On Conservatism

In a 1975 interview with the libertarian magazine Reason, then-California Governor Ronald Reagan said:

If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism. I think conservatism is really a misnomer just as liberalism is a misnomer for the liberals–if we were back in the days of the Revolution, so-called conservatives today would be the Liberals and the liberals would be the Tories. The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom and this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is.

As President Reagan notes, the meanings of the words ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ have changed, depending on the time and place. Even as recent as the past few decades, the terms have generally evolved, with many Republicans who were formerly considered ‘conservatives’ now known as RINOS (or, ‘Republicans In Name Only’ — a term that questions their ‘conservative credentials.’).

So then, what actually defines what Americans would today call ‘conservatism’? And what does that definition tell us about current political events in the United States?

In this post, we’re going to define and describe contemporary conservatism by discussing economist and political theorist F.A. Hayek’s 1960 essay “Why I Am Not a Conservative” (taken from his book The Constitution of Liberty).* After that, we’re going to use this definition to look at both current events and the relationship between conservatism and libertarianism in America today.

In that particular essay, Hayek discusses his opposition to being labeled a conservative, preferring instead ‘liberal’ in the classical sense (today’s readers would call him a ‘libertarian,’ though he rejects that term as too “manufactured”). True, he notes, today’s classical liberals often find themselves voting for the conservative party (in this case, the Republicans) — but this is more of an alliance borne from common opposition to modern liberalism (the term commonly used today to describe left-of-center ideals, generally found in the Democratic Party).

Hayek goes on to define conservatism (through comparison with classical liberalism) as an ideology characterized by:

  1. Resistance to change (and thus opposition to modern liberalism),
  2. Fondness of authority, and similarly,
  3. Defense of established hierarchies,
    a. (Revealing itself through, among other things, imposition of moral/religious beliefs and norms)
  4. Obscurantism
  5. Nationalism (or, more specifically, anti-internationalism)
    a. Imperialism

I should stress that this summary does not do justice to Hayek’s piece, and while I will dig a bit deeper below, you really should read his original essay.

The most basic point Hayek makes about conservatism (and the one that underpins each of the five points listed above) is that it is an ideology opposed to change. This is reflected in the movement’s very title, which implies that its adherents wish to ‘conserve’ the familiar.

The underlying aversion to change plays out as a defense of established authority (which generally seeks to uphold the status quo and advocates for ‘law and order’ policies) and outright rejection of facts that may challenge that authority (be it religious or political). This later point is the ‘obscurantism’ mentioned above, and it is interesting to note the example Hayek uses to explain it:

I can have little patience with those who oppose, for instance, the theory of evolution or what are called “mechanistic” explanations of the phenomena of life because of certain moral consequences which at first seem to follow from these theories, and still less with those who regard it as irrelevant or impious to ask certain questions at all.

 

By refusing to face the facts, the conservative only weakens his own position… Should our moral beliefs really prove to be dependent on factual assumptions shown to be incorrect, it would hardly be moral to defend them by refusing to acknowledge facts.

Hayek’s essay, of course, was published in 1960 — but even today, conservatives remain quite skeptical of science. In 2012, four of the GOP’s eight contenders from the presidential nomination (Perry, Paul, Bachmann, and Santorum) rejected evolution in favor of creationist views, while a whopping 58 percent of registered Republicans believed that “God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years.”

Republican voters and candidates are similarly skeptical of other positions that may challenge an established worldview but are nonetheless backed by scientific consensus, such as global warming.

The key point here is not that Republican voters (and here I am using ‘Republican’ in the implicit understanding that today’s Republican party is the conservative party) are ‘stupid’ or even anti-science. I do not think they are stupid, and I only think some of them are anti-science insofar as that science challenges their defense of the status quo. After all, Democrats in the 1800s (who were, at that time, the conservative party in the United States) were more than happy to justify the subjugation of African Americans through appeals to the ‘scientific theories‘ of the day.

The conservative resistance to change also shows itself through simultaneous anti-internationalism and imperialism.

On the prior, Hayek argues:

It is no real argument to say that an idea is un-American, or un-German, nor is a mistaken or vicious ideal better for having been conceived by one of our compatriots.

