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The Conscience of a Conservative
I have been much concerned that so many people today with Conservative instincts feel compelled to apologize for them. Or if not to apologize directly, to qualify their commitment in a way that amounts to breast-beating. “Republican candidates,” Vice President Nixon has said, “should be economic conservatives, but conservatives with a heart.” President Eisenhower announced during his first term, “I am conservative when it comes to economic problems but liberal when it comes to human problems.” Still other Republican leaders have insisted on calling themselves “progressive” Conservatives.1 These formulations are tantamount to an admission that Conservatism is a narrow, mechanistic economic theory that may work very well as a bookkeeper’s guide, but cannot be relied upon as a comprehensive political philosophy.
The same judgment, though in the form of an attack rather than an admission, is advanced by the radical camp. “We liberals,” they say, “are interested in people. Our concern is with human beings, while you Conservatives are preoccupied with the preservation of economic privilege and status.” Take them a step further, and the Liberals will turn the accusations into a class argument: it is the little people that concern us, not the “malefactors of great wealth.”
Such statements, from friend and foe alike, do great injustice to the Conservative point of view. Conservatism is not an economic theory, though it has economic implications. The shoe is precisely on the other foot: it is Socialism that subordinates all other considerations to man’s material wellbeing. It is Conservatism that puts material things in their proper place—that has a structured view of the human being and of human society, in which economics plays only a subsidiary role.
The root difference between the Conservatives and the Liberals of today is that Conservatives take account of the whole man, while the Liberals tend to look only at the material side of man’s nature. The Conservative believes that man is, in part, an economic, an animal creature; but that he is also a spiritual creature with spiritual needs and spiritual desires. What is more, these needs and desires reflect the superior side of man’s nature, and thus take precedence over his economic wants. Conservatism therefore looks upon the enhancement of man’s spiritual nature as the primary concern of political philosophy. Liberals, on the other hand,—in the name of a concern for “human beings”—regard the satisfaction of economic wants as the dominant mission of society. They are, moreover, in a hurry. So that their characteristic approach is to harness the society’s political and economic forces into a collective effort to compel “progress.” In this approach, I believe they fight against Nature.
Surely the first obligation of a political thinker is to understand the nature of man. The Conservative does not claim special powers of perception on this point, but he does claim a familiarity with the accumulated wisdom and experience of history, and he is not too proud to learn from the great minds of the past.
The first thing he has learned about man is that each member of the species is a unique creature. Man’s most sacred possession is his individual soul—which has an immortal side, but also a mortal one. The mortal side establishes his absolute differentness from every other human being. Only a philosophy that takes into account the essential differences between men, and, accordingly, makes provision for developing the different potentialities of each man can claim to be in accord with Nature. We have heard much in the time about “the common man.” It is a concept that pays little attention to the history of a nation that grew great through the initiative and ambition of uncommon men. The Conservative knows that to regard man as part of an undifferentiated mass is to consign him to ultimate slavery.
Secondly, the Conservative has learned that the economic and spiritual aspects of man’s nature are inextricably intertwined. He cannot be economically free, or even economically efficient, if he is enslaved politically; conversely, man’s political freedom is illusory if he is dependent for his economic needs on the State.
The Conservative realizes, thirdly, that man’s development, in both its spiritual and material aspects, is not something that can be directed by outside forces. Every man, for his individual good and for the good of his society, is responsible for his own development. The choices that govern his life are choices that he must make; they cannot be made by any other human being, or by a collectivity of human beings. If the Conservative is less anxious than his Liberal brethren to increase Social Security “benefits,” it is because he is more anxious than his Liberal brethren that people be free throughout their lives to spend their earnings when and as they see fit.
So it is that Conservatism, throughout history, has regarded man neither as a potential pawn of other men, nor as a part of a general collectivity in which the sacredness and the separate identity of individual human beings are ignored. Throughout history, true Conservatism has been at war equally with autocrats and with “democratic” Jacobins. The true Conservative was sympathetic with the plight of the hapless peasant under the tyranny of the French monarchy. And he was equally revolted at the attempt to solve that problem by a mob tyranny that paraded under the banner of egalitarianism. The conscience of the Conservative is pricked by anyone who would debase the dignity of the individual human being. Today, therefore, he is at odds with dictators who rule by terror, and equally with those gentler collectivists who ask our permission to play God with the human race.
With this view of the nature of man, it is understandable that the Conservative looksupon politics as the art of achieving the maximum amount of freedom for individuals that is consistent with the maintenance of the social order. The Conservative is the first to understand that the practice of freedom requires the establishment of order: it is impossible for one man to be free if another is able to deny him the exercise of his freedom. But the Conservative also recognizes that the political power on which order is based is a self-aggrandizing force; that its appetite grows with eating. He knows that the utmost vigilance and care are required to keep political power within its proper bounds.
In our day, order is pretty well taken care of. The delicate balance that ideally exists between freedom and order has long since tipped against freedom practically everywhere on earth. In some countries, freedom is altogether down and order holds absolute sway. In our country the trend is less far advanced, but it is well along and gathering momentum every day. Thus, for the American Conservative, there is no difficulty in identifying the day’s overriding political challenge: it is to preserve and extend freedom. As he surveys the various attitudes and institutions and laws that currently prevail in America, many questions will occur to him, but the Conservative’s first concern will always be: Are we maximizing freedom? I suggest we examine some of the critical issues facing us today with this question in mind.
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File created: 8/7/2007
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Princeton University Press