Oftentimes, we talk (or hear other people) talking about “conservatism”, “conservatives”, “conservative principles”, and “the conservative movement”. The most recent polls on the subject show (and similar polls have been showing for years) that in the United States, self-proclaimed “conservatives” constitute a 40%-41% plurality and outnumber liberals by a factor of 2:1. Yet, sadly, most of these people, indeed most of Americans, do not appear to understand what these terms mean. This post is intended to explain that.
Conservatism is not something that you can twist into any shape you want to, like plasteline. It’s a specific, defined ideology; a fixed, specific set of right-wing principles that are intended to guide us conservatives – both grasroots conservatives like me and CPAC attendees and conservative politicians – and inform us what decisions to make and when; what is the right thing to do, and what is wrong; what is valuable, what isn’t, and what is downright poisonous. These principles are intended to tell us what decisions to make on political issues (if we are officeholders) or what opinions to form and voice (if we do not hold any office).
And what exact principles does conservative ideology consist of?
The first and most important principle is that everyone – the government and citizens alike – must, at all times, obey the Constitution, even if it is convenient to violate it. That is because the Constitution is the greatest document ever written, and has created a governmental system better than any other ever devised on Earth, a limited government system operating with the consent of the governed. Under this Constitutional framework, the US became the most successful country in human history. We must also be mindful of the fact that the Constitution was written by the Founding Fathers, most of whom were far wiser than we are, and represents the form of governmented they wished to see. This means that any policy, program, agency, or “law” not authorized by the Constitution, let alone one violating it, must be abolished. Period.
Moreover, we must interpret the Constitution according to the original intent of its authors, not according to what we wish it said. We can learn that intent by checking what words meant around the time when the Constitution was ratified, and by reading the Federalist Papers. We must reject any attempts by anyone – liberals, libertarians, or anyone else – to reinvent the Constitution, subordinate it to foreign law, use foreign law in US courts, or make law from the bench. We must not allow them to invent any “rights”, nor put faith in these fallen people.
Related to these first two principles of conservatism is the next one: that related to government spending. Conservatism teaches us that the private sector should be left to do everything that it can do best, and that governments should do only what the private sector and private citizens can’t do well. And among governments’ tasks, everything that states and local governments can do better than the central government, including everything reserved to them by the 10th Amendment, should be done by them, and not by the federal government. The Constitution reserves everything except defense, wars, foreign affairs, foreign trade, mail delivery, and the establishment of a uniform commercial system (a single system of weights and measures, bankruptcy laws, a single currency, etc.) to the states.
If the US had obeyed those principles, there would’ve never been a federal budget deficit in the first place – let alone one measured in trillion dollars per year. That is because the Constitution authorizes the federal government to deal only with the issues listed above. Had the federal and state governments and the American people just followed the Constitution, there would’ve never been a federal budget deficit in the first place. However, two malicious influences have intervened. Firstly, federal politicians, hungry for ever more power, have been expanding the size and scope of the federal government since the Progressive Era. Secondly, states, localities, and individual citizens willingly accepted this as the price for federal subsidies, which they gladly took every year, thus freeing themselves from responsible fiscal policies (state and local governments) or from responsible lifestyles (individual citizens). Thus, the federal government turned states into its slaves, dependent on federal subsidies, and created an entire dependency class. Thus, the rate of people’s dependency on the federal government is at its highest level in American history, with 46 mn people on foodstamps and a full 20% of Americans depending on the Feds for their living according to the Heritage Foundation.
Also related to the first two principles is the requirement for a strong defense and for whatever measure is necessary to build it, including generous funding. Despite libertarians’ pathetic attempts to portray defense spending as a Big Government Program, providing generous funding (and whatever else is necessary) for national defense is actually an integral part of conservative philosophy, in part because it’s the #1 Constitutional duty of the federal government. Defense spending is not a Big Government program. Likewise, it is permissible, and sometimes necessary, for the US to intervene militarily abroad and to join alliances with likeminded nations. There is nothing in the Constitution that prohibits it. In this case, libertarians are guilty of the same sin as liberals – reinventing the Constitution, inventing hocus-pocus things that are not in it, and misportraying it as something it is not.
It is ironic, but not surprising, that just as the federal government has been steadily expanding into provinces reserved to the states, micromanaging everything from education to agriculture, it has irresponsibly neglected, and been steadily cutting spending on, its most important legitimate function: defense. Spending on it accounted for the absolute majority of the federal budget in the Eisenhower era; now it’s 19%. Entitlement spending exceeded defense spending in FY1975 and now consumes 63% of the total federal budget. Conservatism calls for both of these trends to be reversed. It requires that federal spending be prioritized in favor of defense, and that all programs and agencies not authorized by the Constitution be abolished completely.
Conservatism also requires respect and trust for free enterprise and for protecting it from governmental strangulation. It rejects statism, nationalization, government mandates and steering of business decisions, bailouts, and class warfare. Taxes should be low and simple.
Conservatism requires that the government not adopt any environmentalist regulations prohibiting the safe, responsible development of the country’s natural resources.
Conservatism requires that people’s civil liberties be protected and respected. As the Fourth Amendment says, no person should be arrested or searched, and no one’s car or house should be searched, except with a warrant for a probable cause, and as per the Sixth Amendment, no US citizen should be denied a right to a speedy, public trial or the right to an attorney. But conservatism also teaches us that foreigners are not entitled to any of the rights of US citizens.
Finally, regarding social issues, most conservativies, including myself, profess traditional Christian beliefs. We believe in the right to life, traditional marriage, and in human dignity. We reject abortion, gay marriage, and human cloning. But there are also many conservatives who profess socially liberal beliefs on these issues. What does conservative ideology say?
That decisions on these policies should be made by the people, not by judges legislating from the bench. We must respect the right of the people of all states to make their own policies on the subject. Therefore, for example, whatever you think of gay marriage, you cannot agree with the 9th Circuit Court’s decision overruling the verdict of Californian voters on marriage protection. We as conservatives may have our legitimate differences on these subjects, but we cannot tolerate judges legislating from the bench.
So that is what conservatism requires. Obeying the Constitution at all times, maintaining a limited Constitutional government and the minimum required taxation, providing for a strong national defense, keeping private enterprise free from any government diktats, developing national resources as needed and as prudence dictates, and making sure that judges interpret the law as it stands, not legislate from the bench.
Anything contrary to that is not conservatism.