Previously, I elaborated on my dismay over the automatic association between conservative people and the Republican Party. With that in mind, I thought it might be helpful to outline ten specific points central to authentically conservative ideology so that we might be better equipped to find candidates who also share our values.
1. At its very root, and at the risk of being too simplistic, conservative people desire to conserve—traditional values, the importance of family at home and in society, life, traditional institutions, religion, the environment, our collective and individual resources and identity, etc. However, this doesn’t mean conservative people seek to maintain into perpetuity life as it was and has always been. Rather, conservative people understand that change is important and seek to manage that change in a conservative manner. This means, first, that change should occur slowly and regularly and with an eye to the health of society, like portions of a forest burned and subsequently reseeded, but re-established on the same foundation. Change that occurs too rapidly and without regard to the continued health of society is like a cancerous growth—radical and dangerous–that eventually kills society.
Productive change is the result of investment. Individuals and societies only invest in those things that are valuable. By its very nature investment imparts value to the thing being invested in and so investment reflects our personal values. Like a loving parent who invests his time and money into his children in order to provide for their future; or like an adult who invests in the stock market in order to provide for his financial security, investment takes something from us, adds value to something we think is important and increases the value of the principle. Consequently, in the political realm, conservative people are ready to invest their resources in protecting things of value—society’s infrastructure, the environment, schools, etc.
2. Conservative people believe that government should occur at the lowest level possible. Because the conservative person sees value in many things that are important to society, he also understands the useful role of government in collecting public funds and exercising economies of scale in order to investment in society’s valuable resources. It has become part of Republicanism–in word if not practice–that Republicans want small government. Conservative people don’t see small government as an end. Rather, conservative people desire a small federal government that leads and shepherds state and local governments. Regional and cultural differences that exist harmoniously within a society dictate different regional solutions for different regional situations. Large, federal, one-size-fits-all programs are inherently inefficient and undesirable. But encouraging local governments to participate in solving national problems creates small, nimble, efficient and demographically appropriate systems that protect the resources deemed valuable by smaller communities. These systems then achieve legitimacy within the community and create governments that are more accountable and responsible to the people they serve. Conservative people want to see the majority of governing occur down the street from them—in the local city hall, where their voice can be heard.
3. Conservative people believe that the words of society’s great thinkers, achievers and creators of the past are still important. Conservative people know that how we got to where we are today is important. Because change has occurred slowly and regularly to bring us the present, the processes and debates which have occurred are important to us. It would be prideful of us to think that because what these people said and did took place long ago, that we cannot learn from them. On the contrary, we would be acting against authentically conservative values if we looked with pride at ourselves as the sole holders of answers to today’s problems. Conservative people know that GOOD JUDGMENT COMES FROM EXPERIENCE; EXPERIENCE COMES FROM BAD JUDGEMENT. Thus, the experiences of previous generations are instructional to us today for our continued improvement.
As a result, conservative American people, valuing traditional thought and history, hold in great esteem the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. These documents represent the very best thinking of our Founding Fathers. They succinctly state a collection of truths we hold dear and upon which we have and should continue to build our national culture.
4. Conservative people value traditions and conventions as the links in society’s chain—holding generation to generation–tying 21st century America to the Founding Fathers. Holidays, times of remembrance, ceremony—all play a part in linking tomorrow to yesterday. Individuals who look to see our customs and traditions torn down, for whatever reason, treat the past liberally and wastefully.
5. Conservative people possess a great social responsibility, not the forced collectivism of socialism or liberalism, but the voluntary sense of community that values and respects the community at large. Conservative people, believing in the goodness of men to care for a society which they esteem, trust individuals to engage in voluntary community and avoid mandating social programs from the political pulpit and eschew mandated responsibility.
Conservative people understand that individuals want responsibility and the freedom it entails, and any system that seeks to deny responsibility to the individual by taking on that responsibility itself is undesirable. People who lack, or are denied responsibility, are no longer tied into the collective success of society. They are spectators to the progress of the community. The distribution of responsibility to the citizens is the primary means of engaging individuals in the collective processes by which a society seeks success. Conservative people want to avoid government that seeks to gather responsibility to itself. The conservative person knows that in the exercise of responsibility, the giving of charity and in social conformity the individual is most free. Conservative people see that recipients of charity run the risk of becoming enslaved to a life of looking for charity rather than being instruments of charity. Moreover, governments which encourage individuals to act solely for their own happiness and contrary to the good of the community further restrict the individual to a life outside of the community at large. The conservative knows that the ultimate goal is not the exercise of as much personal liberty as possible, but rather to collectively create a climate in which life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness can be achieved for society as a whole. This climate is achieved through teamwork and through the sacrifices of citizens committed to maintaining the highest values of a society. Consequently, authentic conservatives tend to be very supportive of our troops, public servants, and missionaries—because these individuals represent the very best of sacrificial living and conservative values.
