The case for conservatism
Conservatism recognizes the limits of human ability. Each of us is flawed in our own unique way. My shortcomings mean that I should not rule over you; your shortcomings mean that you should not rule over me. Still, some civil order is necessary to keep the peace. Left to our own devices, we would devour one another in a world without government.
But the very impulses that require government in the first instance also caution against allowing it to grow too big. Too much power in too few hands is too tempting for those who wield it. The Founders recognized this danger and designed the federal government in a way to protect most spheres of life from the reach of central authority. The key insight of the Founders still resonates today: people must be allowed the freedom to govern themselves.
Freedom, however, is a choice. To flourish, it requires specific policies and practices. Three tenets that underlie conservatism form the basis of a free society: a respect for private property rights; support for free markets and free trade; and a belief in God.
First, without private property protections, ballot booth democracy tantalizes as a tool of class envy. When voters are free to take whatever they want and give it to the government for everyone to share, the freedom of the individual loses its enduring character and instead becomes a preference subject to democratic whim.
This is dangerous ground to tread because ownership of private property has always served as a bulwark against centralized tyranny. It was the landowners who forced King John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215, which was the first document in the Western world to protect individual rights.
History also shows that when property rights weaken, government-sanctioned oppression grows. Collectivists believe that everyone should happily be on the same page – i.e., their page. When that unity cannot be achieved through persuasion, force is the next option. The formula throughout the world is well-established: collectivism today, the silencing of dissent tomorrow.
Second, society works best when economic affairs are conducted with limited government interference. While free markets are not perfect by any stretch, they do allow individuals to order their lives along the lines they see fit. Experience demonstrates that this is the shortest and most promising path to prosperity.
Social planners, however, believe in their ability to solve society’s problems. This is a typical human conceit. Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s recently-departed chief of staff, perfectly captured this mindset when he said, “Rule One: Never allow a crisis to go to waste. They are opportunities to do big things.”
Words such as these make conservatives shudder. The complexities of the world cannot be solved by people in the White House – Democrat or Republican – making decisions for the rest of us. Indeed, the bigger the solution crafted in the halls of government, the greater the unintended negative consequences caused by that solution. Reality rarely bends to the centralized planner’s will.
Too much government intervention in free markets also increases the power of the lobbying industrial complex. As government grows, so grows the number of those who seek to use the state for their own personal advantage – be it big business, unions, or anyone else with enough money to buy special favor. The cesspool of interest groups that pollute Washington, D.C., testifies to this truth.
In this regard, George Orwell in “Animal Farm” famously wrote, “All pigs are created equal, except some pigs are more equal than others.” Big government helps to perpetuate this type of legalized inequality because it invariably favors those who seek to fatten themselves at government’s trough.
Finally, conservatism believes that faith in God is essential to preserving liberty. Morality originates from superhuman instincts prompted by an Almighty Being. When the human race loses touch with this spiritual element, society suffers as men and women feel emboldened to live selfish lives without any accountability to a higher power.
As immorality rises in this manner, freedom suffers. The social breakdowns caused by violent crime, broken families, business fraud, and the like create a demand for action, which typically means greater state intervention at the expense of the individual.
Maintaining a connection to God is the only means to forestall this moral decline. In the words of Patrick Henry, “Bad men cannot make good citizens. It is when a people forget God that tyrants forge their chains. A vitiated state of morals, a corrupted public conscience, is incompatible with freedom. No free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue.”
This type of religious devotion cannot be imposed by the state. It comes from within. And therein lies both great hope and risk. The first line of defense of freedom always begins with the person in the mirror.
[Lance McMillian, a Fayette County resident, is a law professor at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School, where he teaches constitutional law.]