Liberty, Self Governance & Virtue
What everyone is missing in the debate between social conservatism, federalism, and classical liberalism.
In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s been quite a debate raging on the right side of the political spectrum. While the focus lately has been on the dust-up between Sohrab Ahmari and David French, it’s a debate that first bloomed in 2015 and has since waxed and waned in intensity. Yet, despite a years-long public spat over what conservatism is, was and should be, the arena seems more muddled than ever.
In large part that’s due to the political media (including conservative outlets) throwing around labels with reckless abandon. Are you #NeverTrump? Maybe you’re #MAGA. It could be you’re a conservatarian. Possibly a classical liberal. Or maybe you’re a Reagan Republican.
These, and dozens of other attempts to pigeonhole every right-leaning person, have only served to confuse the underlying issue of “what is a conservative.” In large part that’s because conservatives have tended to focus more on policy than underlying definition. By defining ourselves by our stances on a wide range of topics, from abortion to drug policy, foreign affairs to criminal justice, contextualism to originalism, etc., etc., we abandoned defining conservatism on our terms and allowed the media and the left to define it for us.
For close to 70 years, conservatives were, in large part, defined by William F. Buckley. We were “standing atop the ramparts, shouting ‘STOP’.” But what were we stopping? Supposedly, we were stopping radical progressivism. But if that were truly the case, we did a lousy job of it. Indeed, during the Bush years, we saw many progressive ideas adopted by a supposedly conservative president and administration. The size and scope of the federal government were increased, and its power to scrutinize our lives was magnified by the new Department of Homeland Security. Wars without end or clear aims were launched under the broad umbrella of the “War on Terror.” Education was federalized by “No Child Left Behind” (which, ironically, left almost all children behind).
It was, in fact, this odd dichotomy of progressive ideas adopted by a supposedly conservative administration that led to the schism we are now dealing with. Bush claimed to be a “compassionate conservative,” but there wasn’t very much conservative about his tenure.
Prior to Bush, the last man to enter the White House as a conservative was Ronald Reagan. Yet many of the principles he stood on were later co-opted and corrupted in the proceeding years. His adoption of peace through strength was warped into peace by military action. His hope for fiscal prudence became the greatest expansion of federal debt in our history. He aimed to make entitlement programs financially sound; later administrations adopted platforms of either eliminating or refusing to adjust them – and now they are facing insolvency. The Orwellian world we now inhabit is unrecognizable to the conservatives of the 1980s.
Conservatism, at its root, is based on the concept that there is a natural order and attempts to break free from that order inevitably lead to chaos. The “classical liberal” conception of conservatism based on the writings and thoughts from the Enlightenment period, including Jefferson, Locke, Smith, et al. is probably the closest we can hew toward. It does, in fact, absorb the social conservative concern about a classically moral society – it was, after all, John Adams who pointed out that our system of government would falter if not run by a moral nation. It also is in line with modern federalist concerns about the distribution of power and authority.
The classical liberal model also does not permit the accumulation of corporate power that exceeds the authority of the people. I know this will upset many who think free markets preclude the use of the government to rein in such entities. In a system of distributed authority, where no person or agency is able to wield greater power than another, why would a company – an entity not beholden to the public – be permitted to exceed such limits? When Teddy Roosevelt began the era of monopoly busting, historians referred to it as the beginning of the Progressive Era. I would beg to differ. Teddy employed the government to break up companies that threatened the general welfare. That is a conservative principle.
Many would question if the classical liberal model allows for mercantilism, a subject that Adam Smith touched on quite a bit. Yet Smith was against what modern free traders insist upon, a trade deficit. He opposed the idea of importing goods but supported the concept of exports. This was the economic model that was encouraged by the government up until the late 1980s when the concept of offshoring became official policy. Smith would have blanched at the idea of NAFTA or the myriad of other trade agreements; he was for a laisse faire approach to such matters.
Lastly, the classical liberal model does not allow for foreign interventions. Our founding fathers were unanimous on this point. Wars were to be avoided and only fought as a matter of absolute necessity. Of course, our history is replete with examples where this principle was abandoned. Yet a return to principled conservatism means returning to this posture – something bound to upset any number of proponents of “exporting freedom.”
Whether they identify as social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, or federalists, most are actually classical liberals. It is merely a matter of emphasis.
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