What Does It Mean to Be a Conservative?

There’s no doubt that conservatives are in retreat. The combination of electoral defeats, ineffectual Congressional leadership and progressives’ rising popularity has taken its toll on conservativism. And now with the ascendancy of right-wing populism on the back of Donald Trump, conservatism has been thrown into a chaos not seen since before the rise of William F. Buckley.

Conservatives have failed to focus on their core principles and struggled to maintain a cohesive identity. In numerous states, Trump won among conservatives and moderates alike. Certainly, he appealed to conservatives concerned about immigration, political correctness, and business experience. But the fact is, Trump is not a conservative and has implied as much throughout the campaign. The fact that conservatives could not demonstrate this simple fact shows that term “conservative” has been stretched to a near-breaking point.

In the short term, some conservatives may rally around a third-party candidate. But if conservatism is to flourish, conservatives need to have a difficult conversation focused on question: What does it mean to be a conservative in American politics?

Some have already started diagnosing conservatives’ struggles, both inside and outside the confines of the Republican Party, by attempting to answer that very question. Citing a number of influential conservative intellectuals, the National Review’s Rachel Lu describes two “primary pillars” to conservatism: The recognition of a society’s vulnerability to government overreach and a “robust moral order.”

As part of this second pillar, she claims that: “Things can be objectively good or bad for us. We have obligations, not all of which are subject to our personal consent. We are capable of true excellence, but also of moral failure, for which we should rightly be held to account. These are fundamental truths that shape the conservative worldview.”

As a worldview, one can’t help but agree with this description of a “moral order.” A belief in morality and “right from wrong” is shared by many of us. We try to live our lives in line with this morality, and some of us encourage others to do the same.

But does the “moral order” need to be established and preserved by the government? Certainly, the government has established laws prohibiting murder, theft, and discrimination. But these are actions that fundamentally violate the individual liberties of another person. They allow for a peaceful society that protects the rights of safety, property, and contract.

There is some baseline “moral order” the government has to preserve, something roughly in line with John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle.” There are certainly exceptions to this guideline. But for the most part, preserving a “moral order” is the task of conservatives in society, not in government. Government’s involvement can infringe on individuals’ rights to make their own choices. And coming to a consensus about a “moral order” is more difficult than one might think. If drinking too large a soda is considered gluttonous, should we ban it? (Nice try, Bloomberg.) What about alcohol?

The point here is that American conservatives should not be legislating morality, whenever possible. Otherwise, we become the government overreach we claim to oppose. When government seeks to regulate individual behavior on “social” issues, it’s still “big government.”

For American political conservatives, there ought to be two pillars: Individual rights and limited, constitutional government. Americans that show a proper commitment to these two priorities are politically conservative.

Individual rights are fundamental to any free society. A free exchange of ideas helps spur innovation, learning and personal growth. Choice is essential to our distinct individuality. The fewer choices we get to make, the more predetermined life becomes. Conservatives need to be about empowering individuals, not controlling them. This starts with defending constitutional rights from government encroachment, both those enumerated and otherwise.

Protecting individual rights also protects the free markets. Free-market capitalism has been the catalyst for the United States’ position as an economic (and political) superpower. Allowing the forces of supply and demand to work enables mostly efficient outcomes and gives individuals the choice of employment opportunities, purchases and investments.

Individual rights might fly in opposition to some notion of a “moral order.” That’s okay. While causing actual harm to another directly (abuse) or more indirectly (dumping chemicals in a river) is not one’s “right,” other choices might be “unethical” or violate one’s religious tenets. But individuals should have the right to grow on their own, establish their own values and make their own decisions. If you disagree with someone’s choices, you can make your opposition known in the free market of society by exercising your own individual rights. But the government should not be the tool of moral enforcement.

Limited, constitutional government is a must at all levels of government. Governments should not be making personal decisions for individuals, nor violating their constitutional rights. If the Constitution allows gun ownership, don’t make it nearly impossible to own a gun. If two individuals want to marry, the government (and its citizens) should not care about the individuals’ genders. Don’t like alcohol consumption or gambling? Start a private campaign, not a government regulation. Excessive regulation or “cronyism” can devastate the economy and makes an incredibly uneven “playing field,” at home and abroad.

Government ought to be taking care of its responsibilities at the appropriate level. Constitutionally, the federal government has a number of enumerated responsibilities, aided by a “necessary and proper” clause. With interstate commerce and foreign policy alone, the federal government should have its hands full. For other issues, like education, state and local governments ought to be taking the lead, allowing problems to be solved closest to the people affected. (See the Tenth Amendment.) In its required duties, the government ought to be enforcing the law consistently – no selective or discriminatory enforcement of various laws. Conservatives need to be effective executives and legislators on the proper issues before them.  

Obviously these two points have more nuances and complications. There exists room for disagreement as to the exact role of government and the impact of individuals’ actions. But conservatives must focus on limiting government and maximizing freedom in the political arena.

These two pillars don’t mean conservatives shouldn’t strive to participate in a societal moral order. Nor does it absolve us from choosing morally upstanding candidates to run for public office. But focusing on these two facets of conservatism clarifies the conservative message. We need to be the movement of smaller government, free markets and individual liberty.

This is a more consistent, clearer message for the difficult process on “converting” Americans to the conservative cause which, judging by millennials’ beliefs and conservatives’ electoral struggles, has become extraordinarily important. It allows people of conflicting moral beliefs to gather under the conservative political banner, and lets individuals make their own decisions amidst the “free market of ideas.” It lets conservative politicians focus on exercising their constitutional duties, balancing a federal budget and maybe even solving a looming entitlements crisis.

Freedom and limited government. What’s more than conservative than that?

