I bid a fond farewell to Ed Feulner, founder and former president of the Heritage Foundation. After recently reading John J. Miller’s dedication in the April 8 National Review, I remember my own experience with Feulner: he spoke at a Young Americans for Freedom conference when I was in college about four or five years ago.
He encouraged every student present to read and study the intellectual foundations of conservatism, including the great works of the Constitution, Friedrich Hayek, and Russell Kirk.
I applaud him for this outreach to young conservatives, as well as his development of Heritage as the premier conservative think tank in Washington, DC. I fondly remember reading my first policy backgrounders in high school; they helped build my political foundation.
However, one quote in the piece particularly irked me. Feulner, when describing his travails in discovering conservatism at Regis College, mentioned his history professor’s recommendation of Liberty or Equality by Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn.
“You have to choose between liberty and equality,” says Feulner. “I picked liberty.”
This quote struck me as a possible flaw of the modern conservative movement. As I reflect upon my own conservatism after recently finishing The Conservative Mind and John Adams, I look to history for essential lessons.
Adams argued that the government should promote happiness by enabling virtue. Liberty should buttress virtue, both of which strike at the foundations of artificial social equality.
Writing in 1776, Adams declared that the best form of government is that “which communicates ease, comfort, security, or, in one word, happiness, to the greatest number of persons…” To communicate that ease, the state must read the words of the philosophers: “[a]ll sober inquirers after truth, ancient and modern…have declared that the happiness of man, as well as his dignity, consists in virtue.”
Conservatives should choose virtue as the end with liberty as a means, a message that AEI President Arthur Brooks endorses. Rep. Paul Ryan has also talked about the importance of community and civil society in protecting the poor and the innocent, a concept viable only with virtuous individuals.
We shouldn’t just focus on protection of the vulnerable; conservatism as a movement must transcend the messages of politicians by addressing the culture. If we truly want to limit government, we need to start with the family and the municipality.
In this post-Feulner United States, conservatives must pick virtue.