From Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley to George Will and David Brooks, thinkers on the right have presented conservatism as a matter of conscience and principle.
Do President Donald Trump, Attorney General William Barr, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and many other self-styled “conservatives” strike you as persons of conscience and principle? Do they consistently act in accord with fundamental conservative principles? Or do they instead often engage in the coercive and manipulative tactics that characterize unprincipled power politics within authoritarian regimes?
American conservatism entails fidelity to the following key principles:
1. Character counts: Freedom of association allows for the development of civic institutions — religious institutions, public and private schools, social clubs, etc. These secular and religious institutions, together with familial education, inculcate moral character. They are essential for the development of a citizenry schooled in virtue. They are the bases for the development of morally responsible leaders and reflective citizen-voters. Such institutions counter excessive individualism, promote social harmony and undergird commitment to the rule of law. These institutions help insure that political and economic competition remain within the bounds of fairness and issue in just outcomes.
2. Realism: Within the secular context of political economy, self-interested humans must be acknowledged for what they are. Social, political and economic arrangements are not to be grounded in some visionary ideal concerning what humans ought to be or might become. Checks and balances and the rule of law are structured to provide curbs on greed, self-centered ambition and the all-too-human spirit of revenge.
3. Respect for the U.S. Constitution and the rule of law: The Constitution is the law of the land. It is the social contract which governs all political relations. By their oaths of office, elected officials swear to protect and defend the Constitution and uphold the rule of law it enshrines. No person is above the rule of this foundational law. Above all else the Constitution is designed to protect the citizenry against the rise of a dictator or the emergence of wealthy and powerful oligarchs.
4. Minimally regulated markets and competitive freedom: The “invisible hand” of competing interests assures that a minimally regulated capitalist economy works to the overall benefit of society. This “invisible hand” is the expression of competitive freedom. Freedom, in the political-economic sense, is the right to utilize one’s time, talent and material resources in any way that promotes one’s own interests. Within the realm of political-economy, the sole restrictions on the pursuit of individual self-interest are the Constitution, laws enacted by elected legislators and contracts into which one has freely entered. Political-economic freedom manifests itself in the spirit of competition. This competition is the primary engine of prosperity and progress within our democratic republic. Competition is central to assuring the equilibrium of all market factors—prices, wages, rents, etc. This equilibrium results in maximal economic benefits for all classes of society. Hence anti-trust, anti-monopoly and anti-too-big-to-fail regulations are required and must be enforced to assure robust and equitable competition.
5. Anti-statism: The development of a centralized, remote, powerful and bureaucratic federal government is a major threat to individual freedom. Such a remote and impersonal power tends to lack a human face and to brutalize individuals because it does not honor their freedom nor take into account the diversity of their concrete circumstances. The concentration of state power, particularly within an imperial presidency, undermines the legitimacy of governmental institutions and the liberty of citizens.
Whatever happened to principled conservatism? Where have all the principled conservatives gone? I suspect you will find them among what many current “conservatives” refer to as Republicans in Name Only.
Andrew G. Bjelland, Ph.D., is professor emeritus, Philosophy Department, Seattle University. He resides in Salt Lake City.