Tuesday, May 7, 2013

What Conservatives Believe

The recent post titled "Why I'm Not a Liberal" motivated a couple of readers to comment that, having been given reasons for eschewing liberalism, it might be helpful to read what conservatives stand for. One reader asked who the seminal thinkers in conservative thought might be and two readers suggested it might be interesting to clarify the connection between classical liberalism and modern conservatism.

I thought these were excellent suggestions so here's my response:

A partial list of the historical progenitors of conservatism would include Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, Montesquieu, John Locke, the American Founders, Alexis de Tocqueville, and perhaps John Stuart Mill. Many readers will be able to think of others, I'm sure.

In our own age, starting in the 1950s, intellectual conservatism was shaped mostly by the people at William Buckley's National Review (Buckley, Russell Kirk, James Burnham, William Rusher). Their thought nourished generations of conservative politicians, most notably Ronald Reagan, and paved the way for numerous popularizers like Rush Limbaugh and myriad other media talkers and columnists. Nevertheless, despite the fecundity of contemporary conservative thought, it was the thinkers at NR who pretty much established its intellectual lineaments. There were others, of course (Robert Tyrrell at the American Spectator and Ayn Rand come to mind), but the NR crowd was really the heart of it.

Conservatives today generally agree on the following seven elements, although they'd differ on which should be given priority in the event that two or more come into conflict:
  1. Limited government - Freedom and prosperity are inversely related to the size of government. Big government not only tends to be oppressive, it also tends to be inefficient, wasteful, unresponsive, and easily corrupted.
  2. Free markets - As a rule, when people are left to engage in a free exchange of goods and money with minimal government interference and regulation, everyone benefits.
  3. Individual liberty - Conservatives believe that citizens should be free from government interference to pursue their own dreams and desires consistent with the rights of others.
  4. Private Property - Conservatives believe that the right to personal ownership of life's material goods is an essential element of freedom and that states in which government is the property owner are perforce oppressive.
  5. Strict constructionism - This is the view that the Constitution is not indefinitely malleable and that no law should go further than what a reasonable interpretation of the words of the Constitution permit. As an example, most conservatives would agree that the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision was an extra-constitutional abuse of power by the Supreme Court which fabricated a constitutional right to abortion whose existence in that document most conservatives deny.
  6. Strong national defense - Conservatives believe that the best deterrent to war is the ability to decisively project force and defend the homeland and that weakness is an invitation to national insult. Conservatives believe that a great nation should behave as historian Edward Gibbon described Rome under the emperor Hadrian: It was as little willing to suffer insult as it was to give it.
  7. Traditional values - Conservatives believe that a people which holds itself to high standards of sexual morality, which places a high value on traditional family and religion, and which loves their country, its heritage and principles, will form a strong and vibrant society, and that failure to hold these values results in societal dissolution.
It's true that sometimes these elements need to be balanced one against another, and individual conservatives will, in such cases, elevate the importance of one above the other. Those who are primarily social conservatives tend to give preeminence to #5, 6, and 7, whereas those who are primarily economic conservatives tend to emphasize the first four. Despite such differences conservatives generally agree that all seven are crucial to a maximally healthy polity.

Moreover, the first four elements reflect the genealogical connection of modern conservatism to classical liberalism. Eighteenth and nineteenth century liberals (classical liberals) all embraced #1, 2, 3, and 4. Modern liberalism as it is incarnated in today's Democratic party, however, pretty much rejects all seven. This rejection severs modern liberalism from classical liberalism and places it instead in the descendency of early 20th century progressivism which itself was the intellectual offspring of 19th century Marxism and 18th century French Jacobinism.

Anyway, if you agree with these seven points, or at least most of them, you're a conservative. You may not have realized that you are, you may even have voted in the last election for liberal Democrats, but if you embrace these seven elements, you weren't being very consistent if you did.