Conservative Reconciliation and Revival
Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Jun 8, 2009
Just when Republicans thought that it could not get any worse, Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter switches parties, Rush Limbaugh publicly fights with Colin Powell, and a recent Pew Center poll shows Republican Party identification at 23%, close to its post-Watergate low.
Yet, Republicans can rebound and win again. However, one requirement for Republican revival is for classical liberalism and traditional conservatism – two pillars of modern conservatism – to reconcile.
On its face, classical liberalism and traditional conservatism are diametrically opposed to each other. Classical liberalism emphasizes individual liberty free from constraints of government. From John Locke, liberalism took two major ideas. First, there is a distinction between public and private matters so that differences should be tolerated as long as they do not threaten the public order. Second, Locke identified liberty with property because of the close connection between preserving one’s life and earning a livelihood.
The emphasis on property laid the foundation for capitalism which argues that the rational self-interest of individual consumers and firms – the invisible hand – would promote the public good by making more high quality, affordable products that people wanted. The natural evolution of these ideas is found in the libertarian and pro-business wing of the Republican Party which favors small, unintrusive government.
Traditional conservatism, on the other hand, thinks people are deeply flawed which leads them to be skeptical of liberal claims that people are completely rational. Therefore, conservatives emphasize civil society more as churches, families, and private organizations are the key to the social fabric that restrains and checks self-interest. Moreover, custom and tradition have evolved over time and reflect the accumulated wisdom of history and should not be abandoned quickly.
Consequently, conservatives are principled pragmatists who support gradual change that preserves the best of society while adapting to changed circumstances. These ideas are seen in social conservatives who support individual freedom that does not threaten the public order.
Classical liberals and traditional conservatives first reconciled in the Industrial Age as contemporary liberalism focused on redressing the excesses of capitalism and curing social ills by promoting social welfare programs. Classical liberals and traditional conservatives could focus on saving capitalism, which proved the most effective means of distributing goods, and promoting morality, which constrained individual self-interest and the abuses of the Gilded Age. This coalition favored a small government that minimally regulated business while promoting and protecting the social order that provided for ordered liberty.
Today, classical liberalism’s glorification of individual choice contributed, in part, to the short term financial decisions that crippled the auto industry and the financial and housing sectors while undermining important social institutions like the family, religion, and private associations. Moreover, traditional conservatism failed to explain how abortion, homosexual rights, etc. relates to civic virtues like personal responsibility, honesty, and hard work.
The solution is for classical liberals and traditional conservatives to reconcile their ideas and realize that markets function best in a vibrant moral order that restrains self-interest. This “new fusion conservatism” would emphasize that markets produce better and cheaper goods than government. Yet, they can also admit that markets sometimes fail and that government needs to prevent monopolies, incomplete information, economic actions that have consequences for non-producers (e.g., pollution), and extreme inequality that cause market distortions.
Consequently, conservatives can oppose government run health care by providing tax credits or vouchers so everyone can buy health insurance, supporting regulations that require transparency in corporate decision making and financial documents so markets work properly, and providing incentives for energy independence which would reduce pollution.
Moreover, conservatives should emphasize the importance of civil society by promoting family friendly policies and vital social institutions like churches and schools. They must acknowledge that a society cannot flourish when almost 40% of all births occur outside of marriage resulting in children who are more likely to be poor, have behavioral problems, abuse drugs, etc. Furthermore, conservatives should continue to support charter schools, testing, and public and/or private school choice bringing competition and accountability to the education monopoly. These policies promote upward mobility and create a strong, stable middle class.
The old joke is that Israel wandered in the desert for 40 years because Moses would not stop to ask for directions. Yet, the directions for a conservative revival are there. Will conservatives take them?
Article orignally appeared in the Jackson Sun on June 5, 2009