Sunday, December 23, 2007

Pillars of Conservative Thought

by Barry Lee Clark

It seems increasingly obvious that the very definition of what constitutes "conservative" is is doubt. That is at least the case with many that claim to be conservatives yet hold values and ideas that are progressive and even liberal or radical. Some claim, erroneously, that there is no true conservative tradition in America - that the United States was born amidst the liberal ideology of the enlightenment and that all we are is a derivative of liberalism. Liberal historians have painted this picture and we conservatives have been all too willing to accept it - we have accepted in large part that liberals have in their lineage men such as Jefferson. We (by that I mean confused conservatives) are left to accept that Adams, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt must be part of our lineage. This is, of course, false - the last three of those men do not belong in the paragon of conservative heroes (more on that is some later post). Adams perhaps, as a political philosopher for sure as a politician perhaps not.

When we abandon Jefferson as one of the key figures in the development of a uniquely American version of conservative political philosophy we abandon conservative philosophy in its historical context on this continent altogether. We are then left with but the scrapings of conservative thought without the underpinnings - we are let with the makings of an ideology. That is in essence what conservative thought has become, yet another -ism.

What is true conservative thought in terms of the uniquely American style and form? Is there such a creature as a true American conservative?

Clyde Wilson in a 1969 essay entitled The Jefferson Conservative Tradition theorizes that the essential elements of American conservative polity are Republican, Constitutionalist and Federalist in nature. 1

Republican describes the idea that sovereignty rests in the people but is expressed in the rule of a qualified majority within the bounds of law. The constitutionalist element deals with the notion of the law protecting the people from the government and the individual from the people. This idea is further expressed in the notion that government exists only via delegated powers. The federalist aspect of American conservative thought deals with the decentralized nature of our government, and the indestructibility of the component states.

Within these three pillars, all the entire universe of conservative thought may comfortably thrive. If one removes one pillar from the structure the philosophy falls into the trash heap of mere ideology.

Consider that to be a true republican (small "r") one must inherently view the community as supreme to the state, In a republic citizens of the republic must first be capable of self-governance before they can take an active role in governing others. This means they must become responsible members of the community, contributing in their own way to the common good. A republican sees the true nature of government to serve the community. Individual rights are guaranteed by membership within the community. To a republican sovereignty rests with the people and is exercised by a qualified majority through the states primarily and secondarily through the central government and the limited powers delegated thereto. A republican is a conservator that is in constant battle between the forces of aristocracy and democracy - preserving a fine balance between the two.

Community is the basis of all that is worthy of conserving and a true conservative realizes that a republican government is the best qualified of all forms to preserve community within American culture. It is thus that at various points in our past we accepted religious tests before allowing someone to hold an office of public trust. We did this not because ours was a government formed on religious principles but precisely because it was created to serve a religious community. That community was formed on religious principles and those that wished to be active members of the community accepted as much even if they did not personally adhere to all of the beliefs of the community at large.

Within the concept of community personal responsibility, a key element that must be present in a people that wish to be free was always expressed profoundly. Moral, financial, familial, business and ethical responsibility were traditionally the hallmarks of those that wished to achieve and maintain community membership. These are the traits that a person must demonstrate to be truly self-governing, without such responsibility a person is unfit to govern others (i.e. participate in the political process).

Property qualifications come to mind as a historical benchmark for full investment in the community. Certainly, this was one sure method of ensuring that those that voted had ownership of the solutions they supported. Perhaps this notion has no place in our current system (then again it sounds pretty good to me) but certainly the idea that those on the receiving end of government programs and hand-outs are not "fully qualified" members of the community holds true in my conservative mind. This is exactly the sort of shift in thinking that is required if we are to truly regain the fruits of conservative philosophy. Instead of talking about the benefits of some new program or modifying existing programs the true conservative would ask "who is participating in the conversation and why". Perhaps the answer to many of our woes might best be found in simply asking different questions and attacking different problems altogether. So long as we participate in debates that have as their origin liberal ideology we can and will never be true conservators of our republic.