Again, his words remain relevant today. Consider the nationalistic rhetoric GOP officials employ to excite their base. Or the foreign terms they use to criticize their opponents’ policies (the phrase “European-style” comes to mind). The implication, of course, is that such policies are inherently bad simply because they are ‘un-American.’ Hayek, on the other hand, urges addressing policy proposals on their merit, regardless of their country of origin. (As an interesting aside, the association of conservatism with nationalist sentiment seems to be so strong that simply exposing voters to the stars and stripes appears to make them more likely to vote Republican.)

Take this notion that conservatism is distrustful of that which is foreign and then consider Hayek’s contention that “the conservative does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it is used for what he regards as the right purposes,” and we arrive at Hayek’s charge of imperialism. In other words, conservatism’s tension with foreign ideas causes it to attempt to forcibly impose its owns ideals on other nations.** Hayek argues strongly for the marketplace of ideas, maintaining that conservatism’s fear of the unfamiliar leads to the kinds of democracy promotion now associated with neoconservatism.

[T]he more a person dislikes the strange and thinks his own ways superior, the more he tends to regard it as his mission to “civilize” others – not by the voluntary and unhampered intercourse which the [classical] liberal favors, but by bringing them the blessings of efficient government.

I would argue that this passage provides a fairly apt description of modern Republican foreign policy, with the Bush Administration’s pursuit of democratization through military force being one obvious example. Additionally, opinion polls reveal that conservative voters tend to hold foreign policy views in sync with Hayek’s description. For instance, registered Republicans generally see Islam and democracy as incompatible and see conflict between Islamic countries and the West as inevitable.

This brings us to our next point regarding Hayek’s definition of conservatism: religious authority. Remember that Hayek roots conservative philosophy in resistance to change and, accordingly, fondness of established authorities; for many, there is no higher an established authority than their particular religious beliefs. Here, both classical and modern liberals favor the view that religion should not factor into policy decisions.

The conservative, in contrast, often defends governmental policies that publicly preserve (or even promote) society’s dominant religious beliefs. Liberal efforts to maintain a “wall of separation” between church and state are thus seen by conservatives as an attack on the established order, rather than an attempt to maintain equality before the state.

Consider gay marriage, to take one example:

  • The average conservative would likely oppose gay marriage on the grounds that it violates religion and tradition. Accordingly, they would generally view it as an attack on an established religious and moral code.
  • The average modern liberal would likely favor marriage equality on the basis of maintaining equality of opportunity before the state. They would reject the idea that religious codes should play a role in defining which group of people should be able to claim state-conferred benefits.
  • The average classical liberal would likely say that marriage should be a purely private matter altogether. The government should neither recognize marriages, nor provide benefits on a basis of marriage.

Those positions are, admittedly, grossly simplified; each ideology has a number of subgroups and individuals with differing opinions. Still, the basic point stands: in general, conservatism feels threatened by modern liberalism’s perceived attack on established social and cultural institutions.

This plays into the suspicion of science (discussed above) as well. First, as religious explanations of natural phenomena are (for many conservatives) the established authority, any scientific claims that challenge them are seen as threatening. Hayek also describes conservative distrust of science as a tension between the fear of the unknown and the allure of certainty offered by established authority.

What I have described as the [classical] liberal position shares with conservatism a distrust of reason to the extent that the [classical] liberal is very much aware that we do not know all the answers and that he is not sure that the answers he has are certainly the rights ones or even that we can find all the answers.

 

He also does not disdain to seek assistance from whatever non-rational institutions or habits have proved their worth. The [classical] liberal differs from the conservative in his willingness to face this ignorance and to admit how little we know, without claiming the authority of supernatural forces of knowledge where his reason fails him.

Despite these various differences between the classical liberal and the conservative, Hayek acknowledges their political alliance (think Ron Paul’s alliance with conservatives in the Republican Party, though he is a libertarian). This alliance, however, is viable only because “it is still possible to defend individual liberty by defending long-established institutions.” In other words, the history of a policy or institution seems largely to define the conservative position, while it is largely irrelevant to the classical liberal. Rather, their alliance results from the fact that classical liberals are able to frame their preferred policies as a defense of traditional society, and their mutual dislike of modern liberalism.

Now, view all of this in light of the last four years.

Discontent with the status quo (The Afghanistan/Iraq Wars, the Great Recession, the post-9/11 security state apparatus, a dysfunctional health care system, etc…) swept Democrats into the executive and legislative branches of government in 2008. Rejected and fractured, the Republicans were able to regroup and form a unified front against the Obama Administration.

