In addition to all our other problems in the bitter aftermath of dispiriting electoral defeat, conservatives in 2007 face major challenges of self definition.
Who are we, and what issues remain essential, irreducible elements of our political identity?
Do we need to reconsider our approach to some of the key controversies of the day in order to recapture majority support?
And how do we resolve some of the apparent conservative contradictions? -We want smaller government and fewer public employees at the same time we want to hire more soldiers, cops and border patrol agents. -We favor choice in education, but oppose choice in abortion policy. -We emphatically support the institution of marriage, but don’t want government backing for gays and lesbians who seek to get married.
A clear understanding of the core convictions that make us conservative (and, for the most part, Republican) should resolve such seeming inconsistencies and connect our positions on ostensibly unrelated issues.
Why, for instance, would those who work for lower taxes also favor longer prison terms for violent criminals? What’s the association between strong support for Second Amendment rights and backing for Ten Commandments monuments in public places?
Most of the common efforts to define the fundamentals of conservative thinking fall short in their explanatory power. For instance, it’s impossible to say that conservatives want “small government” above all, when most of us want expanded governmental efforts to crack down on terrorists, crooks and illegal immigrants. Yes, we generally favor “less regulation” but we also want more restrictions on abortion, pornography and desecration of the flag.
It’s true that most conservatives and Republicans describe themselves as religious and we certainly recognize the value of organized faith, but nearly a fourth of GOP’ers remain proudly secular and there’s no obvious religious basis for, say, backing lower taxes on capital gains.
The essential instinct behind modern conservatism goes beyond a desire for small government or any religious impulses, and animates our approach to politics, culture, foreign policy, family life, child-rearing, the business world and much more.
Above all, conservatives feel impelled to make clear distinctions between right and wrong.
We reject all notions of moral relativism. Though we’re obviously imperfect, and (like all human beings) often fail to do the right thing, we try to draw lines between the beneficial and the dysfunctional, between productive and destructive.
In policy as well as personal life, we seek to differentiate between good and bad behavior, and we want all of society (not just government) to encourage the good and discourage the bad.
In other words, conservatives insist on making distinctions, giving the individual broad latitude to choose, and then recognizing that choices must carry consequences.
A decent society supports and rewards good choices and discourages bad ones.
For instance, we want lower taxes because high tax rates punish and burden the hard work and productivity that benefit society at large. We oppose generous welfare benefits because such programs reward misfortune or, at worst, indolence.
Since nearly everyone (including Hillary Clinton and other top Democrats) believes that abortion is at least unfortunate, “tragic,” and morally questionable, we want to block or discourage the choice to abort a baby. In most cases, the desire to “terminate a pregnancy” amounts to an effort to erase the consequences of previous bad choices (like unprotected sex outside a marital relationship). The pro-life consensus among most conservatives stems not only from religious commitment but from a logical desire to avoid facilitating irresponsible behavior – in both snuffing out potential life and encouraging reckless sexuality.
The conservative focus on making distinctions makes it easy to defend traditional definitions of marriage. The difference between a same-sex relationship and the union of a man and a woman isn’t subtle, or slight or inconsequential. Aside from the brutally obvious fact that no love between two men or between two women will produce its own progeny, it’s the union of profoundly contrasting male and female elements that gives marriage its unique and permanent power. The insistence that marriage apply only to this joining of opposite genders doesn’t require the conviction that homosexual relationships are wrong, but it does arise from the clear-eyed recognition that they’re profoundly, irreducibly different from male-female coupling.
On Social Security, we favor more ability to build private accounts, rather than the government’s one-size-fits-all approach that provides identical benefits for savers and spenders. We oppose affirmative action, race-based quotas, and reparations because such programs draw false distinctions, judging people on skin color and gender rather than their own abilities and achievements. We naturally want harsher consequences for criminals who make cruel and destructive choices, and more obvious and generous rewards for people who work hard, raise their families, and play by the rules.
We favor free markets and small government not for their own sake but because the profit system represents the best possible means to encourage wholesome, constructive choices. The only way to make money in a free marketplace is to benefit and bless other people: to provide them with a product or a service they choose to buy. You enrich yourself and enhance your own power by providing your neighbors with what they want.
