Conservatives want change -- when it's necessary

Jonah Goldberg
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Posted: Apr 18, 2003 12:00 AM

For months, anti-war intellectuals and journalists have been making the argument that pro-war conservatives are "un-conservative." They call us "radicals" and "revolutionaries."

Joshua Micah Marshall recently wrote a cover story for The Washington Monthly about how dangerously radical conservative foreign policy has become. And The Economist set aside the word "neo-conservatives" -- the silly label for conservative foreign policy hawks -- and replaced it with "neo-radicals."

In a sense, I don't really mind; it's kind of fun to be called a radical from time to time. Keeps the blood pumping. But what annoys me is this assumption that conservatives are being hypocritical because we are in favor of change abroad and stasis here at home.  This amounts to a deeply misinformed understanding of conservatism.

It's true, conservatives aren't big fans of change. We've always followed old Lord Falkland, who proudly declared, "When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change." One of the "canons of conservatism," according to Russell Kirk's seminal 1953 book, The Conservative Mind, is the "recognition that change and reform are not identical, and that innovation is a devouring conflagration more often than it is a torch of progress."

That's all true - but only when you're talking about societies that are good and worth preserving. Any society or nation can have its "conservatives," people opposed to change or reform. But that doesn't make all conservatives the same. A "conservative" in the old Soviet Union wanted to stick as close to orthodox Marxism-Leninism as possible to defend it against democratic and market-based reforms.

In America, conservatives want to preserve those institutions and arrangements that keep us free, prosperous and happy. Sure, we want to preserve other stuff, too, but the point remains: We aren't in the conservation business just because we hate newness.

Look at it this way: If I'm dedicated to the historic preservation of my own home, there's nothing irrational or inconsistent about me wanting to tear down the crime-infested crack house across the street and replace it with a nicer, more decent home. Pro-war conservatives believe that toppling Saddam will make the whole neighborhood better.

What baffles me is the inconsistency of the anti-war liberals. These folks say that "we should put our own house in order first" before we go trying to fix the problems of other countries. These are the same people who claim that we are all brothers, that there is just one race -- the human race -- and so on. Why then do they seem perfectly happy condoning mass murder and brutality around the globe until we fix our own problems first?

Well, our problems are puny and selfish compared to the millions eating grass and rats in North Korea. Believing we shouldn't help them until, say, Medicare is just perfect is laughable.

Meanwhile, these liberals think any American-led change abroad will be disastrous but that massive change here at home is vital. They don't even call it "change" -- they call it "investing in our future."

At least anti-war conservatives have consistent and defensible priorities. They don't want to muck about with too much stuff abroad because they're afraid we'll track the mess back into our own homes. I disagree with the analysis because the world has become too interconnected to simply close our door to it. But at least these guys have a coherent argument.

Getting back to the historic preservation analogy, I would dearly love if we could go back to the way this country was 50 or 100 years ago. Some changes have been for the better, of course. Ending Jim Crow, color TV, rising crust frozen pizzas, etc. But on the whole, I'd prefer this country to look a lot more like it used to. Indeed, I'd like to shrink the size of the federal government by, I dunno, half? Two-thirds?

And I'd like to spend a small fraction of those savings on tearing down the crack houses of the world, which breed crime and misery, and replace them with sights worth seeing. I'd like to see democracy and prosperity in the Middle East, and a peaceful settlement between Palestinians and Israelis. I'd like to see a unified Korea, run from Seoul not Pyongyang. I would like to see Africa moving forward rather than slipping ever further behind. I'd like to see South America so prosperous that illegally immigrating into America would seem like a pointless and silly endeavor.

I'd like to see these things for two reasons, one conservative and one "liberal." The liberal side of me says that we are our brothers' keepers and we have some minimal obligation to liberate people from tyranny and needless misery. But, just as important, I am a conservative who believes the problems of the world will find their way here and mess up the home I dearly love if we don't do something about them.