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How Conservatives Can Defeat Liberalism

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Two weeks after the election, conservatives are still asking why Mitt Romney lost. That, however, is the wrong first question argues Charles R. Kesler in his new book "I am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism." We cannot fully understand Romney's defeat, implies Kelser, until we first understand why conservatives have lost the majority of policy battles over the past 100 years. Despite having won their share of Presidential elections, conservatives have not slowed the advance of the welfare state.


Political pundits have blamed Romney's defeat on everything from Hurricane Sandy to inept get-out-the vote efforts, but the problem goes deeper. If conservatives are to get back on track, says Kesler, they must look to first principles, to the political philosophy, often invisible, that ultimately drives public policy. Kesler who is the editor of the influential Claremont Review of Books, shows how Woodrow Wilson and the early twentieth century Progressives silently overturned the principles of the American Founding. Kesler then traces out the liberal policies that logically, even inevitably, followed and are a major part of the contemporary liberal agenda.

The Founders believed that man's nature had two parts and that a just government accords with both: that part of man's nature he shares with all men (his natural rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) and that part that is uniquely and unequally his (talents, brains, motivation and so on). It follows that just government should be limited to preserving a man's natural rights while leaving him alone to do with his unique abilities as he sees fit.

The Progressives, on the other hand, had a very different political philosophy. They thought man, by nature, was an empty vessel and that it was society, not nature, that made the man. Accordingly, society was responsible for providing mans' needs, and if some men were needy it must be because society was not doing its job. In the Progressive view, justice required that everyone had not equal opportunity but equal outcomes.


At root, then, what separates liberals from conservatives is their respective understanding of justice: The battle is between social justice and what might be called American political justice. Liberals defend their policy preferences by asserting their understanding of justice. Conservatives, on the other hand, do not respond with their own understanding of justice, thereby leaving liberals to define what, at the end of the day, is the most important determinant of policy.

Obamacare is a good example of the trap conservatives fall into as a result. According to liberals, justice demands that everyone have the same level of health care. Unfortunately, conservatives have responded not by arguing that Obamacare is unjust but that it is too expensive. But this argument is weak because it implies that if Obamacare cost less then it would be OK. In other words, by not refuting liberals on the grounds of justice, conservatives concede the premise of liberal policies.

It is true that conservatives also argue that Obamacare is unconstitutional. But on this argument conservatives are hung by their own jurisprudence, which denies that the Constitution has anything to do with justice.

Conservatives ought to aim not at costs but at the injustice of Obamacare, focusing attention on the freedoms it threatens: freedom of association, contract, free speech, religious liberties and even life. We don't yet know the full implications of Obamacare, but even before its tyrannical policy implications flower, the threats to freedom are clearly visible.


Focusing on justice, also directs attention where it belongs, to the majority, the 85-90 percent who have excellent healthcare. Then the question becomes, "Is it just to deprive the vast majority of freedom for sake of the minority?"

This need not mean the minority should be ignored. But it does mean that in assisting the disadvantaged, we must distinguish, in the spirit of the Founders, between those who lack health care through no fault of their own and those who make bad choices, a distinction that can only occur at the local level.

Kesler's book shows conservatives that they must meet liberals on the grounds of justice. That means returning to the political philosophy of the Founding. It won't undo the outcome of this election but it might put conservatives on track to win in the future.

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