The conservative appeal of Hillsdale.

Jillian Melchior, a 2009 graduate of Hillsdale college, takes to The Daily to defend the unique appeal of her idyllic institution. Ultimately, she gives a good articulation of 1) Why Hillsdale is representative of the conservative movement and 2) That there is long-standing uncomfortable ideological inconsistency in that movement that has yet to be convincingly smoothed out.

Anyone involved with conservatives is probably aware of this tiny Michigan college with less than 2,000 people. It’s a phenomenon, but it’s one of the ironic intellectual powerhouses of the movement — something that Melchior acknowledges:

Hillsdale’s reach is impressive given its size and location. Enrollment is well under 2,000. The college itself is pastoral, tucked away in a snow-blighted Michigan town. With the library open later than the town’s one real bar, students make their own fun. Philosophy is debated over campfires; the religious crowd spends Friday night swing-dancing; members of one fraternity are notorious for wearing fedoras without a hint of irony.

The rest of the column is Melchior’s attempt to explore the ideological inconsistency between the socially conservative and libertarian elements of the movement by reducing it to the confines of Hillsdale’s modest campus.

On the one hand, you have an institution that refuses to accept federal money, repudiates affirmative action, and espouses principles of liberty and limited government. On the other, you have institutional qualities such as these:

At the same time, Hillsdale promotes a Judeo-Christian worldview, which translates into school policy: Men and women are allowed in each other’s dorm rooms only during certain hours; a document approved by the trustees in 2010 states that sexual intimacy belongs “in marriage and between the sexes,” though welcoming discussion on the matter; the college’s health center refuses to dispense birth control.

Melchior attempts to resolve this in a classic way.

First. Hillsdale is private, and can do whatever it wants. There’s procedural justice in that students who decide to enroll understand what they agree to and freely contract anyway. As Melchior says

They are introduced to social contract theory — a theme throughout the curriculum — when they sign Hillsdale’s honor code. And they can leave at any time. Therefore, the college can rightfully establish policies that would be illiberal if adopted by government.

This is classic consent theory. It’s a little over-simplified because it assumes that there are no barriers to leaving, like the prospect of wasted investment in education or reduced job prospects. But it’s generally sound.

Second. People cannot self-govern if they are not taught a basic sense of morality — specifically Christian morality.

This is where it all crumbles.

Apparently this essential “morality” includes statements that implicitly endorse denying certain groups civil liberties, limiting women’s reproductive rights through reduced access to birth control, curfews that police fraternization with certain peers based on gender, and the endorsement of a specific moral/religious worldview.

Melchior calls these value judgments “deliberate and non-contradictory” to personal liberty. So the two assumptions are 1) people freely consent to these policies and 2) moral Judeo/Christian values are needed for self-government.

I’m not buying it.

The first assumption is the same reason why Rand Paul said he would vote against the Civil Rights Act. It confuses, or rather conflates, philosophical conclusions regarding authority with normative values (for a good articulation of this phenomena among conservatives, see Richard Epstein). So yes, it may be “conservative” to allow people to freely consent to certain policies because it maximizes their liberty to act in their perceived best interest. That doesn’t make the policies themselves favorable to personal liberty.

With respect to assumption 2, Melchior doesn’t even offer a reason why the moral education of Hillsdale engenders the capacity for self-government. This is about the most revealing thing she writes:

Limited government is impossible unless citizens are capable of self-government. And citizens cannot self-govern unless they have some intrinsic notion of morality, which keeps them from encroaching on each other’s rights. Without self-governance reinforced by personal morality, a paternalistic state becomes inevitable.

I’m not going to even get into the numerous ways it can be argued that Hillsdale’s social aims DO in fact “encroach on other’s rights.”Because the real irony is that insofar as Hillsdale has legitimate authority through consent over those who attend there, the policies it promulgates ARE paternalistic — exactly what Melchior explicitly says she fears from a different layer of authority: the federal government. While one may want to consent to be bound by moralistic and paternalistic authority, it is not a philosophy of liberty that these policies stem from, in spite of liberty being the quintessential conservative value inherited from classical liberalism. Thus, it would NOT be “conservative” as Melchior defines it, for individuals to submit to these policies.

Liberty lies both in the process and the content. I have yet to see a solid articulation of how there is ideological harmony between social conservatism and libertarianism, and Melchior’s attempts join a long list of attempts that fall flat.


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