This is key: the Republicans’ organizing principle was not a platform of alternative policies but, rather, opposition to any policies that President Obama and congressional Democrats advocated — despite the fact that many of them (health care reform, cap and trade, the DREAM Act, etc…) were policies that Republicans either created or previously supported. By characterizing the president’s policies as a foreign attack on traditional America (and even decrying the president himself as foreign, through the ‘birther conspiracy’), the conservatives were able to reinvigorate themselves at a time when the modern liberals had greater political momentum.

But that is only part of the story. The other, crucial part recognizes role the ascendant Tea Party played as a hybrid libertarian-conservative movement that espoused libertarian ideals through appeals to conservatism. But let’s walk that back a little and approach it a bit slower.

First, we should recognize that Hayek essentially lays the groundwork for this in his essay. He discusses his problems with the traditional Political Spectrum Line (seen below) that places modern liberals on the left (he calls them ‘socialists,’ though I would disagree with this label), conservatives on the right, and classical liberals somewhere in between.

Hayek believes this line diagram misstates the three ideologies’ relationships by assuming that classical liberalism is caught between modern liberalism and conservatism. In its place, he offers a triangular diagram (seen below) in which all three ideologies occupy a distinct space.

In order to fully understand this, we must recall Hayek’s argument that conservatism is defined by its defense of the status quo. Thus, in Hayek’s diagram, conservatism does not move in any particular direction. Rather, it only offers resistance to the opposing directions of modern liberalism and classical liberalism. Whichever side pulls harder dominates the political scene, with conservatism merely slowing (rather than halting) the march in that direction. Hayek goes on to say that as modern liberalism has, to date, pulled harder than classical liberalism, it has set the agenda (that is why, in the diagram above, conservatism is being pulled in the direction of modern liberalism).

“[T]he main point about [classical] liberalism,” Hayek writes, “is that it wants to go elsewhere, not to stand still.” Yet because the libertarian movement in America has generally existed (in politics) as a faction in the Republican coalition, it for years had to be largely content with helping them pull against modern liberalism.

Since Hayek’s essay was originally published, however, libertarians have increasingly employed a strategy of historical revisionism in order to exert a stronger pull on the conservatives. As implied by Hayek’s political spectrum diagram, after a certain amount of time, the policies of whichever ideology’s pull is stronger become established American institutions.

Perhaps the greatest example of this is Social Security. When President Eisenhower took office, numerous Republicans wanted a wholesale repeal of the New Deal. But a sea change had occurred, and post-1930s conservatism was defending a different status quo than pre-1930s conservatism. As a result, Eisenhower took to defending the New Deal programs that had been broadly accepted, and was satisfied to reign in the excesses.

From a letter Eisenhower wrote to his brother in 1954:

Now it is true that I believe this country is following a dangerous trend when it permits too great a degree of centralization of governmental functions. I oppose this–in some instances the fight is a rather desperate one. But to attain any success it is quite clear that the Federal government cannot avoid or escape responsibilities which the mass of the people firmly believe should be undertaken by it.

 

 

Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.

The first sentence of that second paragraph is noteworthy because eliminating those programs is precisely the aim of the libertarian movement. The obvious problem they faced was the same one Eisenhower mentions in his letter: should libertarians have tried to implement such an agenda, it would have been so unpopular (with both modern liberal and conservative voters), that “you would not hear of that party again in our political history.”

A mere 10 years later, Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater would be attacked by President Lyndon Johnson for suggesting an overhaul of Social Security that most feared would be a step toward dismantling the program (see video below). Goldwater, it should be said, held distinctly libertarian views on domestic and economic issues (such as repealing labor laws and civil rights legislation), though his foreign policy was more conservative.

This Time article from that election observed that Social Security, “so long accepted by so many, has become a red-hot issue in a presidential campaign for the first time in 28 years.” [emphasis mine] The article notes the broad consensus reached between modern liberals and conservatives about Social Security, and their common opposition to Goldwater’s libertarian views on the subject.

Just what are the merits of Goldwater’s notion of voluntary social security? Most authorities, whether liberal or conservative, or whether in or out of government, agree that it is totally impractical.

