The inauguration of Ronald Reagan and the political changes in Congress have been widely interpreted as a triumph of "conservatism." What kind of Conservatism? According to the preamble of the platform on which Mr. Reagan ran, the new era will be defined by "the fundamental conviction of the Republican Party that government should foster in our society a climate of maximum individual liberty and freedom of choice."
But the Republican platform is full of prescriptions for reducing civil liberty. It urges a constitutional amendment to prohibit a woman or married couple from making the private decision to have an abortion. It calls for curtailment of religious freedom and a narrowing of the separation of church and state in order to permit prayer in public schools. It supports "the repeal of ill-considered restrictions" on government agencies adopted in the post-Watergate period to protect the rights of Americans against thoroughly documented FBI and CIA abuses.
How seriously these prescriptions should be taken depends on what efforts are made to implement them. The signs are not encouraging.
Last year, Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.) introduced "The Family Protection Act." The bill would deny federaly funds to states unless they allow prayer in public schools and other public facilities; it would bar federal aid for the purchase of school textbooks if they "denigrant, diminish or deny the role differences between the sexes as it has been historically understood in the United States"; and it would declare that discrimination against homosexuals or "individuals who proclaim homosexual tendencies" is not an "unlawful employment practice." It would also assault the Supreme Court by stripping it of jurisdiction to hear any constitutional challeges to school prayer.
The Republican platform's call for the lifting of "ill-considered restrictions" on intelligence agenices, while not very specific, is cause for concern about the future of civil liberties. Officials of the Reagan transition have said they will "rely heavily" on a report by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, in mapping policy for the intelligence community. A November draft of the Heritage recommendations asserted that "it is axiomatic that individual liberties are secondary to the requirements of national security and individual civil order."
The new administration would do well to remember that thoughtful conservatives have generally condemned similar forms of governmental inteferences with individual liberties. The late Justice John Marshall Harlan, for example, took the position in a 1958 case involving a Connecticut law banning birth control devices that the state "does not have the right to enforce its moral judgment by intruding upon the most intimate details of the marital relation." Justice Harlan's position was later adopted by a majority of the Supreme Court in the 1973 landmark abortion decision authored by Justice Harry Blackmun, who was appointed to the court by Richard Nixon. Another Republican appointee, Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr. wrote the court's opinion in a 1972 case imposing restrictions on FBI and CIA intelligence-gathering. Justice Powell pointed out that "the price of lawful public dissent must not be a dread of subjection to an unchecked power."
If fostering a climate of individual liberty and freedom of choice is a goal of the Republican platform, that goal will not be reached by prohibiting abortion, authorizing school prayer, unleashing the FBI and CIA to spy on political activities or otherwise exalting the power of government to cut back constitutional rights. Such proposals are aimed not at preserving our tradition of liberty, but at unpending it.