The question of the role of government, and the role of consent, quickly slides into a question about culture versus politics. “Rights-based” conservatives have made the case that culture is upstream of politics — that we must change the culture to change our politics. “Common good” conservatives make the case that politics is part of culture, and that politics can change culture. “Common good” conservatives aren’t wrong here — but their point is far less powerful than they believe. Terry Schilling writes, “Politics is a key part of culture, and often drives it. The law can serve as a teacher and a guide to encourage positive behaviors and discourage negative ones.” But the law cannot provide a bulwark against social change. Law can be used to deepen already-extant social movements; it cannot defeat burgeoning social movements. The history of the last century should have taught us at least that much. Marriage laws didn’t defeat the same-sex marriage movement; by the same token, liberalized abortion laws haven’t defeated the pro-life movement.
This means that the heavy work to be done must be done in the cultural sphere. But because conservatives have watched their chief cultural institution — church — wane in influence, and have provided no alternative methods of cultural purchase, abandoning Hollywood and the media in large measure, they are left with government as their only tool. This means that conservatives — who, it turns out, are quite good at elections — have become a hammer in search of a nail. The problem is that the nail, cultural change, isn’t actually a nail, it’s a thimble of nitroglycerin — and hitting it with a hammer will lead to an explosion. You can’t solve cultural change with politics.
But you can solve politics with cultural change. And this is where conservatives ought to be putting their focus: On minimizing the size of government, growth of which threatens both liberty and conservative culture, while simultaneously changing the cultural milieu through cultural engagement.