I have decided to come out of semi-hibernation and resuscitate my lagging pundit status by tackling a serious issue. It seems that President Bush is causing the conservative base to grumble and the libertarian alliance to scream. Andrew Sullivan declares in Time magazine the astounding discovery that W is not a libertarian! No offence to Mr. Sullivan but this is a little silly no? I mean, was there any indication that Bush was a libertarian minded Republican at some point in the past? Surely, an intelligent man like Andrew is aware that freedom means different things to different people in different contexts. Here is his startling conclusion:
There has always been a tension in conservatism between those who favor more liberty and those who want more morality. But what’s indisputable is that Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” is a move toward the latter ? the use of the government to impose and subsidize certain morals over others.
This is not piercing insight by any stretch. If you thought Bush was a live-and-let live libertarian you weren’t paying attention.
Nevertheless, conservatives and libertarians are right to be upset about the growth in federal spending and nervous about do-gooder type programs that burn money and do little to help fix the problem. But what is needed is prudence and strategic thinking on how best to stem the tide not ranting and raving about betrayal and throwing your vote to the Democrats. Let’s be honest, does anyone really believe that any Democratic Presidential candidate will call for less government? You could make the argument that divided government might stem the tide, but do you want to risk Dean or Clark or Kerry running foreign policy in these treacherous times?
No what we need are beliefs and ideas to make an impact on policy. Below I will outline some basic concepts and briefly discuss how they might be used to impact government policy.
First lets try to come up with a basic definition of a conservative. These elements are centered on philosophical or first principle conservatism not political conservatism. They are not meant to be exhaustive or precise, just some reference points. They refer largely to traditional conservatism not libertarianism.
The first idea is that there is something bigger than ourselves. You can call this natural law, religion, what-have-you but the key is that there is an order and meaning to life beyond mere existence or desire. From this follows the idea that the goal is to line up society with this natural order as best we can. Ordered souls are necessary for an ordered society.
The next concept is that man, and hence society, is flawed. This important idea acts as a restraint on the utopian schemes of those who believe in the perfectability of man or the natural goodness of mankind. If you think people are capable of anything they can dream up, you are not conservative. Again, you can get to this point through original sin or simple realism or whatever but you must see limits.
Another important concept, is the belief that organic traditions and institutions have value beyond what might be easily explained. This is a concept that says, man is foolish but mankind is wise. It says that institutions and ideas that have organically developed over a long time and that serve society should not be torn down willy-nilly. “If change is not necessary, then it is necessary not to change.” Just because you can’t explain it with cold reason doesn’t mean it lacks value, we should tread lightly when proposing major alterations to the social fabric.
Lastly, conservatives believe that balance and prudence are necessary to any solid philosophy. There are usually not simple solutions to complex problems. Mostly, life is about trade offs and balancing compelling interests. Sohpisters and revolutionaries like to fight under the banner of a single idea followed blindly, this usually results in disaster. Conservatives know that society must balance order, freedom, and justice in order to create a tolerable society.
Ok, what are some conservative outgrowth of these ideas when it comes to government? Well, limited government is one outgrowth. Not because government is inherently evil but because too much power in the hands of flawed men leads to danger. Checks and balances serve to brake radical change for the sake of change. Competing interests prevent rash and wild swings in policy.
Another reason for limited government is to prevent the encroachment of government on other important institutions. Families, churches, civil groups are important building blocks for society and government run amok under cuts their authority.
On the other side, conservatives know that order is necessary for freedom and justice to exist. This means that rules must exist but that they must be fair and predetermined so that people can act and know the consequences. Government at its basic level doesn’t offend conservatives because they realize that society must order itself and authority must be used to prevent anarchy. Conservatives believe that all men should be equal before God and the law. Arbitrary and discriminatory laws and regulations encroach on freedom and disrupt order.
Conservatives also view social and institutional pressure as different from pure government power. They don’t take a libertine view to social relations because they know that social relations must be ordered too. Thus they don’t approve of government imposing values on these institutions nor do they frown on stigma associated with unwanted behavior. Liberty doesn’t mean the ability to do whatever you want without consequence or ramification. Relatedly, they frown upon government as a tool to force social change. Change should move gradually and organically not be imposed legally, even in the name of freedom. This doesn’t mean that government can’t act to defend freedom only that we should be leery of top down impositions of change.
In the same way, national security is seen as central to government. The country must be safe from attack in order to build stable and prosperous lives. Just as arbitrary rules disrupt order and encroach on freedom, fear of invasion and attack prevent planning and stability.
Lastly, conservatives realize that control of ones property is crucial to liberty. Just as centralize political authority tempts tyranny, so too economic power in the hands of the state limits freedom. Related to this is a prudential realization that government isn’t well suited to the complex and dynamic functioning of economics. A market or price system more effectively indicates choice on the margins and thus promotes greater freedom.
So conservatives would look towards balanced but effective government; a emphasis on the fundamental issue of security; autonomy for local and traditional institutions but respect for the ability of society to impose limits, and a free market system designed to protect property and to avoid politically motivated redistribution.
Since this has gone on for so long, I will discuss some policy issues and their relationship to President Bush in the next post.