Conservatism's glass: half empty or half full

Posted: May 04, 2002 12:00 AM
Two brilliant commentators have recently written columns expressing optimism about the conservative movement. Since I regard myself as generally an optimist, I hate to be the guy that sees the conservative glass as half-empty – but sometimes I do. Professor Francis Fukuyama, in his Wall Street Journal piece "Conservatism 'Matures,'" argued that the conservative revolution that began with America's Ronald Reagan and Britain's Margaret Thatcher has finally reached its peak and is now receding. But he seems to conclude that this is a positive development because during the '90s, conservatism was being co-opted by Libertarianism, which was contrary to its nature. He cites two negative manifestations of the Libertarians' hostility to big government: their isolationism and their attitude toward biotechnology – many libertarians oppose "a ban on research cloning of human embryos" and "on reproductive cloning as well (that is, the production of cloned children)." Fukuyama implies that because libertarians have discredited themselves on these issues (and presumably others), they have effectively divorced themselves from the conservative movement, which has matured as a result. I agree with Fukuyama that Libertarians are wrong on those issues, but disagree that the conservative movement was ever morphing into Libertarianism. While conservatives have largely rejected these negative aspects of Libertarianism, they have hardly embraced its positive aspects, specifically free-market economics and the concept of limiting the federal government to its proper constitutional roles (it's proper for the government to protect life). Which leads me to George Will's column "Conservatives Should Be Pleased," in which Will maintained that conservatives ought to quit carping at President Bush because he "is second only to Ronald Reagan, and not second by much, the most conservative president in living memory." Will conceded that Bush erred in three important "decisions" – steel tariffs, campaign-finance reform and Mideast policy – but said that these "are not likely to establish patterns," and so conservatives should quit being disgruntled and acting like victims. Besides, said Will, though "minimal government conservatism is dead," "Bush has positioned his party as pro-choice where it will matter most to most Americans in coming years – ... education ... Social Security ... and medicine." I don't often disagree with Will, but he was really straining to put a positive spin on these things. First, if minimal-government conservatism is dead, conservatives should be disgruntled. How can Will say that conservatives should be pleased when their core ideology has expired? Second, I've yet to see any appreciable expansion of freedom in the areas of education, Social Security and medicine – or any prospect for it. Contrary to what Will and Fukuyama say, conservatives have plenty to be concerned about – primarily because constitutional conservatism indeed may be dying, despite the consistent failures of big-government liberalism. How often, for example, do we hear congressmen or the president objecting to a bill on the grounds that the government has no business under the Constitution legislating in such areas (campaign finance reform)? In the last few weeks alone, President Bush abandoned efforts to rescind President Clinton's bogus designation of 17 national monuments, endorsed government mandates for mental-health insurance, and awarded $8.35 million in federal grants to help Americans "without access to the financial system" to open bank accounts. Meanwhile Republicans and Democrats are fighting over who can dole out more prescription-drug benefits. How very compassionate – unless you realize that there's nothing compassionate about the federal government, piece by piece, swallowing our liberties. While Mr. Fukuyama may rejoice at the Libertarians' waning influence in the conservative movement, I think he ought to consider the negative ramifications of that as well. Though conservatives may believe libertarians are off base on a number of issues, they could take lessons from them in their advocacy of limiting the federal government in a variety of areas. Conservatives understand that freedom depends on restraints on governmental power and foundational moral values – the only basis upon which to establish a regime of limited government in the first place. Broadly speaking, liberals believe in neither, and Libertarians dismiss the latter. So liberalism is still the main culprit in destroying our freedoms. Or is it? Maybe Will was right about one thing. Perhaps conservatives are too quick to claim victimhood. Maybe it's time they looked at themselves and asked whether they, too, are failing in their primary mission of holding government to its proper limitations to ensure freedom. I don't think I'm being an alarmist to suggest that while we still enjoy considerable freedom today, absent a reversal of current trends, it's only a matter of time before we surrender complete authority to a paternalistic state. But we don't have to accept this fate. It's not too late to fill the other half of the glass.