Conservatism: What Shall We Conserve?
Paul Suszko is on the Board of Directors of Religion and Society. This essay has evolved from the speech he gave at the seminar hosted by The St. Croix Review last year in November.
What is Conservatism and what do Conservatives seek to conserve? One way to address this question is by retrospective examination of key philosophical ideas reflected in our system of government. Our Founding documents represent a synthesis of inspired principles and methods drawn from history. These have served the United States well for close to a quarter millennium. The following is a summary of some of the principles imbedded in our unique American ethos.
The St. Croix Review is published by the nonprofit foundation called Religion and Society, so an appropriate place to begin is by reference to our roots in religious tradition. It has been said that our government is a descendant of Judeo-Christian heritage. One bedrock principle of Conservatism is that “we the people” agree to be governed by a set of laws. This idea is found in all systems of government and dates back at least to biblical times, when the Ten Commandments were putatively handed to Moses by a higher authority. This is an early example of the idea that some principles transcend the arbitrary desires of persons in power. The one absolute authority was God, who was not human. While later secular governments were not religiously dogmatic, they retained the notions that laws and institutions transcended the whims of human rulers. Contained also in the Old Testament is the notion of a covenant with that higher authority, wherein God promised protection for the Israelites in exchange for their faith and adherence to His laws. In Christian theology we find the notion of original sin and the redemptive path available through the teachings and belief in Jesus. This philosophical underpinning is a great equalizer; asserting that we all start from a similar place and, very broadly speaking, we have the same opportunities available to us in life. These principles are not unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Buddhism, for example, offers the eight-fold path as a means to mitigate human suffering, and recognizes the sanctity of all life and the implicit freedom we all possess. Conservatives believe that the free practice of the religion of their choice is a right, and that values derived from our religious traditions are beneficial — but that governments should not impose laws based specifically on any religion. Dogmatic theocracies or oppressive forms of secular/totalitarian autocracies are dangers Conservatives want to avoid, because these forms of government invariably lead to broad suppression of human rights. In his epic poem Paradise Lost, John Milton describes the viewpoint of God as follows (referring here to the creation of humans):
“I made him just and right, sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.”1
The shrewdest political thinkers have long recognized the applicability of this concept to the formation of governments. While they recognize that no set of ideas or any constitution can guarantee the solvency of a government, they do attempt to promote those principles and institutions which are sufficient for state solvency provided the people maintain faith in them. Conservatives are interested in retaining the wisdom inherent in our framework and mindful of the pitfalls in a democracy. The quote also brings to mind the notion of intrinsic freedom that we all revere. It is ironic that it is this very freedom that proves ultimately to be the greatest threat to government stability.
Our system of government places a high value on the idea of individual liberty. History is replete with influencers who moved their cultures in the direction of greater liberty. Martin Luther and the Reformation movement in 16th century Europe had substantial influence on cultural development. He posited that any given individual has access to the grace of God by a pronouncement of their faith alone and through direct reference to Biblical scripture.
“I bewail the gross misunderstanding among the people which comes from these preachers and which they spread everywhere among common men. Evidently the poor souls believe that when they have bought indulgence letters they are assured of their salvation.”2
Therefore, the access of grace is not dependent on the oversight and approval of an entrenched Church hierarchy and bureaucracy which has established itself as the conduit, but is dependent on liberty of belief. This view is compatible with a governing mindset that supports fundamental individual liberty and democratic freedom, as well as the eventual emergence of an economy based in private ownership. Luther’s influence induced positive changes in the Catholic Church. Greater availability of key sacred writings and mitigation of overbearing clerical authority were two much-needed developments.
Now consider the ancient Greek philosopher Plato and his teachings. He understood that a ruling or governing group is necessary and desirable, and that, optimally, rulers must be imbued with wisdom. These rulers must consider the common good and avoid policies based on parochial self-interest. The challenge comes in identifying the best rulers, because an alignment of the values of voters and those of the wise is not always present.
“Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, states will never have rest from their evils.”3
Plato, as a disciple of Socrates, was a fierce skeptic of democracy. He witnessed firsthand how “ignorant” majoritarian passions had terminated the greatest free-thinking mind in Athens — Socrates. If Plato’s “Philosopher-King” seems uncomfortably close to a dictator, we must remember that Plato’s endorsement of a ruling class is a response to what he saw as the greater threat of the totalitarianism of the masses. Far better, he thought, to be ruled absolutely by a figure instructed and tutored in wisdom than at the whims of a majoritarian democracy dominated by figures petty of passion and prideful in ignorance. Conservatives recognize that a representative republic comprised of wise elected officials, and in which certain individual rights are inviolable, fosters a government best suited to mitigating the dual threats of individual and mob totalitarianism. A properly functioning government seeks to institutionalize a process for the selection of representatives that is acceptable to all interest groups. Virtue and the rule of law should be cultivated to prevent the rise of destructive passions. Even a cursory examination of history reveals how important the cultivation of these values in citizens is to a stable, functioning society.
Later pivotal influences in European history include the philosophy of the 17th century Englishman Thomas Hobbes, who is generally regarded as being the first modern political philosopher. Hobbes introduced the idea of social contract theory, which analyzes the relationships of government and the governed through obligations and acceptances of authority. The notion that governments ought to justify their right to power to the governed is an obvious standard for us today, and became the central idea of the Declaration of Independence. This was not so obvious in Hobbes’ time, when kings frequently insisted on their “divine right” to rule and maintained that they had no obligation to the people. Hobbes thought that citizens would accept the absolute power of the monarch so long as the monarch abided by his contract duty to ensure their security. Hobbes’ view of human nature is an exceedingly pessimistic one, and he thought of human life as being “solitary, brutish and short.” Humans left to their own devices will be inclined to barbarism, hedonism, and mutual destruction. The only type of sovereign who can keep these passions in check is the absolute monarch, and so Hobbes considered it to be in the interest of the citizens to accept the authority of such a figure. While few would subscribe to this extreme position in our society today, Hobbes’ fear of the anarchic tendencies in human nature is highly instructive. Elements of this behavior are evident in our current political climate: Disregard for authority in Portland, Minneapolis, and Washington, D.C., mob destruction of private and government property, etc. Hobbes understood that an authoritative capability for the purpose of maintaining a well-ordered liberty is necessary. Conservatives recognize that a sustaining government must incorporate strong institutions of law enforcement and military to keep unwanted threats from disturbing the rights of law-abiding citizens. Policies and practices must serve as deterrents to disorder and conflict. Of course, alternatively, a government needs to be equally vigilant of the tendency to make use of its authority for aggressive or aggrandizing motives. Conservatives may be appalled by the destruction of urban rioters, but it should not be forgotten that suppressing the rioters does not remedy the hostile relations between police and disaffected factions. By extension to foreign policy, the Conservative may accept the collateral damage from the assassination of terrorists, but should not fail to recognize that the incidental killing of civilians fosters a hatred of America.
“For it can never be that war shall preserve life, and peace destroy it.”4
At the other end of the philosophical spectrum is the 18th century Swiss/French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He warned against the possibility of tyranny and despotic rule, and suggested that the essential nature of humans is based in compassion. Unlike Hobbes, who was a sober realist in his diagnosis of human nature, Rousseau retained many idealistic and romantic notions of humanity, and his political writings often appear contradictory and sprinkled liberally with passages of fancy. In some sense, Rousseau is more of a poetical figure than a pragmatic political theorist, and yet many of his ideas remain highly relevant and attractive to our own time. Rousseau exalted the “citizen” as the type of ideal person who, allowed to manifest his innate nature, would selflessly advance the interests of society. In his political tract The Social Contract, he imagined a body of such citizens governing themselves by submission to a General Will. Such submission, Rousseau thought, was not inhibiting but rather the essence of liberty:
“The mere impulse of appetite is slavery, while obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves is liberty.”5
The preservation of individual sovereignty is of paramount importance to Rousseau, and he advocated for a pure form of democracy in The Social Contract. He shared some of Hobbes’ pessimism that humans could, in fact, realize this ideal but focused on different practices to achieve the best results. Rousseau recommended political institutions that foster free and equal participation, along with a rigorous system of education to reinforce desirable traits, and avoid destructive forms of self-interest. He was concerned that humanity would always struggle to escape from a “dystopia of alienation and oppression.” Of course, his basic prescription is consistent with Conservatives’ view of a democratic form of government, albeit with prudential checks on unbridled democracy (also counseled by Plato).
