Are We Really “Conservatives?”

 
403px-EdmundBurke1771

Is this really us?

Ricochet is home to a lot of debates; typically among those of us on who identify with the Political Right. As a matter of convenience, we call ourselves “conservatives” and our opponents “liberals.” Much has been written about the derivation of these terms and how they came to be in common usage today. I don’t want to re-hash that history lesson. I’m more interested in figuring out if we here are actually conservatives or if we are … something else.

My Random House Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines “conservative” as: “Disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., and to restore traditional ones, and to limit change — or — cautiously moderate.” Certainly, there are plenty of people at Ricochet who want to restore traditional institutions. There’s nothing wrong with that per se; there have been some great and admirable times in the nation’s past. There have also been terrible times which are best remembered with a shudder and fear. As to the rest of the definition? I’m not buying it.

To take this definition and apply it to the events of, say, yesterday — when the Congress voted to repeal Obamacare — one could conclude that those actions were not “conservative,” unless you place focus on the “restoring traditional institutions” portion of the definition. We “conservatives” should cheer this action in the sense that Congress is seeking to “restore” the status quo ante that existed before progressive nannyists jammed this camel down the throats of the public. I like it. I approve. I want it to happen. But in my mind, it wouldn’t go far enough even if it had been successful. We ought to appreciate the adherence to process here that the president disdains, but don’t think that goes far enough to explain what we long for.

“Conservatism” of restorationist flavor boils down to a matter of dates. If you limit your view of what is right and good to some specific point in the halcyon past when things were “great” — you know, when we’re staring into the void — you’re nothing more than a “reactionary.” By this definition, one could just as easily claim that someone who wants to restore Woodrow Wilson’s fascist police state, arguing that it was the height of American civilization, is a conservative. In a certain sense, too, he’d be right.

We have to consider: What, precisely, are we attempting to restore? Are we attempting to return the nation to how it was in 2000, before the horrors of 9/11 and the opening of the American mind to the idea that we are involved in an existential struggle with people who are even more “conservative” than we are? No, thank you. Perhaps it’s 2007, before the scourge of Obama-ism? Fat chance. How about the 1950s (as I recall one person suggesting) when our civilizational confidence seemed to be at an all-time high, the economy was growing steadily, and life seemed to have a predictable, peaceful rhythm, with the caveat of the threat of global thermonuclear war? I’ll pass.

I’m asserting that there was no time in the past that holds up to scrutiny so well that we should seek to “restore” it such that it becomes our ideal of the future. In my estimation, the only way out is moving forward — not longing for the past — and I think have some decidedly un-Conservative ideas about how we need to do that (in the sense that “restoration” of traditional institutions is insufficient).

For starters, I’m in favor of the complete voucherization and privatization of the education system while maintaining public funding. This acknowledges that we aren’t going to return to a time when there isn’t publicly funded education, but makes it more efficient and to stop punishing people who choose to send their children to private schools by what boils down to double taxation. Competing studies quibble about the effectiveness of private/charter schools — the secret sauce for academic success seems to be family cohesion) vs. their public school brethren — but most of them miss the fundamental point: even though charter/private schools tend not to produce remarkably better results, they produce similar (or better) results at lower cost. We should do it for that reason alone if nothing else.

This is a radical, borderline revolutionary, position; there’s nothing “conservative” about it.

I’m also skeptical about our capacity (in the long run) to eliminate the welfare state. In some form or another, Section 8 housing, AFDC, WIC, SNAP, SCHIP, Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security are all here to stay; there are simply too many people who are too deeply invested in them and capable of voting to prevent eliminating them entirely. What I do think we could accomplish is transforming them into something different.

Borrowing from my earlier point, why don’t we voucherize Medicaid? We could also incentivize people to save unspent voucher monies in health savings accounts, rather than what we do now, which encourages them to view the program as a bottomless well of money from which they can pull up a bucket or two as needed. Something similar could be done with most of the rest of the programs. Again, this is not necessarily a “conservative” position, but reflects the reality of where we are today and how we might better incentive our existing structures.

These are revolutionary concepts that would drive progressives — and, I’m sure, plenty of libertarians — crazy. There are a lot of ideas like this on the Right and yet, we call ourselves “conservatives.” I think we do ourselves a disservice by downplaying just how different our thoughts about government and public policy are from from those of the Left. In doing so, we allow ourselves to be tarred with the brush of “regressive” when, in reality, we might have a far better claim on being “progressive,” in the sense that we seek to improve human flourishing. It’s the Left, in this sense, who look downright reactionary in their defense of moribund and failed institutions.

