Before the rain of poisoned arrows that the 2014 campaign will be begins in earnest, it might be useful to review first principles. I won’t deal with the Left side of the aisle, where core beliefs are protean; that is a task of years. What follows is a list of characteristics common to all conservatives — with the caveat that when evaluating, deeds are always more important than words.
Conservatives value tradition. To them, tradition is not a set of stogy practices, ossified by mindless repetition over centuries. Traditions represent the past’s winnowing of behaviors, separating the beneficial and productive from the vicious and useless. To lack this filter is to be rudderless on the shifting tides of fashion, obsessed with the new or novel. Those who advocate the abandonment of long-standing practices should be challenged to specify criteria they would substitute for the test of time. To use a familiar aphorism, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Sage words, but painful to those who justify their existence by fixing problems, mostly imaginary.
Conservatives attend to history. The past is useful as a measure of the present — are we better educated, wealthier, better-spoken and mannered, more curious, more vigorous than our counterparts who began our Revolution, or less so? What do the differences between us say about the wisdom — or lack thereof — of current social trends?
History also provides ample lessons about us humans, our foibles and triumphs. What unites Alcibiades the Demagogue, Robespierre the Terrorist and Mao Zedong? How were they successful, and what warnings does that give us? Conversely, what encouragements do the careers of Nicholas Copernicus, George Washington and Mohandas Gandhi offer? Study of the past will answer these questions, even if the answers are painful to some.
Conservatives embrace freedom. This affinity creates problems, since it implies a certain tolerance for inequality: humans have by their nature different capabilities, desires, tastes and interests, so there will be a wide variety of outcomes in any sufficiently large group of us. Conservatives consider this a natural and inevitable result of humans being left alone to pursue their own interests to the extent they wish. They are dubious about government schemes to “reduce inequality,” understanding what usually balances the equation is a reduction of individual liberties. From Rome’s Gaius Marius to Pol Pot, the Lords of Levelling promise equality of circumstance, but more often than not deliver the equality of serfdom.
There is also confusion about “liberty,” which some mistake for license. It is the very opposite. Liberty demands self-control; to freedom-loving Conservatives, the ideal republic is that with a minimum number of laws not because it has embraced anarchy, but because its individuals regulate themselves without recourse to higher authorities. In contrast, the current president’s argument that Congress is derelict because it does not satisfy his fetish for legislation has resonance because many Americans have abandoned the defense of freedom in pursuit of the mirage of government-guaranteed material equality.
Conservatives follow rules and procedures. This might seem to contradict liberty, but it does not; rules are what allow the enjoyment of freedom: without them, there is only the law of force and the compulsion of tyranny — majoritarian or otherwise. To paraphrase Hugo Weaving’s marvelous Inspector Aberline, “Rules. They’re all that keep us from a dog-eat-dog world.” This occasionally makes conservatives vulnerable to those for whom rules are a mere inconvenience, but to abandon them would be to embrace the law of the jungle, which we have been trying to escape for the past 6,000 years of human history.
Conservatives appreciate market economies. They value the efficiencies of open markets, which distribute goods and services and provide value to both with unrivaled speed and precision. First described as an “invisible hand” by Adam Smith, the workings of free markets have provided greater prosperity, vitality, wealth and choice to more people than any system managed by humans, no matter how scientific.
Conservatives honor service to country. “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” is an eminently conservative sentiment, and it is a measure of the distance the Democrat party has lurched leftward that one cannot imagine those words coming from the current president. Instead, “sacrifice” is something demanded of greedy, money-grubbing Wall Streeters, so that the recipient classes favored by Democrats may benefit.
Finally, conservatives dislike spending beyond their means — an attitude useful in separating actual conservatives from pretenders. And — in a note to Andrew Romanoff, one of the latter types — fiscal conservatism isn’t a virtue when compelled by law. That’s something else.
So before voting this November, carefully consider not the words, but the behavior of our candidates. Then, choose wisely. It matters.
Morgan Liddick lives in Summit County.