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Evolution of Conservatism

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Conservatism Revisited

Editor’s note: Definition of conservatism is not so simple. American conservatism seeks to conserve but yet it favors change. It does not seek revolution but it is okay with evolution. Conservatism does not oppose changed but understand to change future does not need to undermine the past. This thoughts were presented in a longer final version in my last book, Empire of Liberty.

“The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world; it is God’s gift to humanity.” George Bush, State of the Union 2003

These sentiments begin the process of defining the American conservative. We do not believe that the state or the nation is the highest authority but our freedom and liberty are gifts that are naturally endowed; not a gift merely bestowed upon us. President Bush’s point is simple; we are all answerable to a higher authority. To be conceited in our own self is the beginning of hubris.

Christopher Hitchens, the British born leftist pundit, wrote, “When viewed from any objective standpoint to its immediate left, the American conservative movement manifest one distinct symptom of well-being. It is fairly conspicuously schismatic, and it possesses the confidence to rehearse its differences in public.”

Hitchens concedes that today political left is merely the status quo and as Hitchens observed, “American conservatives have won some deserved respect for their willingness to attack the status quo and for their ability to know a historical turning-point when they see one.” From the American Revolution till modern times, American ideals are proven to be essentially conservative. Our founding fathers chose a Revolution to preserve and conserve what they believed was their right as Englishmen of their era. It was not a revolution to change mankind in contrast in most revolutions that followed. The French Revolution that would follow within a decade after our own went into a totally revolutionary way. Instead of preserving order, the French revolutionaries attempted to change the nature of men. As Alexander Hamilton would write in the Federalist Paper, “If men were angels” we would not need government.” For our founding fathers, revolution was not to change man but to seek an ordered liberty to restrain the natural inclination of man. Our founding fathers were not believers in the perfectibility of man and founded a government that understood that. The French revolutionaries believed in the perfectibility of man and that only with the right law and incentives, the new man could be created. Their revolution ended up with Napoleon, who in the end saw himself as the new emperor of Europe. So much for the new French man.

When author Roger Scruton in a Wall Street journal article attempted to answer the question what conservatives wanted to preserve, he answered, “Us… At the heart of every conservative endeavor is the effort is to conserve a historically given community…He is the one who looks for the good in the institutions, customs and habits that he has inherited.” Scruton continues by noting that conservatives are “suspicious of experiments and innovations that put loyalty at risk.” For Scruton, conservatism is less than a philosophy than temperament that emerges “naturally from the experience of society.”

According to Scruton, conservatives love free markets not just because it works but also because it forces individuals to take responsibility for their own actions. American conservatives are not shy about defining its philosophy at a intellectual level and Scruton compares the American conservatives with those in his native Great Britain that “British conservatism has always been suspicious of ideas and the only great modern, conservative thinker in my country who has tried to disseminate his ideas through a journal – T.S. Eliot—was in fact an American.”. Scruton views conservatisms not just about profit but “about loss: It survives and flourishes because people are in the habit of mourning their loss, and resolving to safeguard against them.”

American conservatives are not like European-style conservatives for the American conservatives do not defend a hierarchy nor does the American conservatives have a pessimistic view of humanity. We do not believe that men are angels but we do not necessarily believe that men are devils either. A conservative, American style, is really an old fashioned liberal. There was a time in American History that to be a liberal was to be for less government, open trade and more freedom. I reviewed a book on the life of Grover Cleveland, who best represented what liberalism used to be. He stood on the rampart against government spending, spent his presidency trying to lower tariff barriers and reduce the tax burdens on American. He was the last of the classic Jeffersonian liberal. As the 19th century came to close, what was left of the Jeffersonian liberal died with Grover Cleveland’s political career.

In the 1950’s, during the beginning of the Cold War, Bill Buckley redefined conservatism. Combining libertarian economic thoughts with social conservatism and adding the Anti-Communist factions, Buckley was able to fuse together a new conservative movement. Even today, the combination of this conservatism still exists. Buckley originally started his movement by yelling, “stop” to progressive movement propelling through the 50’s. American conservatism is not about stopping change, but allowing the individual to affect change as opposed to government. Conservatives are the biggest defenders of free markets, and free markets are about change. To stand for free market is to defend change on a daily basis for the consumer drives it. What conservatives’ distrust is change instituted from above, from government.
William F. Buckley wrote recently, “Conservatives do not vest in the free market ontological authority. But we believe that the marketplace is the operative mechanism by which individual choice is transcribed.” Individual choices matter. Buckley gives the example between Pepsi and Coca-Cola in which he discerns, “On such matters conservatives are nescient, never knowing which of the two is better, capable of knowing which is in greater demand.”