Some of the ideological treatises that bear significant similarity to our constitutional republic were written by 17th century English philosopher John Locke and 18th century French philosopher Montesquieu. Locke is regarded as an early proponent of empiricist thought, and it is not surprising that he was favorably influenced by his exposure to the emerging British government based on restricted power of the monarch. (Locke’s father fought in the English Civil War on the side of the Parliamentarians.) Locke’s contribution was to aggregate the elements of this system into a cohesive picture in his Two Treatises of Government. He expressed the belief that people are naturally free, and argued against the notion of kings possessing any divine right. People possess natural rights, according to Locke, that include the pursuit of life, liberty, and property ownership.
“Being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”6
He understood that people will appropriately surrender some of their rights to a government in exchange for a secure and orderly society. This government would exist at the pleasure of the people, and may be dismantled or changed if it fails to deliver on its duties to the people: “Revolt is the right of the people.” Locke generally believed in majority rule and the separation of church and state functions. Montesquieu was also impressed with the British system consisting of a King, House of Commons, and House of Lords, and advocated a similar “separation of powers” structure for a future French Republic. Montesquieu specifically referenced three branches of government, as enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.
“When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty; because apprehensions may arise, lest the same monarch or senate should enact tyrannical laws, to execute them in a tyrannical manner.”7
Thus, the writings of both Locke and Montesquieu reflect principles that Conservatives hold in high esteem to this very day.
We come now to the American Revolution and its attendant Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution. These founding works attempt to balance the favorable and desirable features of democracy, while simultaneously recognizing that a strong and effective central governing authority is also desirable, provided it is limited in its scope of power. The Founders were concerned with government overstepping its authority and thereby infringing on the natural rights of citizens, those with which we are all born. They argued that these rights are not conferred upon the citizenry by the government, but exist intrinsically as a consequence of being human. The challenge was to ensure that government does not trample these rights. Hence, the original Bill of Rights was written as a set of restrictions on government intrusion. The famous philosophical wrestling match between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson revolved around questions of extent and power of the initially configured federal government. Hamilton argued that a strong central government and military, along with the establishment of a national bank, would all be stabilizers of our national identity and union. Hamilton foresaw the development of a robust industrial economy based on early principles of free-market economics, including formation of business enterprises and funding mechanisms. Jefferson saw a more self-reliant, directly democratic and optimally agrarian society and sought to ensure that the federal government did not step on states’ rights and thereby acquire too much power. The competing visions contributed to our current system of division of powers (federalism) wherein a balance of state and federal authority exists. It is the objective of conservatives to retain the wisdom of both Hamilton and Jefferson, and the pragmatic implementation of these ideas as argued by James Madison in the Federalist Papers.
Among the many insights of brilliance propounded by the Founders was the recognition that most people are dominated by a need for absolutism; that is, they must believe that contentions of good and evil are fixed independent of different circumstances. It is nearly hopeless to expect that a majority in society would accept objectively the nuances of good and evil conditioned by competing philosophies and experiences of life. The allure of solipsism is great. Fierce partisanship is the result of this inherent tribal mentality among most persons of all political leanings. In the incomparable “Federalist 10,” Madison offers perhaps the most balanced and detached diagnosis of society ever advanced.