Published in Religion & Philosophy
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  1. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Actually some professionals and a few academics can understand but not the foreign policy apparatus which includes Congress,  the political class,  the media, a whole stable of special interests.   Moreover, as we get involved new interests are formed around the spending and the wounds, and new political interests form.  The only unambiguously succesful foreign policy I was associated with or witnessed was the Philippine transition.   We’d just suffered Carter, Congressional and media enthusiastic support for regime change in Iran and Nicaragua and so Congress shut up, Washington was quiet and the Embassy took over policy.  We took our time to figure out how the power really worked there, who were the potential levers for change, and we were allowed the time to let the thing evolve with nudges here and there.  And that was an english speaking place we knew pretty well.   Professionals are important and we’ve had good ones in the past but not always and not everywhere.    Academics often are less well informed or tend to be too wrapped up in the minutia of their specialties and tend to have clever notions about how to fix things.   Americans in general think we can fix the world more to our liking.  We can’t.  But we do have to be engaged and the less noise about a situation the better.   Big efforts make big noises and we must be very cautious about what we think we can accomplish.  We can lead but not control.

    • #91
  2. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    If you have simply shifted the abrogation of natural rights from the Federal to the State level what have you accomplished?

    • #92
  3. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    Jamie Lockett:If you have simply shifted the abrogation of natural rights from the Federal to the State level what have you accomplished?

    Are you addressing that to me?  I think you’re understanding of the American Revolution has been warped by the spirit of Libertarianism that has crept into our national consciousness.  The American revolution was not fought over liberty specifically – the English already considered themselves free – but over taxation without representation.  It was the without representation part of governance that was the cause of the split.  Given representation and given the basic freedoms of the Bill of Rights, then self rule through republican governance, i.e. elected representatives, could legislate whatever the electorate supported.  There is no right to absolute freedom.

    What also confuses people are the restrictions placed on the Federal government.  Those restrictions, I believe, were placed to restrict Federal power, not guarantee absolute freedom.  There’s a difference.

    • #93
  4. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Manny:

    Jamie Lockett:If you have simply shifted the abrogation of natural rights from the Federal to the State level what have you accomplished?

    Are you addressing that to me? I think you’re understanding of the American Revolution has been warped by the spirit of Libertarianism that has crept into our national consciousness. The American revolution was not fought over liberty specifically – the English already considered themselves free – but over taxation without representation. It was the without representation part of governance that was the cause of the split. Given representation and given the basic freedoms of the Bill of Rights, then self rule through republican governance, i.e. elected representatives, could legislate whatever the electorate supported. There is no right to absolute freedom.

    What also confuses people are the restrictions placed on the Federal government. Those restrictions, I believe, were placed to restrict Federal power, not guarantee absolute freedom. There’s a difference.

    I’m asking a more fundamental question than this. Regardless of the specifics of the American Revolution, which I do not concede you are correct on here, the very concept of natural rights as espoused in the Declaration indicates that there are certain rights that it is wrong for any government to abridge. Do you reject the concept of natural rights?

    • #94
  5. Robert McReynolds Inactive
    Robert McReynolds
    @RobertMcReynolds

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    I still think this is a very bad way of putting it, which is interesting because (I imagine) we both opposed Obergefell and Lawrence.

    Let’s take the latter for the moment. I don’t think the decision was wrong because Texas had “the right through government legislation to limit freedoms,” but because the Federal constitution was silent on the matter and did not, therefore, have any power to intervene.

    But just because the feds lacked that power does not mean that Texas has it, nor does it necessarily follow that it’d be correct for Texans to grant that power to their state government. State power can and should be limited by the natural rights of the people and those rights can and — I’d say — should be understood to be broader than those listed in the Federal constitution.

    Tom it is important to remember that the reason for the 10th is because the Founders realized the fallacy of trying to list them all and thus “left them to the States and the people thereof.” This means that the people in the individual states determine what rights exist for them in their states, so if Texas citizens through their elected representatives decide that there is no right to sodomy, then there is no right.

    • #95
  6. Tom Meyer, Ed. Contributor
    Tom Meyer, Ed.
    @tommeyer

    Manny: So what rights outside the Bill of Rights are off limits to legislate against? Give me some.

    A great many state constitutions include articles in their state bills of rights that do not appear in the Federal Constitution. For example, the Texas Bill of Rights includes:

    Sec. 33. ACCESS AND USE OF PUBLIC BEACHES.

    (a). [definitions …]

    (b) The public, individually and collectively, has an unrestricted right to use and a right of ingress to and egress from a public beach. The right granted by this subsection is dedicated as a permanent easement in favor of the public.

    (c) The legislature may enact laws to protect the right of the public to access and use a public beach and to protect the public beach easement from interference and encroachments.

