Another Perspective

Ideas Still Have Consequences

Answering the call for conservative affirmation and soul-searching.

By 2.14.07

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At TCS Daily earlier this month, economist and theorist Arnold Kling filed a list of principles for "libertarian conservatives," who find themselves "under siege from so many directions." And, in the "open, voluntary, do-it-yourself, just-in-time" world of the Internet, he labeled this exercise an "Ideological Affirmation Task Force" and issued a request for comment.

After the right's defeat at the polls, no doubt some soul-searching is in order. Still, even before we get to the principles themselves, I find Kling's nomenclature off-putting. A wag might say a "libertarian conservative" is a contradiction in terms, much like chaste floosies, but in the American political tradition it is needlessly repetitive. Seeing as though there are neither thrones nor state-sanctioned altars to defend, there are no non-libertarian conservatives.

The American political order is essentially a liberal one grounded in a conservative or realistic appreciation for what societies and individuals are really like, not what political dreamers and schemers wish them to be like, if only they were in charge of the molding. And frankly, a conservative who isn't interested in conserving, or reclaiming, our constitutional patrimony isn't much of a conservative, no matter if he tries to up the righter-than-thou ante by claiming he wants the Bourbons or the Romanovs restored. He may be a fun crank, especially if he has the costuming to match his monarchial bent, but he's no conservative.

Equally puzzling is that Kling seems not to have "libertarian" as a noun in mind. To his credit, the good economist has more on his plate than legalizing drug, cozying up to the left to hate America, or pining for when the geeks shall inherit the Earth at the Singularity. I don't see what purpose, then, libertarian as an adjective serves. Kling would have been better suited to speak simply to conservatives. His statement of principles follows in italics. And since he asked for comment, here goes:

1. We weave a thread of self-reliance into a sturdy fabric of interdependence. By respecting the law, we reinforce impersonal justice. By competing intensely and fairly in an impersonal global market, we raise our standard of living through specialization and innovation. By upholding Constitutional principles for limited government, we sustain our individual freedom.

The Invisible Hand is a great and noble concept, but if nations capture that Hand and proceed to attach strings, we can no longer pretend it's self-directed to reach the best ends for all parties. If, for instance, other countries subsidize their industries to undercut ours, how is this then an "impersonal global market?" Rather, this is the age-old competition between nations, except we seem unwilling to play. Conservatives should support free trade, but not at the expense of the national interest.
Ever the realists, conservatives recognize that trade between Colorado and Iowa is on a different plane than trade between the United States and China, if for no other reason than Iowa refrains from shooting down satellites and threatening war with Colorado; nor does it rattle its sabers repeatedly that neighboring Nebraska belongs to it. For conservatives, economics can't exist solely in a land of theory.

2. We are creative and pro-active in helping one another. We do not have the patience to wait for government, nor do we want to be lulled into passivity by the promise of government. Instead, to solve those problems that require collective action, we form voluntary associations, including civic groups, corporations, clubs, standards-setting bodies, consumer information services, and charitable foundations.

Very true; but it is interesting that he left out churches and para-church groups. Throughout his list principles Kling neglects the role of religion, and there is no conservatism in the United States without the church as an institution and the Judeo-Christian tradition. Even an atheist or agnostic conservative, if he wants to be more than a parlor room dilettante, must recognize this fact and theorize accordingly.

3. Government must be kept in its place. We hold government officials to high standards of competence, honesty, and fairness. However, we do not confuse government with family. We do not confuse government with religion. We do not confuse government with business. We are conscious that any expansion of government responsibility, however well-intended, crowds out those institutions that are the true bulwark of our society.

Amen to that.

4. We celebrate the successes of others. We are glad when an entrepreneur becomes wealthy by finding a way to fill a customer need. We are glad when an immigrant family climbs the ladder of success. We are glad when people living in other countries make economic progress and spur us to innovate and improve.

Very good. In other words, conservatives stand firmly against the Left's overriding principle, envy. Another person's success is a reason for joy, not resentment.

5. Government cannot legislate morality, but it does mess with the incentives. Those incentives should never be tilted against the institution of the family whose mission is to raise children to be fine, upstanding citizens.