There’s no doubt that conservatives are in retreat. The combination of electoral defeats, ineffectual Congressional leadership and progressives’ rising popularity has taken its toll on conservativism. And now with the ascendancy of right-wing populism on the back of Donald Trump, conservatism has been thrown into a chaos not seen since before the rise of William F. Buckley.

Conservatives have failed to focus on their core principles and struggled to maintain a cohesive identity. In numerous states, Trump won among conservatives and moderates alike. Certainly, he appealed to conservatives concerned about immigration, political correctness, and business experience. But the fact is, Trump is not a conservative and has implied as much throughout the campaign. The fact that conservatives could not demonstrate this simple fact shows that term “conservative” has been stretched to a near-breaking point.

In the short term, some conservatives may rally around a third-party candidate. But if conservatism is to flourish, conservatives need to have a difficult conversation focused on question: What does it mean to be a conservative in American politics?

Some have already started diagnosing conservatives’ struggles, both inside and outside the confines of the Republican Party, by attempting to answer that very question. Citing a number of influential conservative intellectuals, the National Review’s Rachel Lu describes two “primary pillars” to conservatism: The recognition of a society’s vulnerability to government overreach and a “robust moral order.”

As part of this second pillar, she claims that: “Things can be objectively good or bad for us. We have obligations, not all of which are subject to our personal consent. We are capable of true excellence, but also of moral failure, for which we should rightly be held to account. These are fundamental truths that shape the conservative worldview.”

As a worldview, one can’t help but agree with this description of a “moral order.” A belief in morality and “right from wrong” is shared by many of us. We try to live our lives in line with this morality, and some of us encourage others to do the same.

But does the “moral order” need to be established and preserved by the government? Certainly, the government has established laws prohibiting murder, theft, and discrimination. But these are actions that fundamentally violate the individual liberties of another person. They allow for a peaceful society that protects the rights of safety, property, and contract.

There is some baseline “moral order” the government has to preserve, something roughly in line with John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle.” There are certainly exceptions to this guideline. But for the most part, preserving a “moral order” is the task of conservatives in society, not in government. Government’s involvement can infringe on individuals’ rights to make their own choices. And coming to a consensus about a “moral order” is more difficult than one might think. If drinking too large a soda is considered gluttonous, should we ban it? (Nice try, Bloomberg.) What about alcohol?

The point here is that American conservatives should not be legislating morality, whenever possible. Otherwise, we become the government overreach we claim to oppose. When government seeks to regulate individual behavior on “social” issues, it’s still “big government.”

For American political conservatives, there ought to be two pillars: Individual rights and limited, constitutional government. Americans that show a proper commitment to these two priorities are politically conservative.

Individual rights are fundamental to any free society. A free exchange of ideas helps spur innovation, learning and personal growth. Choice is essential to our distinct individuality. The fewer choices we get to make, the more predetermined life becomes. Conservatives need to be about empowering individuals, not controlling them. This starts with defending constitutional rights from government encroachment, both those enumerated and otherwise.

Protecting individual rights also protects the free markets. Free-market capitalism has been the catalyst for the United States’ position as an economic (and political) superpower. Allowing the forces of supply and demand to work enables mostly efficient outcomes and gives individuals the choice of employment opportunities, purchases and investments.

Individual rights might fly in opposition to some notion of a “moral order.” That’s okay. While causing actual harm to another directly (abuse) or more indirectly (dumping chemicals in a river) is not one’s “right,” other choices might be “unethical” or violate one’s religious tenets. But individuals should have the right to grow on their own, establish their own values and make their own decisions. If you disagree with someone’s choices, you can make your opposition known in the free market of society by exercising your own individual rights. But the government should not be the tool of moral enforcement.

Limited, constitutional government is a must at all levels of government. Governments should not be making personal decisions for individuals, nor violating their constitutional rights. If the Constitution allows gun ownership, don’t make it nearly impossible to own a gun. If two individuals want to marry, the government (and its citizens) should not care about the individuals’ genders. Don’t like alcohol consumption or gambling? Start a private campaign, not a government regulation. Excessive regulation or “cronyism” can devastate the economy and makes an incredibly uneven “playing field,” at home and abroad.

Government ought to be taking care of its responsibilities at the appropriate level. Constitutionally, the federal government has a number of enumerated responsibilities, aided by a “necessary and proper” clause. With interstate commerce and foreign policy alone, the federal government should have its hands full. For other issues, like education, state and local governments ought to be taking the lead, allowing problems to be solved closest to the people affected. (See the Tenth Amendment.) In its required duties, the government ought to be enforcing the law consistently – no selective or discriminatory enforcement of various laws. Conservatives need to be effective executives and legislators on the proper issues before them.  

Obviously these two points have more nuances and complications. There exists room for disagreement as to the exact role of government and the impact of individuals’ actions. But conservatives must focus on limiting government and maximizing freedom in the political arena.

These two pillars don’t mean conservatives shouldn’t strive to participate in a societal moral order. Nor does it absolve us from choosing morally upstanding candidates to run for public office. But focusing on these two facets of conservatism clarifies the conservative message. We need to be the movement of smaller government, free markets and individual liberty.

This is a more consistent, clearer message for the difficult process on “converting” Americans to the conservative cause which, judging by millennials’ beliefs and conservatives’ electoral struggles, has become extraordinarily important. It allows people of conflicting moral beliefs to gather under the conservative political banner, and lets individuals make their own decisions amidst the “free market of ideas.” It lets conservative politicians focus on exercising their constitutional duties, balancing a federal budget and maybe even solving a looming entitlements crisis.

Freedom and limited government. What’s more than conservative than that?