Government, on the other hand, often rewards revolting behavior – and not just with generous grants for disgusting public art. Consider the plaintiffs bar and the outrageous lawsuit abuse that cripples American business: the current legal system makes multi-millionaires of predatory lawyers (thank you, John Edwards) who produce nothing except random examples of jackpot justice and moronic warning labels.
We oppose the socialist insistence on providing the productive and the pathetic with identical or at least similar rewards; such notions of “equality” seem to us not only stupid but profoundly unfair. In place of the Marxist formulation "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need," we favor the alternative suggested by Charles Koch in his excellent new book "The Science of Success": "From each according to his ability, to each according to his contribution." Erasing distinctions between the productive and the destructive constitutes the height of injustice.
Because we embrace the notion of choices carrying consequences, we recognize that we're inevitably impacted by the behavior of our parents, our neighbors, our communities. All men may be "created equal" but our families didn’t make equally sound choices. While America must continue its tradition of opening opportunities for even the most appallingly underprivileged, to take away the advantages of the more fortunate involves punishing the good behavior of those who provided those benefits. If a father works overtime, saving and investing and limiting expenditures, so he can provide a head start for his children, governmental efforts to chip away at his arrangements for his kids (with, say, inheritance taxes) represent an effort to deny the consequences of the parent's choice.
The conservative instinct to get tough on violent criminals represents the very essence of our approach – just as the liberal impulse to treat them generously and mercifully represents the very essence of liberalism (the subject for my column next week, by the way). While we emphasize that choices carry consequences, their major imperative is "help the unfortunate." In deciding where society should confer reward or punishment, conservatives consider whether behavior's been right or wrong; liberals examine whether you're fortunate or unfortunate, a victor or a victim. For them, victimhood, not virtue, most merits special consideration.
In foreign affairs, the desire to make distinctions animates all authentic conservative approaches, whether "realist" or "Wilsonian." While liberals want government commissions and study groups to inquire why terrorists and dictators don't like us, and want us to continue to pour foreign aid into the most dysfunctional nations on earth, and favor decision-making by "unbiased" international bodies like the U.N., conservatives understand that different nations should be treated differently. We need policies that distinguish between friend and foe, the good and the bad --- while recognizing that sometimes we need to accept friends (think Pakistan, Saudi Arabia) that aren’t all that good.
With the conservative emphasis on moral distinctions, we recognize it wasn't just the suspected weapons of mass destruction that made Saddam Hussein so dangerous: it was the evil and genocidal nature of his regime. Those same weapons hardly constitute a menace in the hands, say, of the British or the Japanese.
Our insistence on choices carrying consequences also explains the continued right wing opposition to immediate withdrawal from Iraq. We don’t want to reward evil or punish good, and yet a quick American departure would reward some of the worst behavior on earth (giving terrorist murderers exactly what we want) while damaging and betraying decent and courageous Iraqis who placed their faith in us.
Drawing distinctions between helpful and harmful, right and wrong represents the very essence of conservatism, so it makes sense that those of us on the right should support organized faith and its role in society. Even conservatives who personally shun religion, recognize that religious teaching provides most Americans with the moral absolutes that animate their lives and inform society’s time-honored standards.
Just as Biblical faith portrays all people as children of God, worthy of respect and fellowship, so too conservative core principles require that we must never treat our fellow citizens differently based on false categories like race, arbitrarily granting rights or favor to one group over another. This doesn't mean, however, ignoring or minimizing the different paths and different results that human beings in a free society select for themselves. Personal accountability, and individual responsibility for your own family and future, represent fundamental conservative priorities. We should be able to resolve all the internal disagreements that may from time to time divide our movement if we apply a consistent and clear-cut standard: will a given policy or initiative help society to encourage good behavior and discourage destructiveness?
In approaching every issue, and dealing with all our fellow citizens, we hope to affirm the only distinctions that matter: based not on status, but on behavior, not on emotion but on impact. As faith has always taught, the choices we make in this life, for better or for worse, carry consequences both practical and eternal.