Kling is on the money with the incentives. In fact, the government should tilt whenever feasible toward the creation and maintenance of stable families because they insure the survivability of the state and a people. Kling stumbles, however, when he brings out the old canard that "[g]overnment cannot legislate morality." What else does the state legislate? The point of political debate is whose morality will triumph in the public sphere. We may well decide the government should stay away from certain moral areas, thus drawing walls around them. Likewise, we may find ourselves in situations where something frankly immoral should stay legal (for practical reasons, perhaps, or to reduce tensions between rival groups). Still, none of this means there's a wall between law and morality; the two are very much in communion as can be seen with the moral rhetoric that surrounds any debate from taxes to stem-cell research.

6. We maintain an ongoing conversation about morality and ethics. This conversation is informed by the Ten Commandments and Biblical scripture. It is informed by the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, and Dr. Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech. It is vital to continue the conversation, even when consensus is difficult.

There is a conversation, true, but as conservatives, we know that we're not going to reinvent the moral wheel. Conservatives have to fight against the moral fragmentation of America. A common moral framework is essential if the country is going to stay one country. Our common tradition has been provided by the Bible. Even for nonbelievers this has been a moral and cultural touchstone and we are in danger of losing it.

7. Like new businesses, new moral ideals can revitalize our society, even though many of them fail. For example, we recognize that we are a better people without racial segregation or barriers to the education and career opportunities for women. However, we judge some social experiments to be failures, including eugenics, Communism, and nihilistic cultural relativism.

True, no real conservative denies progress. But let us remember that the language of the civil rights movement, at least the successful language, resonated deeply with the common moral tradition of America. That language reminded us of who we are and who we were meant to be.

8. Our ideology does not have to be sustained by military suppression. Although it can inspire people to fight against tyranny, ultimately our ideology allows us to live in peace.

I'm not exactly sure what Kling is driving at, but there's that word again: ideology. It is needlessly offensive to a good number of conservatives, and it should be replaced with "philosophy" or "principles." We could debate this forever, I suppose, but an ideology implies, more so than the term philosophy, a substitute religion or an attempt to explain all of reality by a nifty list or theory. As conservatives know in their bones, reality has a way of getting out of the conceptual traps we set for it. That's why we believe in free markets, not planned economies; limited but effective government, not a centralized, ever-growing state. That's why we balk at one-size-fits-all approaches to social and political problems. That's why we hold man to be imperfectible and that attempts to fashion the "perfect man" lead to gulags and gas chambers. That's why we don't attempt to overthrow God and install Reason (or, these days, Tolerance or Diversity or Equality) on the altar.

9. We believe that people all over the world yearn for liberty, and for them we stand as a beacon and a champion. But we recognize that freedom is not ours to give when community leaders are not ready to seize the opportunity that it offers.

I'd like to believe that "people all over the world yearn for liberty," but I think that's a dangerous proposition without some serious caveats. People no doubt wish to be free of an oppressor's boot, but do they merely wish substitute their own heel? How many, then, know how to be free? There has to be room for trial-and-error on the part of a newly freed people as well as for transitional stages as they learn to exercise their natural rights to life, liberty, and property. And, on a more pessimistic note, even in countries with a tradition of political freedom, how many people chose security over liberty? Conservatives have to make the case for liberty, for liberty does not come naturally like night follows day.

10. When foreign leaders issue threats against us, we take them at their word and act accordingly.

We must not seek fights, but we'd better be ready to fight economically, politically, and militarily. I'd go step further. A sizeable swath of the West appears to believe, to one extent or another, that there really are no enemies, except perhaps George W. Bush. From the rooftops, conservatives must speak the truth to those with little hearing: What we have is worth preserving and it can be lost. We do have enemies who seek our destruction, and our enemies include not only terrorist groups but nation-states.

There are some glaring omissions in Kling's principles -- there's no recognition of property rights, for instance, as fundamental to both economic and political liberty -- but they provide a good starting point for debating the meaning of conservatism.

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About the Author

R. Andrew Newman is a freelance journalist in western Nebraska.