Back to the Fundamentals

Ronald Reagan as a California gubernatorial candidate, 1968.
By Coleman Shear ‘13

The conservative movement in America needs to return to its roots and emphasize that it is the movement of freedom and sanity. It is unclear whether the growing popularity of the Tea Party in America is a sign of this return to sanity or a further descent into ideological madness. The Tea Party is being pulled in multiple directions and does not yet have a clearly formed ideology. Many in the Tea Party define themselves as libertarian conservatives and fit the description. Others that label themselves as such do so wrongly and are merely unrealistic, angry, and divisive. The latter claim that they are protesting against an all too powerful government and tyranny, when in reality it’s not the idea of an all powerful tyrannical government that they have a problem with — it’s just the fact that they’re not the tyrants running it.

Conservatism in America is a young movement in comparison to our cousins on the Continent. We have less of Edmund Burke’s gradual change in our belief system and more of John Wayne’s Western self-reliance. What we do share with our cousins across the Atlantic is a common bond of Western culture, freedom, democratic institutions and the right to property. In order for conservatism to become productive again, we must look to two of our pasts: first, the self-reliance of Goldwater, and then the more intellectual European brand of conservatism, both of which understand that economic and political freedom come together.

Both the Republican and Democratic parties have done an amazing job over the past twenty-two years of destroying this country, the former by emphasizing divisive wedge issues and the llatter by making promises to the American people that are completely unrealistic. It is time for true conservatives “to take this party back” as Goldwater said at the 1964 Republican National Convention.

Yet this time, it’s not taking the party back from the wishy washy moderates, but from the extreme right. Goldwater’s brand of libertarian conservatism is what is needed at this critical hour. We need to stop focusing on wedge issues in the culture wars — issues that will not affect the lives of most Americans in the end. While I do sympathize with the conservative point of view on many of these issues, I also firmly believe that the law has no say in personal actions that affect only the actor. We need to focus on what really matters: saving the economy, and preserving freedom. Many people don’t realize that you can’t have one without the other.

Conservatism recognizes the rights of the individual over the group. We choose not to label people based on class and race like liberals, but view them as individuals first. This is the greatest difference between many liberals and us. We do not view the man standing in front of us as black or white, but as simply a man with the same rights as others.

We reject utilitarianism in favor of the protection of the rights of the individual. We understand that simply doing what is beneficial for the greatest number of people on every issue is not always beneficial for government to function and is often disastrous. Conservatism is meant to protect the rights of the individual from the tyranny of the majority, as it is built into our Constitution. America is not a pure democracy for a reason. Populism can serve as a force for both good and evil.

I am a conservative today is because of the fact that I grew up in a predominately liberal state and attended a private school. Through much of my early life, I felt that freedom of speech for the mentally stable was largely stifled. The school that I attended before going to boarding school I would characterize as much more of an indoctrination center than a school. I never understood the obsession with political correctness that my classmates had, and it wasn’t until I was older that I realized how skewed our education in the humanities truly was, complete with overt and subliminal messaging everywhere.  I find it upsetting that many educators describe Communism as being good in theory not in practice, when in reality it is pure evil in both, in that it seeks to force everyone to conform to an artificial standard of justice.

At my school it was normal to criticize the Republicans, even, in the extreme, to compare them to fascists. Words like that have a way of suppressing free thinking. But I didn’t see any of the liberals’ freedom of speech being stifled in the environment that I grew up in. It seemed that only conservatives were the ones had to watch what they said.

I started out as a moderate. I came to realize, though, that moderation was constantly under attack in my institutions of learning. A formative moment came during high school, when a teacher suggested that expressing love of one’s country was a form of jingoism during one of her many long “cultural relativism” lectures. From that point I clearly knew what side I stood on.

I only came around to libertarianism much more recently.  Any student of history understands that a society built on socialism cannot last. It is simply impractical as an idea and it scares me that America is heading in a more statist direction. A quote from Margaret Thatcher, “The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money,” best sums up my problems with our contemporary problems.

Where is the money coming from to finance the massive social welfare state that Obama proposes to build? The money’s not there, so we borrow from China.

