This past weekend I participated in the annual Civitas Conference in Halifax, which was great fun. There was lots of conservative/libertarian/classical liberal discussion and argument (also some great lobster and music!). I was was one of four people divided into teams of two to participate in one of the six sessions, which was set up as a debate on the question: “Which Comes First, Institutional Reform, or Moral Renewal?”  I was on the moral renewal side, with Richard Bastien, editor of Egards, which is an excellent French-Canadian Journal. You have to love the logo of the Journal: “Revue de la resistance conservatrice” which means a journal of conservative resistance. Yes! We went up againt Link Byfield and Rick Anderson on the other side, both of whom were arguing for democratic and parliamentary reforms and the like, and all of us were asked to be sure to put our ideas provocatively so that there would be lots of reaction between ourselves and from the audience.  There was, and it was good fun.  We each got only four minutes to present our thoughts, and here are mine.

On the question of how to win a debate against opponents arguing that institutional reform is better than moral reform – I would say they should surrender now, simply because it is impossible to imagine reform of any kind that does not have a moral basis.

For example, if you call for democratic reform, or electoral reform, you believe that rule by the people is preferable to an alternative such as aristocracy, or monarchy. The moral preference is that it is better to be a free man making your own laws than to be a slave to laws you cannot change. And again, if you call for tax reform – say, more progressive tax rates, or a flat tax – you must defend this on some moral theory about social justice in the first case (that the rich ought to pay more than the poor), or in the second that tax equality is morally preferable to tax discrimination.

When economic and social policy reformers ask (as did our moderator Sylvia in an email framing this debate) “can institutional reform get us the kind of policy changes we want if we don’t first change the climate of public opinion?” – she was touching on two fundamental questions that ought to bother all policy wonks. Namely: are we trying to change public behaviour because we believe we know what is good for people better than they do themselves? (this, too, is a moral question). And if so, is it right (also a moral question) to engineer these changes whether or not the subjects of policy manipulation – you and me – are aware of their designs on our behaviour? I respectfully submit that casual phrases such as “institutional reform,” and “changing the climate of public opinion,” are really just cover terms for underlying moral points of view that policy-makers seek to impose on the rest of us, mostly because they have long since abandoned ship on the true-conservative conviction that a firm public moral consensus will always produce self-governing human beings. So, just to take one example, in the face of the dire social and population consequences of things like dogmatic man-hating feminism, tax-funded abortion, and so-called gay marriage – instead of fighting back by persuading the public, and especially young people at home, at school, and in the public square of the fundamental importance of heterosexual marriage, the sacredness of all human life, and the crucial civilizational role of generative sexual love and family bonds, they surrender, panic, and then respond pathetically – by offering bucks for babies!

So a tough version of my thesis is that a lot of institutional reform in free societies really operates as a kind of covert moral totalitarianism imposed from the top. Policy-makers prefer this to genuine moral reform commanding high standards of personal and public behaviour such as is normally generated by free individuals, their families, their religions, and their moral and social interactions from the bottom up. This leads to the only question that matters: is it better to impose behavioural change on unsuspecting citizens through legal and tax and policy manipulations that imagine them as unconscious policy objects, or is it better to encourage true change that starts in the hearts and minds of self-aware and morally conscious individuals?

I propose that the latter is to be preferred for the reason that Burke gave us long ago: the more control (he meant moral control) we have within, the less we need without. In other words a high standard of personal and public morality – which means nothing if it cannot produce a common, and yes, a very public sense of virtue and vice – has always been the most effective and inexpensive form of crowd control and is far preferable to institutional manipulations dressed up as social, economic, or political science.