    (d) This section does not create a private right of enforcement.

    Sec. 34. RIGHT TO HUNT, FISH, AND HARVEST WILDLIFE. (a) The people have the right to hunt, fish, and harvest wildlife, including by the use of traditional methods, subject to laws or regulations to conserve and manage wildlife and preserve the future of hunting and fishing …

    As a historical matter, women’s suffrage was recognized by some state constitutions long before the 19th Amendment’s passage.

    • #96
  7. Tom Meyer, Ed. Contributor
    Tom Meyer, Ed.
    @tommeyer

    Robert McReynolds: Tom it is important to remember that the reason for the 10th is because the Founders realized the fallacy of trying to list them all and thus “left them to the States and the people thereof.”

    Agreed.

    Robert McReynolds: This means that the people in the individual states determine what rights exist for them in their states, so if Texas citizens through their elected representatives decide that there is no right to sodomy, then there is no right.

    Yes, but it’s also correct that — rather than grant their state more powers than does the federal constitution — citizens of a state might enact even harsher restrictions on their state governments than those on the Federal constitution.

    Again, I agree that Lawrence was wrongly decided as a matter of federal jurisprudence (Just. Thomas nailed it as far as I’m concerned). I disagree that it necessarily follows that — simply because the Federal government had no power to tell them otherwise — Texans should have permitted such a law on their books.

    • #97
  8. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    Jamie Lockett:

    Manny:

    Jamie Lockett:If you have simply shifted the abrogation of natural rights from the Federal to the State level what have you accomplished?

    Are you addressing that to me? I think you’re understanding of the American Revolution has been warped by the spirit of Libertarianism that has crept into our national consciousness. The American revolution was not fought over liberty specifically – the English already considered themselves free – but over taxation without representation. It was the without representation part of governance that was the cause of the split. Given representation and given the basic freedoms of the Bill of Rights, then self rule through republican governance, i.e. elected representatives, could legislate whatever the electorate supported. There is no right to absolute freedom.

    What also confuses people are the restrictions placed on the Federal government. Those restrictions, I believe, were placed to restrict Federal power, not guarantee absolute freedom. There’s a difference.

    I’m asking a more fundamental question than this. Regardless of the specifics of the American Revolution, which I do not concede you are correct on here, the very concept of natural rights as espoused in the Declaration indicates that there are certain rights that it is wrong for any government to abridge. Do you reject the concept of natural rights?

    No I do not reject it.  I believe and accept Natural Rights.  However, I don’t know if the Constitution addresses natural rights.  Do you think it does?  I never thought about it.

    • #98
  9. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    Manny: So what rights outside the Bill of Rights are off limits to legislate against? Give me some.

    A great many state constitutions include articles in their state bills of rights that do not appear in the Federal Constitution. For example, the Texas Bill of Rights includes:

    Sec. 33. ACCESS AND USE OF PUBLIC BEACHES.

    (a). [definitions …]

    (b) The public, individually and collectively, has an unrestricted right to use and a right of ingress to and egress from a public beach. The right granted by this subsection is dedicated as a permanent easement in favor of the public.

    (c) The legislature may enact laws to protect the right of the public to access and use a public beach and to protect the public beach easement from interference and encroachments.

    (d) This section does not create a private right of enforcement.

    Sec. 34. RIGHT TO HUNT, FISH, AND HARVEST WILDLIFE. (a) The people have the right to hunt, fish, and harvest wildlife, including by the use of traditional methods, subject to laws or regulations to conserve and manage wildlife and preserve the future of hunting and fishing …

    As a historical matter, women’s suffrage was recognized by some state constitutions long before the 19th Amendment’s passage.

    I figured you were going to quote state constitutions.  Isn’t that the same thing as people deciding what legislation to pass?  The people decide what is a freedom and by implication what is not.

    • #99
  10. Salvatore Padula Inactive
    Salvatore Padula
    @SalvatorePadula

    Manny- I think you’re structuring your question in a way that necessitates your answer. Morally, the state at any level has no authority to act in violation of the Natural Law. Practically, might makes right so the state is only bound by either its own positive law or armed resistance.

    • #100
  11. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    Salvatore Padula:Manny- I think you’re structuring your question in a way that necessitates your answer. Morally, the state at any level has no authority to act in violation of the Natural Law. Practically, might makes right so the state is only bound by either its own positive law or armed resistance.

    I’m not sure what you mean I’m structuring my question.

    Bottom line as to what I’m saying: Outside the Bill of Rights, government (federal or local) can limit any liberty it wants.

    Caveat: SCOTUS continuously finds freedoms in the Constitution that aren’t there, such as abortion and SSM.

    • #101
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