Conservative principles are timeless.
‘Tis the season for restatements of the conservative creed. And ‘tis a good thing. Conservatives in the past 15 months have been doing a lot of reflection, self-examination, re-assessment, and constructive criticism. Encouraged by Tea Partiers and town meeting attendees, energized by the systemic threats posed by the leftist administration of Barack Obama, and motivated by a profound and admirable love of country, both veteran and new conservative leaders have been trying to put their principles into words. Wednesday, some 80 leaders released the most prominent of those efforts so far, the Mount Vernon Statement, self-described as “a restatement of Constitutional conservatism grounded in the priceless principle of ordered liberty articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.” It is worthy of serious reflection — as are other efforts inspired by the same restorative impulse.
The Mount Vernon Statement openly pays homage to, and aims to update, the Sharon Statement adopted at the Buckley Estate of Great Elm in Connecticut, 50 years ago this year, as part of the founding of Young Americans for Freedom. My father, Haywood Hillyer III, was there in Sharon in 1960 (scroll down to the third remembrance), which might be why this sort of exercise is particularly meaningful to me. But what should be meaningful to all American patriots is the theme of freedom that animates every one of these conservative treatises.
You find that theme right at the front of the Sharon Statement: “That foremost among the transcendent values is the individual’s use of his God-given free will, whence derives his right to be free from the restrictions of arbitrary force; That liberty is indivisible, and that political freedom cannot long exist without economic freedom; That the purpose of government is to protect those freedoms….”
It is here in the Mount Vernon Statement, too: “A Constitutional conservatism… honors the central place of individual liberty in American politics and life [and] encourages free enterprise, the individual entrepreneur, and economic reforms grounded in market solutions.”
Last August, in this space, I wrote a column called “Us Versus Them,” which began with these words: “We are for freedom, they are for coercion.” I had no way of knowing it then, but a group of veteran conservatives called the United States Public Policy Council was itself looking to update the Sharon Statement, and its leader Richard Delgaudio contacted me after seeing the column and asked if he could use my column as the basis of its work. What resulted, with my permission, was a Delgaudian expansion of that column into what the council called The Thurmont Statement, named after the town near Camp David where the Council last fall held its annual conference. After the freedom/coercion line, the Thurmont Statement’s second sentence read as follows: “We conservatives are for personal responsibility and autonomy, enforced by self-restraint and community standards. They, the left, are for obligations and requirements imposed from without by unelected government bureaucrats.”
At about the same time, Reid Buckley very kindly sent me, out of the blue, a booklet of two of his essays, one called “The Conservative Dilemma” and the other, more to the point of this column, “A Manifesto for Conservatives.” This Buckley’s take is a little different, in that he puts freedom not first but a close second in the hierarchy of values: “Rededicate the conservative movement to the good, the true, and the beautiful as inseparably linked under the general concept of the good society…. Freshly commit to individual human liberty as society’s prime moral end after goodness itself and therefore a major conservative political doctrine.”
In his hierarchy (a hierarchy which also re-embraced conservationism as an essential facet of conservatism), Buckley echoes Russell Kirk, who wrote in The Politics of Prudence (1993) that the very first in his list of “ten conservative principles” is that “first, the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order.” Kirk continued: “A society in which men and women are governed by belief in an enduring moral order, by a strong sense of right and wrong, by personal convictions about justice and order, will be a good society.”
The Thurmont Statement gets there, too: “We believe in ordered liberty serving a moral and righteous purpose….” And in his classic Ideas Have Consequences, Richard Weaver wrote that “there is some ultimate identification of goodness and truth, so that he who ignores or loses faith in the former can by no possible means save the latter…. We are looking for a place where a successful stand may be made for the logos against modern barbarism.”
Yet note that Weaver immediately linked goodness with its essential bulwark, the building block that is liberty guaranteed through property rights. The full quote is as follows: “We are looking for a place where a successful stand may be made for the logos against modern barbarism. It seems that small-scale private property offers such an entrenchment….”
The Mount Vernon Statement makes that linkage as well: “A constitutional conservatism… reminds economic conservatives that morality is essential to limited government, [and reminds] social conservatives that unlimited government is a threat to moral self-government.”
All of which leaves us, or leads us… where?
It leads us to the understanding that everything old can be new again, that while issues and policies and applications of ideals may change, principles that are worthy will endure and will maintain both their value and their utility — not to mention their essential truth — from one generation to any future generation, utterly undimmed.
It is to that end that the Mount Vernon Statement asserts this: “The change we urgently need, a change consistent with the American ideal, is not movement away from but toward our founding principles.”
Liberals just don’t understand this. They don’t understand that our founding principles are not constrictive, but liberating. The principles are not hidebound, but forward-looking. Rather than forcing a “change” that may destroy that change’s very agents, our founding principles allow for change to occur organically — and in a way that, because the change stems from the consent of the governed, will itself set the stage for yet other orderly, lasting, life- and freedom-affirming changes.
As various groups try to craft programmatic prescriptions for this day and time, they will succeed only — but entirely — to the extent that those prescriptions are grounded in the founding principles celebrated at Sharon, Thurmont, and Mount Vernon.
If so, it will be a good and joyful thing.
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