by N. A. Halkides
StubbornThings’ own CC Writer recently asked this question, and it deserves an answer. I think, though, that we should restrict our inquiry to modern American Conservatism rather than writing a book-length disquisition going back to the time of Edmund Burke, especially since such books have already been written, so that is how the term “Conservatism” will be used here. In fact, we must shortchange even the evolution of modern Conservatism with the advent of the true “Neoconservatives” in the 1950’s to concentrate on the contemporary situation. The word “Conservatism” suggests that something is to be conserved, and our problem then reduces to identifying what there has been in America worth conserving, and the general political program that follows logically from this identification, and which I believe Conservatives have attempted to follow.
What distinguished America historically from all other countries, even its mother country, Britain, and its “sisters” Canada and Australia, was the idea that free government rested on compact; this is the ideological forefather of Jefferson’s “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” in the Declaration of Independence. The social compact between the individual and his fellows, is that he agrees to give up the complete and total autonomy he had in a state of nature, and to obey society’s laws, in return for which society grants him the protection of those laws; that is, society’s laws must be made for the express purpose of protecting his individual rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It will be noted that government which constrained his liberty, or stole and redistributed his property, would be in violation of that compact, and some means would have to be found to prevent this from occurring since there is a natural, if deplorable, human tendency to try to rule one’s fellows.[pullquote]And much more is demanded of a self-governing people than of a flock of sheep tended by government; only a moral people could be entrusted with the responsibility of governing themselves. As John Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”[/pullquote]
This ideal found expression in the Federal Constitution: to ensure that government did not use its power to enslave rather than protect the individual, it was to be limited, and officials constrained by law. There are limits, legal boundaries, to government power. Up until that time, even in the freest nation, Great Britain, the Parliament was in theory supreme, although the British judges would refuse to recognize acts of Parliament which trespassed upon what was termed Natural Justice, i.e. the natural rights of Englishmen. Clearly, an unlimited government by definition can do whatever it pleases, and the citizen is bound to obey its directives however tyrannical they may be.
Needless to say, the petty tyrants among humanity wasted no time in attacking and undermining the new Constitution which stood in the way of their quest for power. The complete history of this process is beyond the scope of the present article, but all of us should be familiar with the history of Progressivism, which renamed itself Liberalism in an attempt to disguise its illiberality, and which now, having discredited even that term, has revived its original moniker. Progressives believe in unlimited government, and it was to counter their growing influence that the modern American Conservative movement originally came into being. The first pillar of Conservatism, then, is a return to limited government, or a restoration of the Republic.
The idea of a limited government did not spring up ex nihilo, it was rather the product of the Enlightenment, the philosophy of the seventeenth century which also expressed itself, among other ways, in the churches of New England. These churches were, like the Colonial polities, also formed by compact or covenant between individuals who preceded the existence of the newly-created whole, thus the importance of the individual and the idea of a compact between men was reinforced by religion. Significantly, there was no “wall of separation” between church and state, and the new nation was held together as much by ecclesiastical bonds as political ones. And much more is demanded of a self-governing people than of a flock of sheep tended by government; only a moral people could be entrusted with the responsibility of governing themselves. As John Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”[pullquote]What happens when democracy is set free of moral restraints is utterly predictable – mob rule – and we see it happening today in Europe as its entire culture crumbles, and among our own Progressives here in America, who whenever they are victorious in an election believe they also have a license to work their will without the least concession to the rights of others.[/pullquote]
None of this is meant to justify a theocracy, that perennial bogey-man supposedly just around the corner if Conservatives ever get control of the Federal Government, or to support the sort of “blue laws” that impose sectarian beliefs on civil society – the First Amendment, though it was not written to banish religion from the public square certainly was intended to prevent Congress from establishing an official church. But it does mean that a self-governing people must be a self-restraining one as well, held back by moral restraints that, if not emplaced by religious teachings must be the product of a thoroughgoing system of ethics, something that does not exist as a practical matter at the present time. What happens when democracy is set free of moral restraints is utterly predictable – mob rule – and we see it happening today in Europe as its entire culture crumbles, and among our own Progressives here in America, who whenever they are victorious in an election believe they also have a license to work their will without the least concession to the rights of others.
The second great pillar of Conservatism, then, is traditional morality, and in practice mostly Judeo-Christian morality, because of the recognition that a free society cannot survive without it – a free government cannot be maintained. And it is here that we begin to see quarrels develop between distinct groups, each of whom is nominally anti-Progressive (i.e. anti-statist). Libertarians tend to be hostile to religion, sharing many of the assumptions of the Progressive Left. Objectivists reject religion as being based on faith rather than reason, and even some small-government Conservatives are not comfortable with their “Socially Conservative” (as they are often known) brethren, but space does not allow us to get too deeply into these matters here. It should be noted, however, that our country was built by religious men, and that most certainly includes the Founding Fathers. Those needlessly on guard against the prospect of a religious tyranny that almost no one wants – I think it fair to say the most extreme Social Conservatives desire no more than to censor pornography, an understandable though insupportable position – should recognize that it is not “theocracy” to enact a moral precept such as “Thou shalt not kill” into the civil law simply because it is familiar to us as one of the Ten Commandments, provided the precept itself be sound and rationally justifiable.