On the subject of responsibility, we must also address the issue of rights. Conservatives view individual liberty as existing in an ordered society. This again requires diligence and a constant balancing act - as conservators this is the role of true conservatives. It is libertine and dangerous to presume that man has natural rights outside of the community. We were not created (nor did we evolve) as solitary creatures. There is a natural order to the universe, there exists natural law and under that law man lives and has always lived as a social animal/creature/being. Our freedom and liberty springs from the culture and community that we belong to. God gave us certain rights to be utilized responsibly within our communities, our communities give sanction to governments to protect those rights. There is no other way to view rights/responsibilities and remain within the conservative paradigm.

We have failed as conservatives primarily because we have failed to act as the conservators of our community. By this I am speaking of culture, heritage, values, traditions and families. The issue of immigration is a simple on to a conservative. We welcome those that wish to join our community - meaning follow our laws, learn our language, respect our customs and traditions and contribute to society. Anyone that proposes anything other than deportation for that that have not attempted to meet these criteria is not a conservative.

To be a true American conservative one must be a federalist. We may depart from those that termed themselves Federalist during the 1790's and early 1800's and we may agree more with the Antifederalist but in principle, we agree that a system of government that results in a decentralized government with certain specific delegated powers is best. Conservatives view the federal union as a compact between indestructible states. True conservative thought in America has always held that states retained certain powers unto themselves at the formation of the United States - the term states' rights is possibly a misnomer in this regard because these are not rights at all but inalienable powers never given to the Federal government at all, therefore the states do not need a right to exercise such powers as such a right is inherent in the sovereignty of the states. For clarity, the term states' rights suffice, however. A conservative knows instinctively that the federal government has no authority whatsoever dealing in issues such as education, healthcare, retirement programs, directly taxing citizens, speed limits, seat belt usage and a plethora of other initiatives.

Why then do so-called conservatives speak to these issues in terms of modifying existing programs? Why not simply read the Constitution and state unequivocally that any program that the Federal government is involved in that encroaches upon areas reserved to the states should not be modified but eliminated? Beware of anyone proclaiming the mantle of conservative that cannot fathom this point.

Which of course brings us to the constitutionalist pillar of American conservative thought. Despite that fact, the 18th century Federalist violated their charter to simply modify the Articles of Confederation they sold us a document that is the law of the land. As such a conservative realizes that this document is not a means to an end but rather a necessary result of building government - which of course is a necessary evil but a requirement of an ordered society. The Constitution is intended to protect the people from the rulers and the individual from the people. It is also a compact, a contract between the states and the central government that the states gave birth to. A true conservative views the Constitution in the sense that it was written and reads it plainly and literally. A conservative will not stand for altering interpretations of the document depending upon the mood of the polity - there are mechanisms established to alter the wording of the document without subjecting it to various interpretations.

What does all of this say for the current state of conservative thought in our present political arena? It says that there are not many conservatives among us and very few running for political office.


  1. Great article. On the point, "Why then do so-called conservatives speak to these issues in terms of modifying existing programs?", it's not entirely conservatives fault that they have to address such issues. Democrats and liberals of all stripes force such blanket issues into the public arena and hence shape the direction of such debates. Sometimes they simply can't be ignored.

  2. Great article, I agree. The idea of Jeffersonian Conservatism sits very well with me.

    I wonder, though, is it a Southern idea? (All the better if it is.) Russell Kirk begins his tome The Conservative Mind with Adams and, if memory serves me, the great Jefferson is not even mentioned. Neither are Lincoln and TR, of course. (Kirk was no neocon.)

  3. Joshua – thanks for the comments, I hope you and yours had a Merry Christmas.

    I am not going to take on Kirk head on right now on this point but I question the real conservatism of Adams. Kirk was about order (so were the Romans for that matter). Perhaps he saw in Adams the potential for using government to create the order required to preserve.

