Upon reading part two of Rick Moran’s series, Intellectual Conservatism Isn’t Dead, I found myself nodding in agreement with many portions which both criticized current, “movement” conservatism and praised classic conservative theory. What was lacking in this analysis, however, was a parallel look at some of the high points of liberalism in our country and the sorry state to which much of it has devolved today.
I’ve long felt that many of the core tenets of classical liberalism were the better angels which are needed to glare over the shoulder of sound conservatism, preventing the excesses which can result from extremism in either direction. Classic liberalism realizes that there exists a proper function of government to temporarily protect and support the weakest and most vulnerable among us when disaster strikes. It understands that unchecked power can and will be used to the detriment of those who have been historically oppressed without the protection of a big brother. It is willing to open the public purse, where appropriate, to ensure that the needs of the many are met while still providing opportunity for the energetic few. It holds a heartfelt conviction — this one really sticks in the craw of modern conservatives who crow at length about American exceptionalism — that peace is always preferable to war.
Unfortunately, experience has taught us that each philosophy, when taken to the apparently unavoidable, absurd extreme, can turn into a pox upon us all. Each and every time we hand unchecked Washington power to a liberal majority, it winds up being akin to giving the car keys to a drunken teenager. While your noble intentions may have been to ensure that everyone had a good time and an adequate supply of beer, the family car inevitably winds up in the ditch and the best we can hope for is that everyone manages to crawl away without serious injury.
In considering the first liberal virtue above, that being the role of government in a “great society” to protect those at risk, I was prompted to recall one passage from Moran’s essay.
Reformists — and I include intellectual conservatives in that mix — have, as neoconservatives have done, accepted the New Deal and many elements of the Great Society. But their overall critique of both lies not in a rejection of the role the state must play in a modern industrialized society as so many movement conservatives do, but in the belief that value-based reforms as well as more efficient allocation of resources can be achieved without destroying the “safety net” while promoting virtues such as self-reliance and independence. In short, conservative reformists want to alter the liberal culture in the bureaucracy that seeks to expand their clientele rather than reduce it.
Indeed, there are few serious thinkers who would deny that a fundamental thread in the fabric of a free, democratic, capitalist society is the idea that we strive to ensure an equality of opportunity, not of outcome. Everyone, if they are willing to pour in the requisite blood, sweat, and tears, will have the chance to rise to the top, but the vast majority will not do so. However, the sympathetic (and yes, socialist) aspect of our great experiment dictates that we provide a safety net for those who fall through the cracks and face the prospect of starvation or exposure to the elements.
But too many modern liberals bristle when we suggest that checks, limits, and restrictions must be placed on this government largess. “Why,” I have been asked, “should I have to provide proof for some sort of means test in order to receive assistance funded by tax dollars?” Indeed, these same people will question why there should be limits on welfare payments or how we can expect recipients to begin working after a period of time in order to receive such benefits.
Again, the better angels supply the answer. Even if we are to assume that you, as a specific individual, are a tower of integrity and would never abuse the system, observations of basic human nature prove that there are far too many exceptions to that rule. With Halloween nearly upon us, a good analogy may be found in the candy bowl on the porch with a sign reading, “Please take one.” True, you might have five, ten, or fifteen children stop by and do just that, but eventually you’ll be hit by the kid who will empty the bowl and run cackling off to their hideout. Adults are no different. When your safety net turns into an unquestioned lifestyle choice, there will be those who choose to hang indefinitely in the net.
The best example of this argument can be found in the debate currently taking place over health care reform. As with other forms of emergency support, few fair observers would argue that there are people in America who simply cannot afford basic health insurance and it is proper that the government address this. Arguing against any sort of reform for no reason other than scoring quick political points against the president will brand you a villain with the majority of voters.
But when classic liberalism gives way to modern, extreme liberalism, they seek to use this problem as a launching point to a single-payer, government-controlled monopoly of the entire health care system. The destruction and government sublimation of a vital successful aspect of both our economy and our society is compassionate liberalism taken to a radical extreme. It only serves, as Rick Moran puts it, to perpetrate “an insidious attempt by government to control the personal lives of citizens — as fundamentally against conservative principles and our concept of individual liberty as anything that has ever been proposed by an American Congress.”
The same goes for the protection of minorities of all sorts from attacks and prejudice. Both classic liberalism and reasoned conservatism seek an equal playing field for all the contestants in this capitalist paradise. The sins of the past serve as road markers to ensure we don’t repeat them in the future. But when modern liberals insist on so-called hate crime legislation, they turn a blind eye to the fact that justice is now, once again, being dispensed in unequal measure. Just because the inequality is flowing in a new direction is no excuse for the inequity.
The subject of war may be the most bloody and sensitized of all. Classic liberals are, without question, correct when they point out that being in a state of peace is preferable to being at war. What is missing from much of modern liberalism, though, is the vital caveat that peace, while always desirable, must be available at a price we can afford. Human nature and the affairs of states being what they are, that price will periodically rise above what our market will bear, and war stands as the only alternative.
This is not to say that war is ever preferable or that all reasonable avenues of diplomacy must not be explored and exhausted before reaching that decision. This aspect of American government is perhaps the best and most important area where angels of both the conservative and liberal leanings must ride on the shoulders of our leaders. But distaste for war must never rob us of the options which frequently keep bad actors from the worst behavior; nor can we allow it to lessen the respect and debt we feel toward our military.
In the end, Rick is probably correct in saying that some forces inside the modern, movement conservative ranks are running the machine straight off the rails. But in the same way, today’s disciples of liberal doctrine have taken what was once the guiding hand of socially responsible conscience and clenched it into a fist banging out something closer to irresponsible socialist tendencies. Extremism comes in all flavors, and enough of it will make any meal unpalatable.