- Victor C. Bolles
Conservatism is not Enough
I suppose most people think that they understand what a conservative is and also what a liberal is. But I don’t like those terms. They are so broad and vague that they have lost all meaning. There are conservatives all over the world. A conservative in China would be a hard-core apparatchik of the Communist Party of China. A conservative in India would be a member of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. A recent article about the new prime minister of Malaysia compared the progressive Pakatan Harapan party against the conservative Perikatan National party. In the US there use to be conservative Democrats (like George Wallace) and liberal Republicans (like Nelson Rockefeller).
And these labels change all the time. Now, we consider progressives to be left wing Democrats, but there use to be progressive Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt. The dictionary defines a liberal as a supporter of a political and social philosophy that promotes individual rights, civil liberties, democracy, and free enterprise. But the same dictionary also defines a liberal as a supporter of policies that are socially progressive and promote social welfare. You can see how a person could be confused. I usually classify myself as a classical liberal, which means I follow the first definition.
So, there must be something behind a conservative position that defines what a conservative believes. There must be a foundation upon which a conservative stands. For many years, the foundation of the American social contract was based on that first definition of a liberal philosophy. The Founders of America had read John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government and other works of Enlightenment philosophers. They believed that for a person to be free the power of the government must be limited. They believed that a person must not only have political rights (we call them civil rights), but also economic rights including the right to own property. Before the creation of America almost no people in the world had any of these rights. Even now, many people still don’t have these rights.
The American Revolution was fought in large part for the economic rights of the colonists. They fought against the taxes imposed by Parliament (a confiscation of property over which they had no control) and against the requirement that they only trade with British merchants (which led eventually to the Boston Tea Party). But without civil rights, property rights and economic rights are meaningless. The colonists had little trust in government, which they viewed as remote, arbitrary and dictatorial. This fact prompted the Founders to put checks and balances on the power of government into the constitution that they created for the new nation.
Conservative political beliefs should still be based on those original Enlightenment principles. The passage of time, however, has required us to make some pragmatic adjustments to those original principles. The biggest adjustment has been in the size of our government. At the time of our founding, we were a small agricultural country. We were protected from the affairs of the great powers by the Atlantic Ocean so there was no need for a large standing army. It took many days for people or even information to travel to the other states, so much of life and politics was local. There were few of what we would call corporations and the Industrial Revolution had yet to come to America so there was little industrial activity to regulate.
None of those conditions exist anymore. Oceans offer no protection, and we are continually at risk from autocratic powers. We can commute across a much larger country in a matter of hours and information zips around at the speed of light. Huge corporations and banks dominate the economy requiring a strong government as a counterbalance. All this makes it difficult to hang on to the ideals of our Founding Principles of personal Liberty, civil rights, and free enterprise. Conservatives would be charged to lead this fight to uphold our Founding Principles but, being human, they have often fallen short.
Hyrum Lewis, professor of history at BYU-Idaho claimed in a WSJ op-ed (“Conservative” is a bad Label for Republican’s Good Policies, November 26, 2022) that, “Each party stands for a bunch of unrelated policies that are connected only by happenstance, not philosophy.” That may be the case but that shouldn’t be the case. Party philosophy should stand for something. But I do agree with him that Republicans need “a more principled, positive (narrative) that can attract educated voters.” Republicans need to be more than conservative, they need to be principled.
I am currently reading a biography of Samuel Adams, an American Founder in his own right and cousin to the second president, John Adams. But Samuel Adams was no conservative. Reading his biography was like reading Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. None of the Founders were conservatives. They were, by definition, revolutionaries. Samuel Adams’ tactics to foment revolution in the American colonies are eerily similar to antifa’s political protests. But the Founders’ tactics were actions they believed necessary to achieve independence and the goals of their Enlightenment beliefs, just as antifa’s tactics are believed necessary to achieving their Marxist goals.
In the US we drive on the right side of the road. Drivers on our roads are supposed to know the rules of the road. And because we all have the same understanding we can drive relatively safely because all of the drivers are following the same rules. In England, they drive on the left side of the road. English drivers understand their rules of the road just like American drivers understand our rules of the road, and so, can drive through the English countryside in relative safety. But if English and American drivers were somehow thrown together on the same highway, it would be chaos.
There are good people following the rules of the road and there are bad people following the rules of the road. It doesn’t matter if they are good or bad, saintly or evil, moral or immoral as long as they all follow the rules of the road, at least for driving. In American politics those we call conservatives and those we call progressives are driving by different rules of the road resulting in the chaos and conflicts of American politics. They could all be good people but if they are driving by different rules of the road the result will be chaos and death, on our highways and in our politics.
Americans are not going to call English people evil because they drive on the left side of the road. If there was a situation where English people and Americans were thrown together and had to figure out which side of the road to drive on, they would be stupid to get angry and call each other names. The rules are arbitrary but have consequences in the type of infrastructure to build and many other factors. The reasonable response would be to study the data to see if one system had a better safety record, savings in construction costs or other important considerations. Then they could sit down and figure out which rules of the road to follow.
It won’t be so easy to figure out which political rules of the road to follow, but we should be able to discuss rationally and examine the data. There is ample data on our classically liberal American model. It has existed for over 240 years and has become the most powerful and prosperous country in the world, so our classically liberal model has proven utility. But, it is not without problems and is having some difficulties in adjusting to the fast-paced changes of the 21st century. But overcoming those difficulties should not require throwing out the rules of the road that make the model possible.
The alternative model (the left sided rules of the road, if you will) does not have an ample data set proving the utility of this model because no society based on the Marxist/socialist model has been very successful or lasted very long. Further, the creation, implementation and ultimate collapse of these societies have been plagued by oppression and death. That does not mean that some, and perhaps even many, of their social welfare goals are not worthy. But it would imply that their alternative rules of the road are not a viable way to achieve those goals.
Conservatives (or classic liberals if you prefer) can play an important role in achieving those goals as well as the other goals that make up the American Dream by making sure that America’s Founding Principles are the rules of the road to follow.