Even though, since New Hampshire, Goldwater has virtually purged the word “voluntary” from his vocabulary, it has not done much good… Like it or not, it seems that Barry is going to have a tough time convincing voters that he did not mean what he said before he was sorry he said it.

[emphasis mine]

In 1964, Goldwater was decisively defeated by Johnson, the latter garnering 486 electoral votes to Goldwater’s 52. Worries about Goldwater’s stance on established institutions like Social Security undoubtedly contributed to this landslide, along with anxieties about Goldwater’s aggressive foreign policy rhetoric.

The circumstances that resulted in the creation of the official Libertarian Party also emphasize its fervent opposition to Republicans’ defense of the post-New Deal status quo. The Libertarian Party was founded in America in 1971 — during the Republican presidency of Richard Nixon. In fact, it was Nixon’s own actions, imposing wage-price controls and ending the gold standard, that prompted the formation of the party.

So, if conservatives accepted (and even defended!) programs like Social Security along with modern liberals, how could the libertarian movement overcome that kind of broad consensus?

Well, the first step in overcoming a broad consensus is to chip away at it. And the easiest way for the libertarian movement to do that is to recruit as many conservatives to its cause as possible. Remember that one of the differences between classical liberals (or libertarians) and conservatives is that the prior feels no loyalty for traditional policies and institutions simply on the basis of tradition. They (as with modern liberals) have little qualms about overhauling or changing existing policies and structures, whereas conservatives feel an affinity for what has already been established.

A basic strategy, under these circumstances, would be to redefine what is traditional and established, in order to court conservative support. This is exactly what has happened. Take the Tea Party as a more recent case study of this type of tactic. The need to reclaim lost traditions and re-establish the Founders’ America is a unifying theme of the Tea Party. By contrasting an imagined ‘Golden Age’ with a today in which traditional American institutions have been defiled or destroyed, the more libertarian wing of the Republican Party is able to exert a greater pull toward its own direction (as per Hayek’s Political Spectrum diagram).

This strategy rests, to a large extent, on historical revisionism. The Founding Fathers were a diverse group of thinkers that ranged from those (like Thomas Jefferson) who argued for a weak central government to those (like Alexander Hamilton) who argued for a strong one. They could not agree with each other while they lived, but some people today nevertheless wish to bestow upon them a manufactured consensus. The Constitution was not drafted by gods convening to create a perfect government, but by a group of incredibly brilliant men who disagreed about almost everything.

It may surprise some people to learn that Alexander Hamilton argued for a Congress elected for life, that James Madison considered giving Congress the ability to veto state laws, or that George Washington had his doubts that the Constitution would last more than a few decades. Given the controversy Obamacare’s individual mandate has caused, few people probably realize that both George Washington and John Adams signed health care mandates during their presidencies.

Thus, the very idea of a “Golden Age” is fundamentally flawed. Someone was always disappointed. Each of the Founders had different ideas about the proper role and size of government — and we are still debating these same issues today.

This strategy of redefining established institutions as un-American and unwise impositions in order to build a stronger coalition between conservatives and libertarians is, of course, not new. But the past four years has seen its use expand rapidly, as the coalition unified against the Obama Administration. Energy from opposition to new and unfamiliar policies (like Obamacare) was harnessed to redefine and attack formerly established ones (like, say, unemployment compensation and Social Security).

This is a very rough indicator, but Google searches (top line) and news stories (bottom line) using the word ‘unconstitutional’ soared during the 2010 midterms, and have remained high since.

Unfortunately, the term ‘unconstitutional’ is often misused, because deploying it is seen as a quick and easy way to question whether something is American. After all, the Constitution defines the lawful role of government in America, so deeming something ‘unconstitutional’ is saying that it is contrary to America’s founding document.

Here are a list of established programs and institutions Rep. Ron Paul believes are unconstitutional:

And here are the corresponding Supreme Court cases declaring every single one of these to be constitutional:

This is just a sampling, too. There are numerous other programs, policies, and institutions that are decried as unconstitutional by various other representatives and public figures. To offer just one more example, the Tea Party-backed Republican candidate for Senate in Alaska in 2010, Joe Miller, said that unemployment compensation was unconstitutional. (It’s not.) As an aside, Miller lost the race after the Republican incumbent he had unseated in the primary launched a successful write-in campaign.

