Friday, July 14, 2006

Sustaining Conservatism

Yesterday, in a post opposing calls by some conservatives for what I called a "my way or the highway" approach to party politics, I made the following statement:

Ultimately, persuasive arguments, not strategies of dividing and conquering, will be needed to keep conservatism alive, both within and outside the Republican Party.

A.C. Kleinheider quoted the above statement for the purpose of questioning it. He wrote in response:

If you really think about it in terms of true conservatism, in terms of an actual, limited government, repeal the New Deal-type conservatism, I think it would take some divide and conquering....Think about how many people work for the federal government, how many receive some sort of subsidy from the government. Student loans, government contracts, Medicare, Social Security, etc. Truly streamlining the state would by definition require many, many people to vote against their self interest in fundamental ways. People will not do that.

In response to Kleinheider's remarks, I would make two points:

1. Kleinheider defines "true conservatism" as a "repeal the New Deal-type conservatism." I disagree. Conservatism is not merely an ideology of what should be. One of the strengths of what I would call "true conservatism," which in a different age was frequently called classical liberalism, is its insistence on using the real world as its starting point. Utopian ideological visions for creating heaven on earth are the playgrounds of the left. Conservatives keep their feet planted firmly on the ground.

Had I lived in 1933, I would have opposed Roosevelt's program. But, in 2006, the New Deal is not going away any time soon. A true conservative is not one who calls for its demolition by the middle of next year. Not only would that be a political loser, but it would create chaos if it occurred. While the long term goal might involve rolling back of much of the New Deal, there is much else to work on in the short term. While we may not like the starting point all that much, conservatives must make the case for individual freedom and limited government in the real world in which we live.

2. Getting more to the point of Kleinheider's argument, I believe that his own explanation shows why my approach of sustaining conservatism by persuasive argument is the only means that will work. Kleinheider's case only stands if one accepts his narrow definition of self-interest, which strictly involves choosing the candidate or position that offers the most goodies. But one should not narrow "self-interest" to mean nothing more than a reflexive, short-term, purely economic form of self-interest. To the extent that conservatives have been successful, they have done so by making the case to the American people for liberty, opportunity, and freedom as greater goods.

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