Many of the functionsof the modern-day federal government, including Social Security and other social-service programs, were not envisioned by the framers, nor did the enumerated powers of the Congress specifically comprehend such programs. But neither do these federal roles violate a principle of our system or run counter to the prescient mindset of the founders. The federalist founders created and interpreted a constitutional system that allowed for the emergence of modern America, one in which the federal government would be strong enough to shape global events and to guarantee a minimal provision for the poor, ill, and elderly. Such federal roles may require examination and reform, but they are not inherently illegitimate.
Most conservatives, if pressed on these matters, would concede the propriety of some government role in helping create the conditions necessary for individuals and institutions to succeed. For too many in the libertarian and Tea Party wings of the GOP, however, such concessions are at best made grudgingly. These conservatives, if left to their own devices, would say almost nothing about these matters. And so crucial realities — the fact of increasing inequality and decreasing social mobility — tend to be swept under the rug. For too many, government’s obligation to protect individual liberty comes first, second, and last, while concepts such as the common good, despite bearing their own conservative pedigree, are regarded as so much liberal claptrap. Protecting individual liberty is indeed an indispensable role of government. But it is not the only role.
The decisive objection to any conservatism which deserves to be called such. It is that by its very nature it cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving. It may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments, but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance. It has, for this reason, invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing. The tug of war between conservatives and progressives can only affect the speed, not the direction, of contemporary developments.
Last week’s post concluded with some inquiries about the apparent lack of awareness that the actions of “no-government conservatives” have consequences. Destructive actions have an annoying tendency of making things worse.
The typical conservativeis indeed usually a man of very strong moral convictions. What I mean is that he has no political principles which enable him to work with people whose moral values differ from his own for a political order in which both can obey their convictions. It is the recognition of such principles that permits the coexistence of different sets of values that makes it possible to build a peaceful society The acceptance of such principles means that we agree to tolerate much that we dislike.
To live and work successfullywith others requires more than faithfulness to one’s concrete aims. It requires an intellectual commitment to a type of order in which, even on issues which to one are fundamental, others are allowed to pursue different ends.
In a world whose 21st Century inter-connectedness and complexity are no doubt entirely beyond the visions of even the most imaginative among those of prior generations [and surely beyond the capacity of our Founding Fathers], insistence on narrowing our focus and policies in honor of the earliest conservative interpretations of “limited government” is to disrespect the greater principles upon which our nation was formed.
Men often oppose a thing, merely because they have had no agency in planning it, or because it may have been planned by those whom they dislike. But if they have been consulted, and have happened to disapprove, opposition then becomes, in their estimation, an indispensable duty of self-love. They seem to think themselves bound in honor, and by all the motives of personal infallibility, to defeat the success of what has been resolved upon contrary to their sentiments. Men of upright, benevolent tempers have too many opportunities of remarking, with horror, to what desperate lengths this disposition is sometimes carried, and how often the great interests of society are sacrificed to the vanity, to the conceit, and to the obstinacy of individuals, who have credit enough to make their passions and their caprices interesting to mankind. Perhaps the question now before the public may, in its consequences, afford melancholy proofs of the effects of this despicable frailty, or rather detestable vice, in the human character.
Conservatives tend to be pessimistic because they doubt that more possibilities will make lives on the whole better. They believe that there are obstacles that stand in the way of the permanent overall improvement of the human condition.
It may provide some comfort to those bonding over their political and culture beliefs to ignore unpleasant truths and focus instead on the merits of abstract political traditions and ideals, along with tabulating today’s scorecard. But that comfort has limitations, and the consequences of legislative pursuits benefiting the few at the continuing expense of the many will be unpleasant at best if too many of us continue to rely on convenient rationalizations rather than working together.