Today, two out of every three jobs that existed a century ago, do not exist today. Who would want to have manure scooper to clean up after horses? That is one job we could live without. On the other hand, conservatives understand that society does need a glue to hold the center together. Respect for the rule of law, a common bond of morality and justice and finally, the need of religious practices a necessity to a functioning democracy- if only to remind us that we are not gods and that our leaders, like ourselves answer to a higher authority. Conservatives accept the idea that government serves the people and was established to protect the rights of the individual. When government becomes too big, it becomes a threat to individual rights. Free markets bring both change and turmoil and this is seen in the debate over free trade and Globalization. Free trade is threatening because it undermines the status quo. Those who oppose Globalization are the ones oppose potentially progressive changes. Democratic free market societies can, in the end, assimilate what comes before it. With the individual driving change, society can evolve naturally. Democratic market societies encourage evolution, not revolution.

Over the past five decades, conservatism has not always seen the truth for in the case of race relations, it failed. Many conservatives viewed states right more important than the old principles of classic liberalism that geared it base. Unfortunately, the principle of state rights meant supporting the right of local government to deny a significant portion of its population their basic rights which should have been incompatible with what modern day conservatism was and is all about.

Today, it is conservatism that is now standing on the rampart of the principle for a color -blind society. Through the support of welfare reform, educational choice and finally, the opening of economic opportunities for all, conservatives are now regaining the moral authority on the question of race and it is the left that supports the status quo that oppresses minorities in inferior school and government dependency. It is the left that argues that race matters and equality before the law does not. It is the left that is becoming the new segregationist.

The one area where conservativism believes in preservation is in the courts. Antonin Scalia described the present Supreme Court activity: “Day by day, case by case, the court is busy designing a Constitution for a country I do not recognize.” The Courts have become an un-elected legislature, usurping in many areas what should be left to the individuals or through their legislature. The left has used the courts as vehicle for “permanent revolution.” A conservative jurist believes that to interpret the Constitution is to discern the original intent of the founding father. The Constitution does have vehicle for change by the electorate and certainly conservatives are not oppose to change. What they fear is a Court that is not answerable to the people instituting changes that are not consistent with our founding father and our traditions. Robert Bork declared, “Legal conservatism requires discriminating judgment about what law can accomplish and what it cannot. Poorly thought out legal innovations do great damage.” This is evident in Roe vs. Wade and its follow up decision, Doe vs. Bolton. These two court decisions have produced the most permissive abortion laws in the world. The right to privacy in which the decision is based upon is not found in the Constitution and before 1973, local government made their own decision about abortion laws. In many states, abortion laws were being liberalized to allow more leeway between the mother and her physicians. Kansas and California led the way in the liberalization of abortion laws. Abortions were being allowed under certain conditions while acknowledging the rights of the mother, the unborn child, and the sensitivity of the local population. What Roe Vs. Wade did was to overturn 50 state laws including the most liberal. What it attempted to do was to end the debate on the issue. Instead of allowing a compromise to be reached, it went beyond the Constitution and stated the opinion of nine men in a robe on a complicated issue that was best left in the hands of the people.

What would happen if Roe vs. Wade were overturned? Simple, the matter goes back to the state and somehow, the American people will decide for themselves how to deal with this issue. Abortions would still be allowed in most states but the right would be restricted, depending upon locality. The Courts are the final arbitrator of the Constitution meanings and when the Courts go beyond their responsibility, respect for law is eroded. Justices can’t substitute their own vision of law. It is here that conservatives need to stand up and say, “Stop.” Revolution can never instituted from above without destroying the fabric of society. American conservatives understand that change must come from below and through consensus. The leftist activists on the Court have no faith in the people and no belief in the Constitution but only in their vision of a just society. Using the Court to institute revolutionary change from above, they have eroded the authority of the Courts.

Indian author Gurcharan Das once observed that democracy is best in the hand of modest men. Modesty is a virtue for it is in modesty that individuals understand that there are limits to government and limits to what the courts can accomplish. Why conservatives believe in limited government is simple. The ability of government to solve all problems is impossible, and government is but one actor in society. Within the whole of society, many players interact from the local business and local churches to local communities. Society is made of many parts and many whole and government is the legal vehicle to ensure that justice is for all. It is the vehicle to protect our rights not to abuse it. Government protects the freedom to worship, to speak out, to work and establish business. The hallmark of a conservative is modesty.

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About Tom Donelson