Conservatism and Liberalism

I wrote yesterday about who a Conservative is; today I’d like to discuss the relationship between conservatism and liberalism, and how the two evolve.

The relationship between the two is fairly stable—conservatism and liberalism have generally oppositional views of how best to support our people and our country—it’s their individual roles in politics that evolve.  Indeed, the two have swapped roles since our founding.

In broad, general terms, an 18th Century Conservative holds a fundamental belief about the role of government in men’s lives similar to the more or less enlightened view delineated by Edmund Burke contemporaneously with our Revolution.

Burke has been termed a friend of the American colonies for his support for them and for their rights in the English Parliament.  However, he was a monarchist through and through.  He argued forcefully for our rights as Englishmen, true enough.  But those rights, in his view, consisted entirely of the right to be subjects of a pater familias monarchy, of a government that claimed for itself the authority to define the detail of that right, to define for today what our freedoms might be—until the monarchy saw fit to withdraw those rights, those freedoms tomorrow.  This was so because a mere commoner was viewed as incapable of reason, he could not determine for himself what was best for him: he needed the…guidance…of his betters.  Moreover, the right to govern, circularly, was an inheritable right, but only by those already comprising that government, for their superior fitness to govern was demonstrated by their being part of the government.

Set in contrast to that, as I noted in that earlier post, the 18th Century Liberal belief of the sovereignty of man over his government; the principle that legitimate government can only be formed by men themselves, voluntarily; and that liberties and responsibilities are inherent in each of us individually as gifts from God, not severally as handouts from government.  Thus, a man, says that 18th Century Liberal, has rights and responsibilities that are indivisible from him because they are inherent in his humanity, in his very existence.  And he has the innate wherewithal, from that, to determine his own lot in accordance with his own imperatives.

Then government exists to protect these rights and for no other purpose.  When such a government strays too far from this duty, the citizens of this wholly voluntary polity have an equally inalienable right (in the Declaration of Independence, our Founders aver a duty, as did Locke) to do whatsoever is necessary to bring that government to heel or to replace it with a more obedient one.  This is the very antithesis of the world of governance extant in the 18th Century Conservative’s mind.

That 18th Century Conservative’s view was repackaged and articulated in more modern terms by (among others) Theodore Roosevelt and Herb Croly, founders of the Progressive (modern Liberal) movement early in the 20th century.  Since, it has become the central theme of liberals generally (for instance, Democratic Party Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said that she was a proud Progressive).  Here is what Herb Croly wrote in his The Promise of American Life,  in 1909:

To be sure, any increase in centralized power and responsibility, expedient or inexpedient, is injurious to certain aspects of traditional American democracy.  But the fault in that case lies with the democratic tradition; and the erroneous and misleading tradition must yield before the march of constructive national democracy….  [T]he average American individual is morally and intellectually inadequate to serious and consistent conception of his responsibilities as a democrat.

President Theodore Roosevelt, in his 1904 Annual Message to Congress, had this to say:

The Government must in increasing degree supervise and regulate the workings of the railways engaged in interstate commerce.

And again, in his 1908 Annual Message [emphasis added]:

The chief reason, among the many sound and compelling reasons, that led to the formation of the National Government was the absolute need that the Union, and not the several States, should deal with interstate and foreign commerce; and the power to deal with interstate commerce was granted absolutely and plenarily to the central government…. The proposal to make the National Government supreme over, and therefore to give it complete control over, the railroads and other instruments of interstate commerce is merely a proposal to carry out to the letter one of the prime purposes, if not the prime purpose, for which the Constitution was founded.

And again, in his 1910 New Nationalism speech:

It has become entirely clear that we must have government supervision of the capitalization, not only of public-service corporations, including, particularly, railways, but of all corporations doing an interstate business.

We grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well used.  It is not even enough that it should have gained without doing damage to the community.  We should permit it to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community.

Because Big Government knows best how to manage business, for what purpose a man should be required to use the fruits of his labor, and that man can be allowed [sic] to enjoy his success only in approved ways.

We’ve seen this desire in modern Liberals—Progressives—to insert Big Government into our economy, into our lives, with the 21st century nationalization of both our health insurance industry and our health care industry and with the effective control over our financial industry achieved with Dodd-Frank and its unconstrained Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

We’ve also seen the Progressive disdain for our Constitution—the product of those 18th Century Liberals—and thus for the rule of law in, for instance, unconstitutional “recess” appointments of officials while the Senate was in session and in the imposition by regulation of that which our representatives in Congress had explicitly rejected.  This is rule by the men of government, instead.

We’ve also seen their modern belief in Big Government clearly stated.  In October 2008, Democratic Party Presidential Candidate Barack Obama, responding to a citizen questioner in Toledo, OH, who asked “Your new tax plan is going to tax me more, isn’t it?” said, “I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.”  And President Obama said at a rally in Quincy, IL in April 2010, “I think at a certain point, you’ve made enough money.”  Here is the Progressive saying in so many words that Progressives in government know better how to dispose of a man’s property, how his money should be spent, what constitutes sufficient wealth.  How a man should be allowed to enjoy what success he is to be permitted to achieve.

Today’s opposition to this Progressive liberalism is the modern Conservative: a man who now seeks to conserve those 18th century liberal principles that are fundamental to the American social compact.

Notice that: the names have reversed position, with what was once known as liberal now known as conservative, and what was once thought conservative has become liberal, but this evolution is one of name only (this often is a point of confusion when talking about liberalism vs conservatism).

But the fundamental tenets remain unchanged.  One respects the wisdom of the individual, common man and holds him sovereign over government, with rights and duties inherent in each as endowments from our Creator.  The other, in contradiction, hews to the view of government as the solution, and so government must grow to meet the problems of the day; what we obtain, and how we enjoy it, are for government to determine.

The monarchist is now the champion of Big Government and wants to change from limited government to that Big Government, while the limited government erstwhile liberal wants to conserve those principles of limited government and of individual liberty and individual responsibility.

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