On Conservatism

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Recently, someone confused the conservative movement in America with the various right-wing movements across the world and here at home.

A point of explanation is in order. I’ll borrow from the Libertarian playbook to explain an important concept, since conservatism shares a lot of ideals with Libertarianism, important ideas that make the right-left dichotomy irrelevant.

There is a spectrum of political beliefs, and they vary along two axes. On the one hand, you have people that believe in the morals that God gave Moses, and on the other hand, you have people that believe in morals as defined by people. However, that is only one variation, and it’s actually possible to take a group from the God-believing Bible-thumpers and a group from the God-denying science-thumpers and have them form a government that suits them both just fine. In other words, that is not the dichotomy that is really important.

The way you create a government that agrees with both sides is you lay down a public morality—a moral code that both sides can agree to. And then you create a government that enforces only that public morality and nothing else. What would such a public morality look like?

Read the Declaration of Independence. People have a basic right to live, to do what they please, and to own their property. People don’t have a right to take people’s lives, take away their freedom, or to take away their property.

You can put me together with anyone, no matter what they believe, and as long as we agree to those basic rights, then we’ll get along just fine. He might complain that I’m interfering with his right to do what he wants by knocking on his door during the daytime and asking him to come read the Bible with me. So he might say, “You can’t use my property—my land and my door—to disturb me, unless it’s something that’s going to affect my property, my life, or my liberty.” And that would be that. I would have to respect his rights and leave him alone and stop asking him to pray with me. And I am fine with that, because if I got sick of him knocking on my door asking me to believe in science over God, I could do the same.

Now, the other axes is “more government” or “less government”. Along this axis, you have two extremes: One is complete control of everything by the government, the other is no government at all. I think everyone agrees that either extreme is not satisfactory.

In between those two extremes we have composites where government has some control over some things, and no control over other things. This is where drawing the line gets hard—very, very hard.

If we stick with the basic principles that all people have a right to live, a right to do what they want, and a right to own their property, then things get a lot simpler. We can ask this basic question whenever we think of a new thing government can do for us: Does it help preserve our rights, or does it infringe on them? The answer is usually obvious.

Sometimes, it’s not so obvious. For instance, building public highways. It hurts our rights to own our property, because we are taxed for owning and using our property. But at the same time it opens up new freedoms to move about as we wish, and actually increases the value of our property. So the net benefit is positive, and we can say that this is a good thing for government to do. If the net benefit isn’t positive, and it may become so if we give different values to different liberties, then we may decide it isn’t something government should do.

Another rule of thumb is asking whether the people can do this thing themselves, or if the only reasonable way to do it is through government.

When it comes to national defense, it used to be, until about World War II, that as long as most men had a rifle and could shoot pretty well, we didn’t need a large standing army. All we needed were forts that had a minimal force, a military command structure that is ready to go at the drop of a hat, and the military hardware such as rations, supply, ammunition, and heavy artillery on hand.

After World War II, we need aircraft carriers, spy satellites, nuclear missiles, and fighter jets. We really don’t need a lot of ground troops, compared to earlier times in our history. Asking the people to buy, maintain, and develop these weapons and systems is unreasonable, and so we rightfully say that we should allow government to steal our money and spend it to build a massive “standing” army. I put “standing” in quotes here because the most expensive part is keeping the equipment in working order and keeping enough people trained to use it properly should the need arise.

If we use these two rules to divide what government should and shouldn’t do, you’ve largely arrived at the conservative position. This position shares a lot with the libertarian position, especially when it comes to economics. However, there is a lot we disagree about with them.

For instance, libertarians tend to emphasize the rights to property and liberty above life. A good example is the issue of abortion and homosexual marriage. To a conservative, children have just as much right to live as anyone else, making abortion unconscionable except in cases where the life of the mother is in danger or other similar situations where the issue of rights doesn’t give an easy answer. In the case of homosexual marriage, conservatives admit that children need a loving father and mother, and so the rights we lose in the ability to marry two men or women together are superseded by the rights of the children to be raised in a loving family with one mother and one father.