The Church is but one of the non-governmental organizations that support our free, or formerly free, society. There are several others, of which perhaps the most important is the family. In the family once again Conservatives, and particularly Social Conservatives, find an institution worth conserving against the attacks launched by the Progressive Left – indeed, the fact that the family is under attack by those who wish the only institution in the citizen’s life be government is proof that Conservatives are right to defend it. We might also note that small-government Conservatives should recognize both the innate value of the family and that of Social Conservatives as natural allies against overweening government. This natural alliance has been strained in recent years by certain Libertarian tendencies, in particular the failure to see the importance of marriage and the family or the legitimate reasons why Western society until very recently has always defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Without getting entangled in the same-sex “marriage” issue here, the point I am trying to make is that those Libertarians and Libertarian-leaning small-government Conservatives are making a huge mistake, ideologically and tactically, in viewing Social Conservatives as a mere annoyance to be gotten rid of so they themselves can alone strive against the Big-government Left (using what arguments isn’t clear) without being “encumbered” by moral considerations or the considerable voting power Social Conservatives wield. To succeed against the terrifying power of the Democratic Party, strengthened these past few decades by the growth of government and uneducated third-world immigrants, a Conservative Coalition must form, and Social Conservatives will have to be a part of it.[pullquote]…the fact that the family is under attack by those who wish the only institution in the citizen’s life be government is proof that Conservatives are right to defend it.[/pullquote]
Let us imagine that somehow we have succeeded in conserving what is and has been great about America. What then should a Conservative foreign policy look like? Because unlike Progressives, Conservatives recognize that men cannot be converted into angels by a hefty dose of Progressive indoctrination, they know that a free state must be defended by men with guns. A strong defense is clearly indicated since weakness is always provocative to a potential aggressor, and for the most part Conservatives have agreed among themselves that the U.S. needs a strong military, second to none.
As to foreign relations generally, I believe there has been less agreement. Nationalism, i.e. the promotion of American interests, seems uncontroversial and would therefore have to be the center of a Conservative foreign policy. I would go a little further and say the Conservatives have generally been internationalist as well in the sense that there has been a recognition that America must play a leading role on the world stage. The disagreements have started when we get to questions of where, when, and how to intervene militarily, and those are difficult questions indeed. Korea, Vietnam, and the two Gulf wars are still controversial today. Iran looms large upon the horizon. I can only conclude that foreign policy is an area in which conservatives need to engage in a lot of internal debate and discussion, but for now I would hope that Conservatives could unite around the nationalist and internationalist elements I have cited as the third pillar of Conservatism. Does it need to be stated again that if Libertarians and even some Conservatives disagree, this is insufficient cause for them to deny their support to the broader Conservative movement?
We come now to what is perhaps the most thorny issue of all: abortion. It occupies a central place in American political life not so much because it is typical or representative of the broader struggle of freedom versus socialism that is now occurring, but because it arouses so much passion on both sides, and because the Supreme Court, by erroneously attempting to settle the matter through judicial fiat, removed the question from the political arena where it belonged, leaving no one satisfied. Without intending to imply that a principled case could not be made for abortion “rights,” in one respect I would assert that the abortion controversy is representative of the broader political struggle; namely, we see within it Conservatism’s conviction that every individual human life is important and deserving of protection, and the Left’s utter disregard for those same human lives.
What to do, then? We cannot adopt the platform of the Democratic Left – abortion on demand – yet we must avoid driving away potential supporters who might think a Conservative anti-abortion stance too extreme, even if the error is theirs, not ours. I can only suggest that at the Federal level, our position be that abortion is a matter properly left to the states, which is unquestionably sound constitutional doctrine. At the state level, we cannot run away from our responsibility to protect infant lives even if it does cost us a few votes. But we can avoid sounding extreme, that is, we can take a position far to the right of the Democrats and still be close to where the median American voter is – probably, a ban on partial-birth abortion and restrictions on elective abortions with exceptions where the life or health of the mother is at stake. A broad support for infant life, and a general antagonism toward abortion, has always been a pillar of modern American Conservatism (the fourth, by my reckoning), and I do not see how we can abandon it now.
In summary, then, I would suggest that American Conservatism is dedicated to the preservation of those governmental and non-governmental institutions which have proven their worth over time, and that it rests upon these four pillars: (1) a belief in limited government and the necessity of considerably reducing the size of the current Leviathan; (2) a belief in traditional morality and the worth of every individual life; (3) a foreign-policy that is nationalist in recognizing American interests and internationalist in recognizing our place among the nations of the world coupled to a commitment to a strong national defense; (4) the sanctity of life, including babies still in the womb.
I would go even a little further, and state that those who abjure any of these pillars aren’t really Conservative at all, although they might like to call themselves such. So-called “paleoconservatives” come to mind; they and others like them bear the same relationship to Conservatives that RINOs do to the Republican Party – call them CINOs, but don’t be distracted by them. Let us hope that we can pull together under the common Conservative banner, agreeing on these or another set of fundamental principles, and save America – for there is no one else who can. • (3167 views)