“The inference to which we are brought, is, that the causes of faction cannot be removed; and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects.”8
Madison acknowledges that societies will inevitably have competing factional interests and that these are formed because of differing experiences. It is the role of government, he says, to establish a mechanism for rational resolution and temperance of conflict. Crucial to this pronouncement is the idea that no faction can ever be said to promulgate the absolute truth. All factions and interests in society are subject to circumstances and the consequent perspective of their adherents, and it is useless to assess them on the basis of right and wrong. The true Conservative does not pronounce an interest in moral supremacy, which is a relative construct, but in stability, which is an objective measure of the functionality of society. The Conservative holds that abrupt and traumatic change, whereby one faction has gained decisive advantage over another and presses its opportunity aggressively, exposes a governmental system to procedural collapse and a society to the threat of violent resistance. For Madison and the other Founders, it was crucial that policy changes be incubated and developed slowly, even incrementally, so that the trauma of a social change was lessened by the length of its saturation. This is not to suggest that Conservatives should eschew the promotion of policy interests. All those things that tend towards stability and individual liberty should be pursued. But in the application of these admittedly abstract principles, the Conservative must never lose understanding of what is true about society, and not be guided by hyperbolic moral posturing. Madison’s view might be described as an “ode to prudent gridlock,” and there is deep wisdom in that. Thus, a balance was achieved wherein democratic representation via a bicameral legislature, with the Senate having equal representation on a state-by-state basis, insured the rights of minorities in the legislative process. The system empowered the executive branch to enforce laws that would protect the rights of the people, while securing and preserving the Union. A separate judicial branch would subject our laws to ongoing review as a means of retaining the spirit of the Constitution. Direct democracy would be tempered via the Electoral College voting mechanism.
While our founding documents and combination of philosophies were arguably well-conceived, retrospectively they were not without defect. That is to say, Conservatives do not advocate for the conserving of all founding doctrine. The most obvious shortcoming of the Constitution was the implicit acknowledgment of slavery in the three-fifths compromise.
“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”9
Although the Union was founded in the midst of the practice of slavery, the inherent discontinuity between the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence and the ownership of human chattel forecasted the questioning of this as a practice that could stand.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights . . . ”10
The writers of the Constitution did make some effort to deal with issues of slavery during the drafting process, and they included a clause in Article I which mandated the end of American participation in the international slave trade within 20 years of ratification. The ban on slave trading was made national law in 1807. The ownership of generational slaves was a different matter, and representatives of the southern states would entertain no similar prescription for a pathway to emancipation. In the interest of establishing the Union, the writers of the Constitution did not confront the issue of the ownership of slaves. Through the Missouri Compromise and the powder keg challenge of the Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854, we came to a point of war that resolved the conflict in accordance with our founding ideals. Cynics have pointed out that Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were slave owners; that despite their recognition of slavery as an abomination, their actions did not reflect this and were insufficient to abolish it. But they were also practical politicians and products of their time who understood that it would have been impossible to form a Union if this issue was tackled headlong in the late 18th century. Furthermore, the economics of reality and the reality of economics often dictate morality in history, and human nature is such that practices that are now broadly condemned as immoral were, in fact, tolerated in preceding millennia. Conservatives want to protect the rights of African Americans to live freely in a society devoid of racism, along with the great strides made toward such a society. This reinforces the legacy of history’s most famous Republican, Abraham Lincoln.
We are in the midst of a similar dialectical debate around the question of whether a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body supersedes the presumptive right of a newly created human life, albeit one still physically attached to its mother. With the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, Roe v. Wade has once again been brought into sharp focus, stirring the unresolved latency of this issue. (Conservatives generally prefer to appoint originalists to the High Court, respecting the founding wisdom of the country as a starting point.) Conservatives tend to assign some rights to the unborn, contrary to many Progressives. In so doing, they strive to uphold the natural rights of all humans, even those of a very young age. However, the Conservative who believes strongly in the right of the fetus to life should not forget that there is a large demand by women for abortions in America, and that outlawing abortion will not alter this demand. For many women, the right to seek an abortion has become synonymous with the feminist movement to equalize the treatment of men and women in society. The increased percentage of women with college educations and participation in the workforce over the last century is coincident with the outcry for a “right to choose.” In seeking to control others by policy means, consideration must be given to whether the stability of society is being promoted or if punitive authority is being inflicted only on the basis of partisanship and out of proportion to actual threats. This debate is not settled, and there is no clear imperative that guides us in this issue. It may be that technology will ultimately provide the means to a pragmatic resolution, when mid-term fetuses might be brought to term in vitro, offering an alternative to termination of a human life. Until such time and beyond, Conservatives ought to embrace widespread education and the dissemination of contraceptives as a means of obviating unwanted pregnancies.