Of course, a common refrain one hears when raising the fact that the Supreme Court has found all of these to be quite constitutional is that the court itself has been corrupted and its rulings are thus somehow invalid.

This ignores the fact that a body must exist to interpret the Constitution’s meaning when questions or disagreements arise. That body is the Supreme Court. To refer again to the Eisenhower letter quoted earlier:

I should like to point out that the meaning of the Constitution is what the Supreme Court says it is.

Eisenhower goes on to say that though some Supreme Court decisions “have been astonishing to me,” he cannot ignore or change them. A constitutional amendment is necessary to do that, in lieu of the court overturning its own ruling. Neither of these options are impossible, though they are difficult to achieve. A constitutional amendment provided for the income tax, for instance, after the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional (Ron Paul still believes the income tax is unconstitutional, despite the fact it is now part of the Constitution). And the famous Brown v. Board of Education ruling, ending segregation in public schools, overturned the court’s earlier Plessy v. Ferguson (“separate but equal”) ruling.

For those that employ this strategy (such as the Tea Party), though, accuracy seems secondary to achieving policy objectives — because achieving those objectives necessarily requires a broader coalition involving conservatives, which in turn requires recasting established institutions and policies as unconstitutional impositions. To do this, historical accuracy must be sacrificed.

One final observation. Although conservative economic views can be enlisted to the libertarian cause by redefining what is traditional and familiar, conservative social views are much more difficult to manage because they are generally rooted in religion. Because the conservative believes religious codes should be the basis of governance while the libertarian believes that what little government they find permissible should remain neutral, it is very difficult (if not impossible) for the latter to recruit the former to his social views. Conservatives may be content to join libertarians against the idea of even a minimal social safety net if they think it represents creeping socialism, but they are averse to the idea of accepting things like full repeal of drug laws, abortion as a personal choice, and equal rights for homosexuals.

This divide has the potential to poison the libertarian-conservative coalition. Hayek notes this, writing that the average conservative “has no political principles which enable him to work with people whose moral values differ from his own for a political order in which both can obey their convictions.” Since the conservative bases his political beliefs in what he considers ‘the highest authority’ (polls show a significant number of Republicans cite religion as the most important factor influencing social views), he is unable to tolerate those that disagree with those political beliefs.

Accordingly, many libertarians downplay their social views, accepting that they must be sacrificed in order to achieve a broader coalition with the conservatives on important economic issues. Early on, the Tea Party purposefully eschewed social issues in favor of economic ones. And while the Tea Party eventually did begin to engage social issues, it always did so in a conservative fashion, maintaining the coalition.

Finally, let us return to President Reagan’s 1975 interview with Reason magazine. At the beginning of this post, I quoted Reagan as saying that “the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.” One should keep in mind that as this was an interview with a libertarian magazine during a time in which Reagan was courting the Republican presidential nomination, his words were likely crafted carefully to appeal to the libertarian vote.

That said, even if Reagan was embellishing a little by calling libertarianism “the very heart and soul of conservatism,” his general point about the modern relationship of the two ideologies still stands. He follows up with this:

Now, I can’t say that I will agree with all the things that the present group who call themselves Libertarians in the sense of a party say, because I think that like in any political movement there are shades, and there are libertarians who are almost over at the point of wanting no government at all or anarchy. I believe there are legitimate government functions. There is a legitimate need in an orderly society for some government to maintain freedom or we will have tyranny by individuals. The strongest man on the block will run the neighborhood. We have government to insure that we don’t each one of us have to carry a club to defend ourselves. But again, I stand on my statement that I think that libertarianism and conservatism are travelling the same path.

Perhaps, but the destination has largely been determined by the libertarians.

FOOTNOTES

*As much as I may disagree with F.A. Hayek’s Austrian economic theories (and, accordingly, the governmental policies he advocates — though, it should be said, his views are more reconcilable with the mainstream than Mises’), I nonetheless appreciate his writings.

**To clarify, the contemporary Democratic Party’s foreign policy has similar goals of democratization, but does not focus as much on military intervention as on diplomatic efforts and ‘sticks and carrots’ (that is, punishments and rewards to push countries toward adopting preferred policies). To the extent that they support military intervention, it is usually in favor of limited humanitarian intervention. Hayek, of course, rejects both.

 

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