6. Conservative people believe that there are absolute truths and that the concepts of “right” and “wrong” exist and are permanent. The manifestation of this belief is the exercise of self-control. The conservative believes in normative moral behavior and expects other members of society to believe likewise, which creates a society that lives peacefully with itself. Conservative people understand that if these permanent truths are absent individuals begin to make decisions with personal gratification as their highest goal. “I want” becomes the starting point of non-conservative decision-making and decisions are made selfishly, based on a sliding scale of moral truths. The conservative person looks to do what’s right at all times even when it comes at the expense of his own personal liberty or satisfaction. A life lived in accordance to these permanent moral truths is more satisfying than a life lived seeking personal satisfaction. Thus, the authentic conservative must be wary of linking himself too closely to big business, the end goal of which is corporate satisfaction known as profit. While the capitalist system is inherently conservative, as I’ll discuss below, its participants are not always acting conservatively.
7. The conservative person believes in appropriate natural consequences for an individual’s behavior. Every behavior has some consequence and human beings learn from those consequences the validity and worth of their behavior. This also means that the conservative expects and supports inequality. In a society where behaviors have appropriate consequences, there must exist inequality in achievement and accomplishment. This is not an inequality of the worth or value of individuals, but rather an inequality in reward, lifestyle and status. Those society members who work hard, learn quickly and apply previously learned lessons will inherently be rewarded more than those members who behave counter to those values. Some society members will choose sloth over hard work. Some will choose selfishness over teamwork. Some will choose crime over conformity. Each of those choices has consequences: to the former we assign the word punishment and the latter reward.
These rewards often come in the form of personal property. Consequently, conservative people have a high regard for property rights because the possession of property is the result of their toil. Property is the natural consequence of appropriate behavior. Furthermore, any diminishment of property rights isn’t just that, but it is also a devaluation of the conduct that made property possession possible.
Any system that pursues equality as a goal is inherently non-conservative. By design, such an equality-seeking system must force favorable consequences on individuals who have acted undesirably and it must force unfavorable consequences on those who have acted desirably. This type of system respects neither the individuals it seeks to make equal nor the cultural customs that have come before it.
8. Conservative people believe that individuals must be accountable and responsible for their own behavior. The conservative seeks a system in which each member must answer for his choices and conduct. Without accountability there is a disconnect between behavior and consequence. Unchecked society members are free to behave unconstrained by societal norms and, thus, to take advantage of other people for their own gain. A society that fails to hold people accountable disrespects them by sending the signal that society doesn’t care about their behavior or their future. A society that cares confronts people and holds its members accountable.
9. Conservative people know that a utopia does not exist. While conservative people value the tenets I’ve laid out so far, they also acknowledge that every member of society does not. Some individuals will choose selfishness. Some will choose to look for short cuts to circumvent the personal investment required to achieve success. Evil exists in the world. There will always be an element of society that does not value what society values. Even if a society were able to reach a point of near utopianism, first complacency within the society would set in and then opportunity would be created for the power hungry and greedy. The very efficacy of any moral system automatically creates its own parallel system of immorality. As such, the conservative person doesn’t seek to create a perfect system—a utopian world without evil. Rather, the conservative person desires a system that keeps evil to a minimum and yet is prepared to deal with its manifestations when they occur.
10. Lastly, conservative people value capitalism. Capitalism is the least imperfect system that allows for these conservative tenets to operate. Capitalism is accountable in that companies which do not provide a valuable resource whither. Capitalism generally provides appropriate consequences. Individuals who work hard, learn from the past, and invest are rewarded. Conservative people believe that capitalism is the best agent of change because the profit motive itself is inherently efficient and pragmatic. Whereas governmental programs created out of political debate are new creations, and thus lack institutional memory and corporate intelligence, they are inherently doomed to repeat mistakes as they evolve. Capitalism doesn’t create inequality but it does allow for it. However, it is also the vehicle by which have-nots can shrink the gap with the haves.
I believe it is true that no one wants life to be fair; they want it to be unfair in their favor. Fairness has been tried in many socialist and communist systems across history and it has failed societies and individuals. Capitalism is the most equitable system available precisely because it is consistent with these conservative values.
So, where is the authentically conservative candidate for 2008? Fortunately, we still have several months to search.
I’d like to thank Russell Kirk, Edmund Burke and Rod Dreher for their writings on authentic conservatism.