Another area of contention is in the realm of economics. If a spectrum of philosophy is invoked, with Friedrich Hayek’s free market approach on one end and John Maynard Keynes demand-side central planning on the other, Conservatives tend to favor the former. The maintenance of a relatively free market economy, with less rather than more redistribution and control of wealth by the federal government, is preferable to a system which is likely to fall victim to some version of collectivist tyranny. However, it is understood that successful democracies inevitably migrate in the direction of higher expenditures (as a percentage of GDP) on federal programs. The response to this year’s pandemic highlights the relentlessly accretive nature of the dynamic involved. Conservatives should strive to be voices of fiscal reason in matters of expansion of social programs. One need not possess a degree in economics to see that the net effect of federal involvement in the spheres of health care and higher education has been an inflationary economic distortion — which will likely play out to the ultimate detriment of the very constituency it purports to serve. In effect, it amounts to continued decimation of the middle class via wealth transfer to these privileged and increasingly unproductive industries. This thinking can also extend to our bloated military budget. Conservatives should seek to prioritize military expenditures in keeping with developments of modern warfare, and eliminate archaic and expensive projects arising from an inveterate military-industrial bureaucracy. Finally, the difficult question needs to be asked: How many trillions of dollars of fiat currency can be created before irreparable harm is done to the hegemonic economic stature of the U.S.? The benchmark of global stability established in the Bretton Woods agreement is all but a distant memory. So far, despite profligate U.S. fiscal behavior, the dollar has retained much of its value. But this could change in the twinkling of an eye. The displacement might come via a crypto currency with no tether to a particular government or via a digitalized currency from a country with a sounder fiscal and monetary policy. China, currently our fiercest competitor, likely has such aspirations.
A number of the principles that Conservatives hold dear are under assault by an increasingly activist Left Wing that seeks to advance the Progressivism of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt beyond judicious limits. The size of our federal government, its associated scope of intrusion into citizens’ lives, and its fiscal irresponsibility are not consistent with our founding wisdom. The U.S. is arguably well beyond limited government and potentially in danger of losing some of the fundamental rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights, including the rights of free speech and religion, and the right to bear arms. If we are not mindful, the U.S. may arrive at a tipping point on the road to a relatively corrupt and all-powerful single-party government, determined to make all Americans supplicants to a systemically manipulative power structure and dependent on bureaucratically controlled entitlement programs. Conservatives stand in the path of this result, and offer the sensible alternative to further decay of our founding edifice. The challenge for Conservatives is to adapt ideas worth conserving to the rhythms of today’s culture. History teaches us that the tide of cultural change is a powerful force, and attempting to halt its progress would likely be a bootless exercise. What Conservatives need to bear in mind is that their ideas are not inconsistent with modern culture, which contains the resonant elements of a balance of personal freedom, equality of opportunity, and effective central government. But agile political skill is required to frame these time-tested ideas so they are in alignment with ever-evolving culture, which today is elevating a weaponized, corrosive secular creed to the level of religious fanaticism and pushing the country in an excessively socialistic direction. *
1John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 3.
2Martin Luther, “95 Theses Cover Letter.”
3Plato, The Republic.
4Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Part 1, Chap. 15.
5Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, I, Chap. 8.
6John Locke, Second Treatise of Government.
7Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws.
8James Madison, “Federalist 10.”
9U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 2.
10Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence.