Conservatism is a negative philosophy. I don’t mean “negative” in the sense that it proposes something undesirable. I mean that it seeks to negate objectionable aspects of the human condition. Man has a propensity for evil. This means that men must be restrained in some fashion — which is precisely why conservatives have typically stressed religion, conventional morality, humility, etc.
But conservatives have also stressed that any government designed to be powerful enough to restrain men will also be run by men, whose collective propensity for evil is to be feared even more. Conservatives have never argued that man should not be governed — only that there is far more to fear from humanity organised in the collective called “the state” than from the inherent and inevitable shortfalls of individual men. Classical liberal Lord Acton perhaps summed up conservatives’ creed best when he wrote that “Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Our Founding Fathers were unabashedly conservative in their attitudes toward the state. President George Washington said: “Government is not reason. It is not eloquence. Government is force; like fire it is a dangerous servant — and a fearful master.” James Madison noted: “The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.” Thomas Jefferson was even blunter about the danger of centralizing state power: “Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.”
From the Founding to the 20th century, critiques of the modern state — or what we today call “big government” — were at the heart of traditional American conservatism. Ronald Reagan’s hero, President Calvin Coolidge, was a champion of laissez faire and a harsh critic of statism. “Mr. Republican” Senator Robert Taft led conservatives in their battles against President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. President Reagan would later sum up conservatives’ view unequivocally: “Government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem.”
This brief history of the American conservative tradition is necessary to demonstrate how it has now become history. The election of Reagan in 1980 was revolutionary in that it popularised the term “conservative” like never before — and it was tragic in that the word’s widespread use stripped it of any substantive philosophical meaning. Today, virtually every Republican — relatively liberal leaders like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham are prime examples — calls himself a “conservative.” But do they mean it in the same way the Founders or Reagan did? Do they mean it in any substantive way at all?
We know the GOP presidential candidates don’t like Obama, Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi, and each candidate can rattle off one-liners about Democrats. But who among them has a major beef with the modern state, to the degree that it guides their political philosophy?
Last month, The Los Angeles Times put the current Republican presidential field into proper context:
The basic question posed by the likes of Republicans Herman Cain, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry is: “Would this person do a better job as president than Barack Obama has?”
The basic question posed by Rep. Ron Paul’s candidacy is: “Why do we have a federal government?”
Paul isn’t saying the federal government is wasting every dollar it spends; he’s saying the federal government doesn’t need to do much of what it does. Which gets us back to the existential challenge that Paul poses to Washington. Why is the federal government performing so many functions?
This “existential challenge” is American Conservatism 101. Much of what passes for conservatism these days is mere Republican tinkering with the current system, not a rejection of it. Too many of today’s self-described conservatives don’t necessarily want to get rid of big government. They simply want to “fix” it, or as current Republican presidential front-runner Herman Cain noted of a certain fellow contender: “[With Ron Paul] everything is ‘end this, end that, end this, end that!’ You have to fix stuff, not end everything.”
Not “end this” or “end that”? Now this is something new for conservatives. Should we not get rid of the Department of Education that Reagan (like Paul) always wanted to abolish, and instead just “fix” it? No Child Left Behind, Cain-style? Conservatives’ argument has long been that the federal government has no constitutional role in education. Senator Barry Goldwater, the conservative movement’s long-time standard-bearer, went even further in outlining proper constitutional parameters:
I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them. It is not to inaugurate new programs, but to cancel old ones that do violence to the Constitution, or that have failed their purpose, or that impose on the people an unwarranted financial burden. I will not attempt to discover whether legislation is “needed” before I have first determined whether it is constitutionally permissible.
Who speaks like this anymore? Some of the GOP candidates say that they’ll take Obama’s mess and make it more Republican, which might be enough to win the next election, but it’s not conservative. Not even close.
This is particularly interesting, or depressing, at a time when the grassroots right is more open to pure conservative philosophy — in all its unadulterated anti-government, anti-state bravado — than it has been at any other time in recent political memory.
The big government that the Founders warned us about, and that Coolidge, Taft, Goldwater and Reagan tried to fight, is now here. It’s hard to fathom the concept of “big government” being any bigger than our current federal government. And we’re simply going to “fix” it? Good luck with that — and goodbye to conservatism.
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