A Caveat: I am not a scholar. I do read and I do think about things, but by no means do I believe I have the last word on what a conservative might be. There are men and women who have spent their lives studying conservative thinkers from Cato to John Locke, from Edmund Burke to Eric Hoffer and Ludwig von Mises. What follows are simply my thoughts and opinions, nothing more.
When I was growing up, I recall my mother saying that her father had told her that if one is not liberal when they are young they have no heart, but if they are not conservative by the time they reach thirty they have no head. Later I had heard that sentiment attributed to Churchill. Regardless of the source, the concept makes sense. Words matter. Regardless of how I might define a conservative, the Left has done a far better job than the Right in putting their imprint in describing liberals and conservatives. Democrats and their cohorts in mainstream media use whimsy and fantasy when describing those they consider “liberal:” innocent, virtuous, youthful, energetic, free and compassionate are adjectives they employ. But there is harshness to their adjectives when conservatives are described: corrupt, impure, elderly, tired, restrained and miserly.
It’s all poppycock of course. Conservatives believe in personal responsibility, free markets and individual liberty. They see the principal roles of the state to provide protection for its citizens from within and without and to defend the rights of its citizens. They therefore believe in a robust department of defense and judicial system. They are skeptical of men in power, so prefer the rule of law to the “enlightened” rule of men. The believe government should permit people to be free to pursue their own goals. While conservatives respect other cultures, most believe in a universal moral sense, that there are absolute values with respect to life and property. They believe in what are termed family values – moral codes that have helped keep the bonds of families strong, and which have allowed communities to grow ever stronger.
They abide by the rights of all citizens as laid out in our Bill of Rights, the right to speak assemble and pray, the sanctity of life, the ability to purchase, own and sell property; they have respect for the beliefs of everyone, no matter how different. Conservatives believe in government, but that its role should be minimal, but they acknowledge that there are those who are unable to care for themselves and that government has a responsibility to look after them. Fiscal responsibility is important both on an individual level, as well as for the state. Conservatives argue that English should be a requirement for citizenship. They also recognize that learning the language is necessary to survive and thrive in our country – that when we don’t require it, we hurt those we purport to help.
Conservatives are more likely to embrace uncomfortable truths. They believe in social equality and believe our unalienable rights provide for equality of opportunity. But they recognize that equality of outcomes is only a dream promoted by would-be tyrants. For example, they recognize that not all high school seniors can go to a top college. They understand that there will be 3.3 million seniors graduating from high school in June 2014, yet the top fifty colleges and universities can only accept about 75,000 freshman, or two percent of graduating seniors. Is that unfair, or is that life? Conservatives live in the world as it is, not the one that appears in Disney films. Interestingly, the Left, which glories in youth, has, as their two favored candidates for 2016, members of the “over-the-hill” gang. Joe Biden will be 74 that year and Hillary Clinton will be 69. No man has been elected President over the age of 70, and only Reagan was older (by nine months) than Ms. Clinton would be. In contrast, seven of the ten youngest governors are Republican. So, who has youth on their side?
The Left believes in the goodness of government, especially in its role to achieve equality and fairness. They believe that government’s responsibility extends to guaranteeing that no one is in need and that everyone has access to healthcare. As such, they ignore the concerns of those who worry about unhealthy dependency. Conservatives understand that increasing dependency means less freedom. The Left believes that enlightened men and women can make better decisions for us than we can make for ourselves. They tend to be more careless about financing, trusting that future generations can shoulder the needs of debts incurred today. The consequences of such promises can be seen in the hardships they have thrust on credulous retired city employees in Detroit. Most of them believe in moral relativism – that there are differences in judgments across myriad cultures that should be respected – “judge not lest ye be judged” is their motto. So they allow such judgments to dictate untested changes in our culture – an example being those on the Left who want to bring Sharia Law to the United States – a law which treats women more harshly than men. The Left believe in multiculturalism and that it is not necessary to learn English to enjoy the rights of citizenship. In my small town in Connecticut, the Town Clerk is required by state law to ask if one wants his ballot in English or Spanish! Can a Spanish-speaking-only person vote knowingly in an English-speaking community and nation?
Conservatives understand the instability of our climate and that climate change is a fact of life – that it has always been with us, and that change is something with which we must learn to live. While conservatives acknowledge that man bears some responsibility, but, unlike the Left that is in denial, they recognize that the earth’s climate has been changing long before man appeared. There is much in the science that remains unknown. Seventeen percent of the world’s population has no access to electricity. Fossil fuels are necessary for them to gradually ascend to better standards of living, yet a sanctimonious Obama Administration recently announced that the United States would no longer contribute to the construction of coal-fired power plants financed by the World Bank. Feeding starving people and helping them keep warm should take precedence over priggish political decisions that may or may not help the earth over the next few centuries. And, you do not see conservatives traipsing around the world, selling scare stories and raking in millions of dollars, as we do those like former Vice President Al Gore and Hollywood’s Michael Moore.
One way to define a conservative is to describe what he is not: He does not waste other people’s money; he considers rising dependency a threat to personal liberty; he is never smug or condescending in his treatment of others; he is respectful of opposing opinions. You would never have seen conservatives at Brown blackballing Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, the way leftists did New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, nor would you have seen conservative students hurling insults at Judge Shira A. Scheindlin, the way leftist City College of New York students recently did to General David Petraeus. The destruction of private property and mess left behind by the Occupy-Wall Street crowd was far worse than anything ever seen when a Tea Party Convention moves on. The first group feels entitled. The second does not.
At the end of the day, the real question is which political philosophy has done the most good for the most people. The world is our laboratory. The 2013 report on world hunger from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization is testament to the role free market capitalism has played in alleviating hunger. Over the past twenty years, as democracy and capitalism spread throughout much of Asia and Eastern Europe, the numbers of those suffering from “chronic undernourishment” declined to 870 million people from a billion in 1990, or from 20% of the world’s population to 12%. Much still needs to be done, but history shows that free-market capitalism, with all its warts, has done more to lift people from poverty than any other form of government or economic system. Africa, which has been mired in a socialism and tyranny, is one of the very few regions of the world where hunger has actually increased.
Perhaps most important, conservatives are optimistic about the ability of the individual to rise and succeed. They revel in the stories of individual American women and men who by the dint of their intelligence, grit and aspiration overcame incredible odds to succeed. They did so because of the opportunities they had to succeed as individuals. The most dispiriting thing about an intrusive state is that it squashes individual initiative by requiring conformity to established standards, whether imposed by society, schools or government. Conservatives believe that power resides with the individual, not with the state. So do I.
I am no longer young; so I suppose my grandfather is smiling wherever he might be. I only hope he is sharing his satisfaction with Winston Churchill and a host of other conservative thinkers whose great works have come down to us through the ages.
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