But fiscal responsibility in our nation will not start in Washington; it will have to start at home. Americans are just as guilty as Washington when it comes to spending money that we don’t have. Household debt before the recession skyrocketed in the US. Fiscal irresponsibility is something for which every American is partially responsible.

An example for our times: Margaret Thatcher’s Tories fundamentally changed the direction of British politics.
Fundamentally, our government cannot spend its way out of this economic black hole. A sea change is necessary to rescue this country and libertarian conservatism is where we need to start looking. The US under the Obama Administration does not seem to be a friendly place to do business — that is, unless you are a part of this administration’s inner cadre of friends and political contributors. Obama continuously proposes hiking taxes on the highest earners and American corporations.

Winston Churchill summed up this approach when he said that “Socialism is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy. Its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery.” Socialism creates an equal society where everyone is equally poor. Unfortunately, many liberals have bought into the notion that extensive government intervention in the economy is both necessary and just.

Conservatism proposes the opposite: it understands the burdens that taxation creates and that it hurts growth. Low tax rates will help sustain growth, but these tax reductions cannot come before Americans severely hold back government and cut various programs, along with the myriad subsidies for uncompetitive industries and entitled interest groups.

Of course, this agenda presupposes that conservatives  are willing to bluntly and honestly articulate an agenda of bitter medicine to the American people. But there can be no other medicine: America’s economic survival requires massive restructuring.

With that in mind, we ought to look across the Atlantic and at Thatcherism during the 1980s. Thatcher’s Britain stands not simply an example of successful conservatism abroad, but an intelligent model for American conservatives to follow today. American conservatives must demonstrate that they are not just a party of angry white males, but also a party with intellectuals and a plan to expand political and economic freedom. Thatcherism had its day of reckoning with England’s powerful labor unions that were stifling growth and whose out of control wages — paid for by the government through printed and borrowed money — were driving up inflation. This conflict from which she emerged victorious is one that we conservatives will need to go through in America to win. Unions are hardly the force in America today that they were in Thatcher’s Britain. In our own case, the foes are the special interest groups that have hijacked Washington: corporations, unions, and pressure groups that play their connections in government for private benefit.

Conservatives have betrayed their own ideals in order to be elected. They have pandered to these special interest groups, whether farmers, autoworkers, or retirees. And they have helped destroy the country’s budget through this pandering. We need to be blunt and honest and finally take these groups on.

I believe that one of the first places where libertarian conservatism should be enacted is on the Department of Education, which should be abolished. The Department of Education (DOE), since its founding in 1979, has largely been a waste of American taxpayer dollars and has shown very little progress in educating America’s future workers. Since the Department’s founding, test scores have failed to rise in America; the DOE’s real accomplishment has been to hire more bureaucrats and waste more taxpayer dollars through various funding scandals.

A more effective route for fixing America’s education problems is through more charter schools and school vouchers. This will force schools to compete with another to show higher scores and a greater number of students going to college instead of the collusion that we see now through the teachers’ unions, which are more concerned with making teachers’ lives easier than with educating schoolchildren, many of whom enter their adulthoods completely unprepared for democratic citizenship and creative contribution to the American economy.

One of the most important things that conservatives must do is to defeat the anti-intellectual views in our own movement. We need to stop glorifying ignorance. As much fun as it can be to act like every liberal’s worst nightmare at a dinner party. As for myself, I usually make a point of taking out my hunting pictures and talking about the adoption of the flat tax. It’s a major pastime for me, but not necessarily a productive one. 

Instead, we must embrace the libertarian conservative tradition of F.A. Hayek, Milton Friedman and Edmund Burke. We need to be unafraid to tell liberals that we have an intellectual history just as worthy as their own. We need to do so in a way that’s not elitist, but explain that our views spring from the simple conviction that the individual has a right to own property and do as he pleases as long as it doesn’t affect another human being.

Conservatism has always been grounded in doing what is realistic and can be accomplished. We need to go back to that attitude and abandon Wilsonian views of the world, whether those be on domestic or foreign policy.

It is time for us to return to promising Americans that we can’t make the world perfect, but we will do our best to improve it. Throughout history, attempts to create a utopian society have always ended poorly. It is conservatives’ role to demonstrate that only individuals, not the state, can craft the good life.