But so often people from all over the political spectrum are vociferous in their denunciation of the other side's tactics, then turn around and use those same tactics in pursuit of their own ends (see, for example, the way Senators' positions on the process for approving federal judges swapped sides when the presidency, and hence the ideology of judicial nominees, changed parties).

So aren't I just as bad as Santorum on this count, given that I support gay rights and favored Gore? Not quite, because my opposition to anti-gay measures is not based on the popular libertarian "don't impose your morals on people" and "government shouldn't interfere in people's private behavior" arguments. What I reject is the crux of Santorum's argument: that gay relationships are harmful to society and that the traditional family is the best way to organize it. Indeed, I think that full legal and social recognition of gay relationships would be a positive good for society, which the government should "engineer" by removing its perverse restrictions on equality for gays (though I have deep pragmatic reservations about the possibility of any government action to directly address social recognition). So my problem is not that anti-gay measures are social engineering, my problem is that anti-gay measures are bad social engineering.

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