Much quoted since the sad death of Daniel Patrick Moynihan has been his aphorism:
The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society.
The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.
However, as Matthew Yglesias observed a while back, the idea that politics can change culture is scarcely alien to conservatives. Why do they shudder with such fear at the legalization of gay marriage? Why are they so eager to ban naughty speech? What, in short, is the political front of the “culture wars” about if not the belief that politics can change culture? In fact, the oft-heard conservative claim that they oppose “social engineering” is entirely disingenuous: they’re all too eager to make use of their own to roll back social trends of which they disapprove.
Within limits—human nature is not infinitely plastic—I think both sides are mostly right about this. An friend in high school once treated me to the spectacularly circular argument that even “soft” drugs like marijuana must remain illegal because they’re so very dangerous. And how do we know they’re so dangerous? Well, because they’re illegal, of course!
But I wonder whether one of the central libertarian truths isn’t that, perhaps, to the extent that politics can “save” culture, it ought not to. What distinguishes politics, after all, is that it either threatens people, or does things with their money, whether they want said things done or not. The former isn’t how civil people go about changing one another’s minds, and the latter seems insulting at the very least (thanks for the cash, now we’ll use it to tell you what to think). Bear in mind that, for the slogan to have any meaning, the change in culture must be fundamentally undemocratic and top-down in form. If the culture were already moving in a certain direction, then a political change in that same direction would be an instance of culture changing politics, not the reverse. Politics is required to change culture only when those who wield political power find themelves at odds with that culture, which is to say, at odds with those they’re supposed to be representing. To paraphrase Goebbels, whenever I hear anyone talk about politics changing culture, I reach for my gun…