The difference between conservatives and libertarians thus boils down to how we weigh each of the important individual liberties that we both admit exist.

Using this as a measuring stick, it’s now clear why conservatives and libertarians are not right-wing or left-wing. In both cases, the people advocating those positions ask for more government control and power. My experience is that the more you consolidate power, the more fractured that power becomes, and the more heated disagreement there is over how the power should be used. When you have an expansive government, as we do today, then the debates fall between right and left. As government expands in power, as President Obama is pushing it to do so, then it becomes an issue of one group of people versus another. That’s why we talk about, today, Clinton’s men and Obama’s men, or this faction or that faction on the left wing.

In other words, imagine I only had $10,000. There would be myself and maybe a few others interested in how that money is spent. No matter what I choose, the other parties likely won’t care very much, except for my wife and maybe, to a lesser degree my kids.

When that grows to $100,000, then I might get solicitations from my relatives. Grow it to $1,000,000, and now my mailbox is filled with people asking for my money and others trying to sue me to get my money. Expand that to $1,000,000,000, and soon everyone knows who I am and how I spend my money, and people get really, really vociferous about how I am doing good or bad or making the right or wrong choices.

Our federal government operates at 10,000 times the scale of a billionaire. In reality, it’s moving hundreds of trillions of dollars around as it adjusts its plans for the future. Think about how vocal people get about Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and George Soros. Now think about someone who is worth 10,000 or 100,000 of those influential people. That’s our federal government.

It’s plain to see why people care so much about the government: It has access to too much money.

My solution, and the solution Libertarians embrace, involves cutting back government to more manageable levels. We both propose actual spending cuts—not reductions in rates of growth, but spending $5 where we used to spend $10. We both agree that the military should be on the table, but that it shouldn’t be cut completely. We both agree that the cuts have to come from the entitlement programs, since that is where the vast majority of the money is.

But spending cuts is not enough. We need to cut government revenue. Not just tax rates, which by cutting may lead to even more revenue and an even larger government, but reductions in tax revenue on a grand scale. Cut the spending budget by 50%, and cut the revenue by 40%. if we can’t get congress to actually cut spending, then “starve the beast”, so to speak, so that congress has to prioritize its spending the same way everyone else in the world does.

Cutting spending and taxes means fewer government employees, meaning the government can only do less than what it used to. That means we need to cut regulations. We need to streamline and simplify them. A good place to start is to seriously question which regulations increase the liberty, life, and property of the people, and which diminish it. Get rid of the bad, keep the good.

An example of good regulation is the weights and measures standards the federal government keeps. It’s really very nice knowing that a kilogram in Washington State is the same as the kilogram in Seoul, South Korea, because our government ensures that anyone who claims to have a kilogram is actually using the same measurement nationwide.

An example of bad regulation is the regulation that bans incandescent bulbs. If it is true that by adopting more energy efficient bulbs we will save the world, then the people need to make that decision for themselves.

An example where regulation can be improved is in our pollution laws. There is an economic cost of pollution, and that cost is about what it takes to clean it up plus the cost of damages, aggregated, while the mess is made. If we simply legislated that companies pay for the damage they cause through pollution, and the cost to clean it up, then companies will identify the cheapest forms of pollution for their processes and use those. Another benefit is you can have one hundred companies polluting a river, and the government can spend the fines collected to clean up the river so that there is no net effect.

Conservatism doesn’t share many ideas with right-wing ideologies from our past and the world. We don’t want to enforce morality by the point of a gun, except those basic, public morals that we all agree are important. We weigh some of these moral rights differently than others, and that’s an area where we can debate. But one item we must all agree to, today, is the proper role of government in protecting, not hindering, our natural rights.

That’s the debate conservatives are trying to have, and have been trying to have since the 50’s. President Obama has done tremendous good because his unbridled form of government has reminded us why limited government is so important for our security, financial and otherwise. Now is the chance for conservatives to explain that we simply want less government, and that means you don’t have to agree with us on everything else, because we don’t want everything else to be a part of our government.

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