June 17th, 2011

Relativistic Conservatism

A few months ago I happened to be listening to a radio program hosted by a popular political commentator who began to discuss the foundational elements of his conservatism. He listed off several key planks he believed in: less government, less taxes, less spending, more freedom, etc.

These positions are very common among conservatives. For example, they comprise the very slogan of FreedomWorks, a national conservative political action group: “Lower Taxes, Less Government, More Freedom.” Senator Jim DeMint, a conservative icon and chair of the Senate Conservatives Fund, champions “less government and more freedom.” Ronald Reagan himself once said that “the basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom…”

This is not conservatism. To conserve is to preserve—to maintain something at its current level or condition. No, this is relativism.

What would “less government” and “more freedom” have looked like in the shadows of Hitler’s leviathan? Clearly, it would be night and day when compared to America before the progressive era of the early 20th century, for example. A fight for less taxes morphs as each new tax is imposed. If Congress imposed a 75% tax on imports and a 50% income tax, these conservatives would be content to chip away at those ever-increasing percentages. Thoreau said: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” Such conservatives are seemingly content to pick at the leaves.

A political position that defines itself in relation to another position or set of circumstances necessarily will change as those other positions or circumstances change. Those who employ these definitions take no firm stances nor base themselves on any solid, principled foundation. Swept away in a strong rip tide of statism, they hope to make progress by taking baby steps in the other direction.

Utah Representative Ken Ivory has becomes known for questioning “where is the line?” Lines and boundaries exist and must be enforced. To instead want less or more of whatever currently exists is to constantly change. As the line between government and the people moves consistently to the so-called “left,” so does the relative opposition to it.

Conservatives would do well to abandon relativism and take a firm stand for what is right. (They might find themselves becoming libertarian in the process.) For if we have no consistent and stubborn defense against encroachments and usurpations of any degree, then we are like a man who believes he owns a parcel of land which his neighbor also claims is his. Unless the boundaries are defined and defended, the neighbor may continue to encroach further onto that disputed land. His advances cannot be checked, for until the land owner takes a firm position and says “this far and no further,” there is effectively no line the neighbor cannot cross.

7 Responses to “Relativistic Conservatism”

  1. Daniel B
    June 17, 2011 at 2:02 pm #

    Have you read George Will’s “Statecraft as Soulcraft: What Government Does” yet? It’s supposed to be about “conservatism,” though I think that, given how long ago he wrote it and how much his philosophy has probably changed, even Will probably does not agree with all it says. However, it’s an interesting look at what conservatism is. I read it just a little a while back. http://bit.ly/iirJva

    If you get a chance (because time is unlimited, right?), pick it up. Thought provoking, even when it grates against what I opine and believe.

  2. Jim Davis
    June 18, 2011 at 5:24 pm #

    I used to cling tightly to the phrase conservative and I would attach my own definition to what I thought it meant. Now that I’ve seen so many different flavors of that title I no longer consider myself one. But I think you’re right Connor. Most modern day “conservatives” really are just attempting to slightly slow down an eminent train wreck. So many conservatives want smaller government but their version of smaller government just means Paul Ryan-style cuts (or picking at the leaves as you put it). It’s pretty meaningless.

    I remember when you were being interviewed by Red Meat Radio last month and you advocated Utah’s legislature making meaningful cuts in spending and regulations and the host replied, “We don’t want perfection to become the enemy of good.” I think this phrase has the potential of weakening the liberty movement for three reasons:

    1) What the host was advocating was compromise. Compromise is not a virtue. Restoring liberty is.

    2) What’s “good” is so much more relative than what’s right. People use Orin Hatch as an example of what’s “good” in order to put fear in people’s minds that if we strive to replace him with someone better than we might fail. I don’t agree that Hatch is “good.” His record of voting for TARP and the Patriot Act are just a few examples of why he is not worthy of any liberty loving, Constitutionalists’ support. But if anyone really buys that fear-filled lie just look back to what we did to Bob Bennett. We got someone better (not perfect but better).

    3) The philosophy of not letting perfection become the enemy of good is incompatible with my belief that we should do what is right all of the time and let the consequences follow. Elder Oaks gave a great talk titled Good Better Best where he outlines this important and applicable principle:

    As we consider various choices, we should remember that it is not enough that something is good. Other choices are better, and still others are best. Even though a particular choice is more costly, its far greater value may make it the best choice of all.

  3. June 22, 2011 at 12:37 am #

    We are all pining for a perfect world. But when you are down by 25 points in the game, one shot isn’t going to get you where you need to be. Incremental change, hopefully rapid and efficient, will eventually bring the victory. I thnk idealists see candidate Ron Paul as that 25 point president that will force everything back inside the original constitutional footprint in one term. Hmmmm. He may need three or four consecutive terms like he’s had in Congress to make a dent. And I’d like to see him make a noticeable dent in Congress first, before he gets moved to the Executive branch. What is it, 12% approval rate now? Say no to Washington D.C. lifers.

  4. June 22, 2011 at 12:48 am #

    …that means you, Mr. Hatch. You’ve gotta go too.

  5. June 22, 2011 at 2:33 pm #

    Connor, I agree generally with your assessment. But I think the disconnect comes when we take a “my way or the highway” stance. I know there “the line” is for me, and I know we are so far across it that it is not possible to move back to the right side of it today. I’m speaking in terms of federal legislation, the implementation of federal legislation by the executive branch, and the interpretation of federal legislation by the judicial branch.

    I would like to move in the right direction. Suppose that my analysis of the current situation led me to believe that it was possible to pass Paul Ryan’s budget plan, but not anything better, AND that it was possible to start the momentum moving in the right direction, leading to more cuts in government spending, taxes, and government intrusion and control in our lives next year, and more the next year, etc…

    You may not have come to that conclusion, but if you did, and you believed that attempting to pass legislation today that would put us all the way back on the right side of the line would fail, then what would you do?

    The “left” did not move us this far from where we started all at once. Short of bloodshed and revolution we are not going to move back all at once.

    I’ll tell you what conservative means to me. It means to preserve and maintain the government that our founding fathers gave us, with the full protection of the Constitution as it was intended to provide. But I think it would be foolish to only support measures that moved us all the way back to that condition. I’ll support measures that move us in that direction if the alternative is to move in the other direction.

  6. June 22, 2011 at 10:20 pm #

    Yep JJ makes a good point.

  7. Velska
    July 4, 2011 at 6:33 am #

    Let’s roll back all civilization, and go back to “each man to his own”–and yes, one consequence would be that the new world would be “a man’s world” again–and see how much we are going to like it.

    When people first started organizing together, they realized that instead of each man watching his own flock and fields, it’s better to hire one guy to do it; from that point onward specialization, or division of labor, has become so extreme, that there are unlikely to be anybody out there, who could read and understand a doctoral dissertation about biology and particle physics at the same time, let alone produce them.

    This specialization has also meant that most people know little about how a country is governed, and what it takes. Few young people understand what a truly “small government” would mean to the opportunities of their grandchildren.

    Think back about the guy who is guarding the villagers’ flocks. Who gives him food and shelter, when he gives all of his time doing what others should be doing? You know it: it’s those others, whose flocks he’s watching, and the more you have to lose, the more willing you’d be to make sure that he’s happy in what he does, and able to do it.

    To spell it out: we can’t go back to Eden, but we can try to learn to understand each other and co-operate without waisting all our energy crying about someone else’s hand in our purse. Independence as an absolute good is a phantom, and there is more to lose there, than in co-operation, although there are costs involved in that, too.

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