Jonah Goldberg

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg likes the Indian Healthcare Improvement Act and other ingredients of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, aka "ObamaCare." Why, she asked toward the end of three days of hearings, shouldn't the court keep the good stuff in ObamaCare and just dump the unconstitutional bits?

The court, she explained, is presented with "a choice between a wrecking operation ... or a salvage job. And the more conservative approach would be salvage rather than throwing out everything."

"Conservative" is a funny word. It can mean lots of different things. It reminds me of that line from G.K. Chesterton about the word "good." "The word 'good' has many meanings," he observed. "For example, if a man were to shoot his grandmother at a range of 500 yards, I should call him a good shot, but not necessarily a good man."

Conservative can mean cautious in temperament -- a man who wears belts and suspenders. Similarly, it sometimes suggests someone who's averse to change. It can also refer to the political ideology or philosophy founded by Edmund Burke and popularized and Americanized by people like Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, William F. Buckley and George Will. It can mean someone who is averse to change.

Things can get complicated because these different meanings can overlap. Many strident liberals can have conservative temperaments, and many philosophical conservatives can have private lives that make a brothel during Fleet Week seem like a retirement-home chess club. Conservatives in America love the free market, which is the greatest source of change in human history. Liberals, alleged lovers of change and "progress," often champion an agenda dedicated to preserving the past. Just consider how much of the Democratic Party's rhetoric is dedicated to preserving a policy regime implemented by Franklin Roosevelt nearly 80 years ago.

You can also be conservative with respect to a given institution while being un-conservative in every other respect. The most ardent Communists in the Chinese or Cuban politburos are often described as "conservatives." The same holds true for every left-wing institution in America: Someone has to be the "conservative" at PETA or Planned Parenthood -- i.e., the person who is risk-averse when it comes to scarce resources or the group's reputation.

Anyway, sometimes people like to play games with the indeterminacy of the word "conservative" in order to sell a liberal agenda (and in fairness, conservatives often do the same thing with "progressive").


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the forthcoming book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
 
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