Events arise periodically which elicit a variety of responses from conservative voices in America. Often these voices oppose each other, which shouldn’t be surprising. Diversity is normal. As for me, I try to use this tension to develop and cement my own beliefs: what is it about conservatism that I like? How do I apply it? Is there hypocrisy in my value set? Who’s voice do I value most.
A recent article by Garret Keizer in Harper’s Magazine (April 2009) reminded me of an important distinction within the community of folks who call themselves conservatives. There is a group that places great value on an absence of government intrusion into their lives. In fact, as Keizer points out, these folks might even go a step further and place the highest value on self-reliance in general—not just free from government intrusion but from any communal bonds. These folks, in the conservative tradition, believe that they are responsible for their own behavior. They don’t need to be told what to do—they are capable and accountable. Leave them alone and they will be fine. Extending their politics to the community at large they would say, “Leave citizens alone and they will be fine.”
In the other conservative corner is a group that values community over self. Self-reliance is a wonderful and cherished value and a characteristic to be encouraged in our children. But they also believe that the community in which they live adds value to their lives—socially, economically, spiritually. These conservatives don’t wish to be left to their individuality as much as they wish to be left to their community. The community is the center of their lives and the source of solutions to problems. They don’t wish to pull away from communities, as the first camp does, but rather wishes to see the importance of their community continue to grow.
The first camp is likely to be more representative of those who form the libertarian branch of the Republican Party and characterized by their emphasis on consequences; and the latter ought to be representative of religious right characterized by their emphasis on compassion.
The difference stems from differing outlooks on life. Brent Bozell wrote in the National Review over 40 years ago on the tension between virtue and liberty, two ideas conservatives highly value, if in differing degrees. All of us love and cherish our liberty. It is the bedrock of the American experience. But what are we to do with that liberty? The libertarian would say, “whatever you please” (within legal constraints, though those are too many as it is). This is the end game for the libertarian. For the “communitarian” our liberty affords us the freedom to be good. We are free from restrictions on our lives that prevent us from being able to serve others.
In fact, this is the essence of Christianity. Christians have been set free (from enslavement to their sins) that they might use that freedom to serve others. When we are slaves, in any context, our activities are dictated by others and our energy is used to pursue freedom itself whether temporary or permanent. We have little time or resources to pursue activities that serve others when we are consumed with achieving personal liberty. But when liberty is granted us–when we are free from enslavement– we can do as we wish. The Christian life compels Christians to voluntary enslave themselves to the service of others (Christ-likeness). But it is a choice we make–a choice we have the freedom to make–and not one forced upon us. When we enslave ourselves to others voluntary then virtue follows. Virtue is the result of the voluntary acquiescence of liberty.
Today we find in our papers repeated stories of the demise of General Motors. How should government respond to this dilemma? Clearly there are far reaching effects in a myriad of sectors of American society. How do we help without creating problems? First, we must acknowledge that we cannot accurately foretell the future. Anything can happen and probably will. So we must make decisions not based on what we expect the outcome will be but rather from the standpoint of a solid set of values. As a consequence, regardless of the result, we know that we behaved consistent with our moral compass and not with selfish ends in mind. What guiding values, though?
Most conservatives, but primarily the libertarian-conservative, will say that we should allow the natural consequences to occur. Companies that don’t adapt and change to meet the needs of their customers should perish. Government should not bail them out. Ronald Reagan said that government exists to protect us from each other, not from ourselves. So we should not save GM from itself. Let it die.
The communitarian conservative, though acknowledging and valuing the aforementioned argument, is likely to add that it is the people who suffer. GM as a company has been irresponsible, but what about the employees who will lose their jobs? Shouldn’t government step in and care for these people, even if it means that the company gets new life when it shouldn’t? Ronald Reagan once said that government exists to protect us from each other not from ourselves. So shouldn’t we protect these people from the catastrophic consequences of corporate malfeasance?
Did I just use that same quote to defend opposite arguments? Indeed, because it reflects the tension. It is the same tension the apostle Paul created when telling the Galatians (6:5) “….each one should carry his own load.” (NIV) and also instructing them to “Cary each other’s burdens….” (6:2, NIV). So which is it? Carry our own load or carry each other’s load. The libertarian-conservative says “a” the communitarian-conservative says “b.”
I believe it’s possible to do both. We can encourage and value self-reliance and be compassionate. We can tell people that they have to take responsibility for their actions. Their behaviors have consequences and we cannot negate or eliminate those consequences. Nor should we, for consequences are powerful mentors that make us better. But we can also show compassion so that people need not endure these experiences alone.
For General Motors, it is appropriate to let the company fail. The weak must perish and the strong move in to take their place. No one benefits perpetuating failure. But governments can take care of the individuals. Governments can begin to put in place retraining programs so that those who lose their jobs can one day move into new fields. Governments can expand jobless benefits for those displaced. Governments can work with unions to ensure that seniority is maintained if GM workers go to other companies. Yes, we all pay some price in these suggestions, but isn’t it better to pay a little to show compassion to our neighbor than to pay a lot to reward failure? Isn’t it better to show compassion to others knowing that one day our own ability to be self-reliant may be compromised?
Life is a series of trade-offs and imperfect solutions. Conservatism, too, is a compilation of variably applied values. What do you value most? And what does the “conservative” pundit on your TV value most? Of course, the greater problem these days is that the GOP represents neither of these two facets of conservatism well. Maybe Newt Gingrich is correct, as others have postulated, that a third party is necessary. Maybe we’d be better off to divide these two factions of the conservatives. There is no unifying voice for conservatism. We are left to spectate the debate, unsure of why it even exists. Or maybe we just need to understand what it truly means to be conservative. The onus is on us, as always, to be accountable for what we believe.