    However – he was a Federalist. I believe a view of the Federalist from our perspective proves that their ideas did not serve to protect and preserve the things they promised to protect and preserve. Was that their fault for creating a mechanism for a powerful central government or is it ours? I don’t know.

    As a political philosopher one has to admit that Adams was a pillar of conservatism. On the same note as a philosopher Jefferson toyed with many ideas. In public, in power however these men were very different. As a politician Adams and Jefferson were not the men they were when tinkering with philosophy. Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts.

    Perhaps I am to hard on the man. His ideas of checks and balances, a bicameral system to protect the well off from the low-born are all good concepts. Theoretically good conservative ideas.

    Perhaps "Centinal" said it best when debating Adam’s ideas concerning our form of government that currently places so much uninhibited power in the wrong hands.

    "I have been anxiously expecting that some enlightened patriot would, ere this, have taken up the pen to expose the futility, and counteract the baneful tendency of such principles. Mr. Adams's sine qua non of a good government is three balancing powers, whose repelling qualities are to produce an equilibrium of interests, and thereby promote the happiness of the whole community. He asserts that the administrators of every government, will ever be actuated by views of private interest and ambition, to the prejudice of the public good; that therefore the only effectual method to secure the rights of the people and promote their welfare, is to create an opposition of interests between the members of two distinct bodies, in the exercise of the powers of government, and balanced by those of a third. This hypothesis supposes human wisdom competent to the task of instituting three co-equal orders in government, and a corresponding weight in the community to enable them respectively to exercise their several parts, and whose views and interests should be so distinct as to prevent a coalition of any two of them for the destruction of the third. Mr. Adams, although he has traced the constitution of every form of government that ever existed, as far as history affords materials, has not been able to adduce a single instance of such a government…"

  4. Goldwater, thank you for the comment. Perhaps I am thinking ideally but when the will of the people is contrary to their common good, and the mechanism of government is so powerful that it may be used as a tool to placate the people something is wrong - and not conservative at all.

    What you say is true of our current political circumstance but sad all the same.

  5. But hang on just a minute: on what basis do you say that sovereignty rests with the people at all? Granted we've been brought up in a tradition that asserts that it does, and that's something, anyway. But what if you'd been blogging in, say, 1687, and you were trying to decide whether or not to stick a banner in your right-hand column that said "Another Friend of William of Orange"? How would you choose?

  6. Very interesting; I tend to agree.

  7. I have a problem with your "indestructible states". It was the Federal Government that advanced civil rights against the tyranny of the KKK and complicit state governments. I often disagree on the definition of a “true conservative”. While our founding fathers favored a limited government after bearing the heavy hand of King George, I think their core beliefs and motivations were different. The best example is the contrast between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
    I would suggest that whatever Thomas Jefferson said or wrote that seemed to be conservative, he also harbored ideas and sentiments that led to the “democratic” takeover of government under Andrew Jackson. And the most glaring example of this is his support of the French Revolution – which had none of the spiritual and conservative underpinnings of people such as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, or John Adams.
    A more accurate way to define “conservatism” is to look at the nature of human beings, which will ultimately shape government. I would argue that although conservatives opposed tyranny, the feared anarchy more. While classical Liberals (anti-federalists) feared tyranny more than anarchy (state of the French Revolution). Further I would say that conservatives operate on a consistent principle of human nature being naturally regressive without strong leadership and religious principles.
    The conservatism of today is really a classical Liberal philosophy that operates on the principle of human nature being naturally progressive. Therefore government is by definition always a burden and its leaders must be subservient to the public. That is really worrisome when you consider that the majority will be net negative tax payers after the Obama tax cuts take effect. A very good example to me is the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. To go into those countries and destroy the central authorities with no thought about establishing order can only come from the imagination of people “who do not hold classical conservative sentiments”.