What Are Conservatives Trying to Conserve?

The following article originally was published on January 4 by Grand Junction’s Free Press.

What are conservatives trying to conserve?

by Linn and Ari Armstrong

Conservatives are a strange bunch. They support free trade, except when they want to outlaw or restrict select medicinal plants or forcibly stop employers from hiring willing workers of their choice.

Conservatives support freedom of conscience, except when they want to censor what they declare to be obscene works, punish the mishandling of the flag, or force people to fund religious programs with which they disagree.

Conservatives advocate strong national defense, except when they support a war the president declares unwinnable, along with years of “nation building” at the expense of American lives.

Conservatives endorse federalism, except when they want the national government to tell states how to handle marriage.

Conservatives uphold independence, except when they call on politicians to imprison women for getting an abortion.

Conservatives tout the dignity of the individual, unless that individual happens to be gay or a brown-skinned laborer from Mexico.

Conservatives declare to stand for time-honored principles, except when they “compromise” to raise taxes, pass smoking bans in violation of property rights, expand health welfare, endorse corporate welfare, and use the invasive tax code to crack down on the “crime” of productive work.

We have to wonder just what it is that conservatives are trying to conserve. How can we make sense out of the hash of modern conservatism?

A common explanation is that conservatism is a “fusion” of faith-based tradition and libertarian free-market leanings. There’s something to that. The problem is that faith often clashes with tradition, while libertarian government-bashing often clashes with individual rights.

The libertarian anti-government strain is a minor part of the conservative movement. Many libertarians join their own party, avoid politics, or loudly distance themselves from conservatives. Down-with-government conservatism, illustrated by Grover Norquist’s infamous and unfortunate line about drowning government in a bathtub, alienates the general public and tends toward the reactionary, in the sense of reacting against anything to do with government rather than championing some positive value.

That leaves three major conservative traditions: tradition, faith, and liberty.

Tradition explains why so many conservatives oppose gay marriage and immigration. They want things to stay just the way they are. The problem is knowing which traditions to conserve and which to change. Slavery was a tradition for many centuries, overturned by liberal-minded abolitionists who wanted to fundamentally change society. Rule by king was a tradition.

For too many conservatives, tradition is just a rationalization for advocating policies and cultural trends without the bother of having to justify them on moral grounds. Tradition is the fall-back of the thoughtless.

Sensing the weakness of a strictly traditional approach, many conservatives turn to religious faith. Christians may lay aside Old Testament calls to murder people for homosexuality, witchcraft, adultery, and parent-cursing.

Christians cannot avoid the fact that the New Testament “contains scores of commandments demanding the redistribution of wealth and property from those who created it to those who did not,” as Craig Biddle points out in The Objective Standard. The Marxist injunction, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” finds its “origin in the Bible,” Biddle notes.

Many Christians openly apply Biblical principles to the welfare state; for example, the Colorado Catholic Conference advocated tax-funded “health care coverage for all people from conception until natural death.”

Conservative Christians do a lot of comical dancing trying to pass through the eye of a needle with their riches intact. Yet, in terms of Biblical principles, the best such conservatives can do is say that, yes, people have a moral duty to redistribute their wealth, only they should be free to do it or not. The fact remains that the Bible says precious little in defense of political and economic liberty, individual rights, or the value of economic prosperity.

As Sarah Palin writes in her biography, her brand of conservatism rests on the alleged truth “that man is fallen.” The presumption is that people just aren’t good enough to live in a socialist order. Instead, such conservatives argue, politics must cope with vicious humanity. Then faith-based conservatives who appeal to our “fallen” nature wonder why they can’t capture the moral high ground.

We are conservatives only in the final sense of the term: we want to conserve liberty and indeed radically expand it. We hold that liberty is not a gift from men or the gods, but a necessity for thriving human life. To live successfully, we need the freedom to act on our own judgment regarding ourselves and our property. Government must protect our rights, but it must be restrained by a written constitution that limits political power. Unlike the libertarians, we are not against government; we are for a government that robustly protects individual rights.

The interesting thing about this brand of conservatism is that it sounds a lot like what liberalism was always supposed to be, until its purported defenders twisted that movement to the opposite purpose. The best conservatives, it turns out, are also the only true liberals.

2 thoughts on “What Are Conservatives Trying to Conserve?

  1. Andrew

    although a little over generallized this was really good.
    as a libertarian this kinda pins the tail on the donkey about how i feel about conservitisim, it’s full of exceptions.

    little suggestion.

    where you say
    “Rule by king was a tradition”
    you should either expound on that or omit it. it seems kinda weird dangling on the end of that paragraph.

  2. Elisheva Hannah Levin

    Hmmm. I like the overall discussion, but would pick a bone with you over your definition of libertarianism as a form of conservatism. It is not, although it is often lumped in with the “right”. Libertarians reject statist approaches, whether it be the desire of conservatives to legislate their religious morality, or the desire of progressives to redistribute the wealth created by others. Your explication of the differences between libertarian thought and conservative thought, following your broad generalization is more correct.

    All in all, I enjoyed this little essay.

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