Time to return to the first principles of conservatism?

posted at 12:40 pm on May 30, 2008 by Ed Morrissey

With so many people writing about what ails conservatism, and so much disagreement, the basic tenets of conservatism seem to be overlooked. In attaching an ever-broader policy base to the first principles of conservatism, we have not added to our base but have increased our opposition. In fighting on the flanks, we have ignored the center, and as a result, have lost momentum through poor definition and irresponsible governance.

What is the first principle of conservatism? Limited government. Our founders understood this, which is why they tightly constrained the jurisdiction of the federal government in the Constitution. Henry David Thoreau famously wrote “That government is best which governs least”, and that encapsulates what has been the overarching philosophy of conservatism as applied to governance. Furthermore, it exists in opposition to and as a counterbalance for the competing philosophy of socialism, which postulates that government improves as it governs more.

These days, however, so-called conservatives in government appear more inclined to act on the latter philosophy than the former. Those running as conservatives from either party vote for ever-increasing federal roles in education, agriculture, the arts, and especially health care and retirement planning, despite the increasing deficits that the federal government has racked up. Entitlement programs will have a catastrophic collapse in the future, and instead of hitting the brakes, conservatives and progressives alike keep hitting the accelerator.

One might think that conservatives would at least recognize the perils of corruption in a bloated and overbearing federal government, distant from the oversight of individuals. Think again. The pork-barrel spending increased when so-called conservatives took power, pushed in no small measure by efforts to woo lobbyists who rely on increasing federal power and spending in order to get paid.

How did conservatives lose their way? They focused on everything but the core principle of limited government. Issues like gay marriage and mottos on coins took precedence. It’s not to say that there aren’t other issues that should concern the citizenry, but it is a matter of priorities, and the first priority of the “conservatives” who ran DC from 2001-2006 was re-election and spoils, not reducing government to a manageable and affordable level.

Take gay marriage as one example. In relation to the first principle of conservatism, why should this even be on the conservative radar screen, especially as a national issue? Instead of drumbeats for federal constitutional amendments, we should have insisted that government get out of the sacrament-recognition business. Let the churches determine the sacramental value of relationships, and let (state) governments enforce partnership contracts.

With every added issue, conservatives gain allies but also opponents. A narrow focus on reducing government would attract many more people than it repels. Most Americans believe that the federal government spends too much money, is too corrupt, is unaccountable to the citizenry, and creates massive inefficiencies. The first principle of conservative governance addresses all of that, and policies based on that principle would return both responsibilities and monies back to the states and local communities where they belong, so that citizens can more effectively oversee the issues in their own neighborhoods.

Trying to advance a broad agenda of issues that contradict the principle of limited government obviously hasn’t worked. All that produced was a spending spree that further bloated government and left the public with the impression that little difference exists between “conservatives” and “progressives” except in who gets the cash. If we tried actual, real conservatism by focusing on a return to smaller, less intrusive federal governance, the side issues will become more manageable in our communities. It would provide credibility to a movement that by its very nature should demand that government stay out of the bedroom and the boardroom and treat its citizens like sovereign adults rather than recalcitrant children unable to make their own decisions.


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Different people vote for different reasons.

Rose

And you, Rose, voted for Reagan because the Moral Majority/Christian coalition told you to or because you voted your conscience? My point was, and remains, that making the claim of delivering social conservatives to Reagan thus electing him President made by the fundamentalist Christians is a lie.

Krydor on June 1, 2008 at 4:54 PM

I voted for Reagan because he was my personal choice. I didn’t need anyone to tell me who to vote for. I was never a supporter of Jerry Falwell and his moral majority.

Rose on June 1, 2008 at 5:02 PM

Reagan in the early 80′s wrote a book called “Abortion and the conscience of the nation”. If the social agenda was not important to him, why would he bother with such a book?

Rose on June 1, 2008 at 5:05 PM

Reagan in the early 80’s wrote a book called “Abortion and the conscience of the nation”. If the social agenda was not important to him, why would he bother with such a book?

Rose

Yes, but what did he run on? I’m not saying he wasn’t a social conservative. His priority was not social conservatism as President.

Krydor on June 1, 2008 at 5:19 PM

If you want to return to small government conservatism and believe that the individual is sovereign, join us at the newly formed American Conservative Party.

amr on June 1, 2008 at 6:25 PM

“I believe this nation hungers for a spiritual revival; hungers to once again see honor placed above political expediency; to see government once again the protector of our liberties, not the distributor of gifts and privilege. Government should uphold and not undermine those institutions which are custodians of the very values upon which civilization is founded—religion, education and, above all, family. Government cannot be clergyman, teacher and parent. It is our servant, beholden to us.

We who are privileged to be Americans have had a rendezvous with destiny since the moment in 1630 when John Winthrop, standing on the deck of the tiny Arbella off the coast of Massachusetts, told the little band of pilgrims, “We shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword throughout the world.”

A troubled and afflicted mankind looks to us, pleading for us to keep our rendezvous with destiny; that we will uphold the principles of self-reliance, self-discipline, morality, and—above all—responsible liberty for every individual that we will become that shining city on a hill.”

The above is an excerpt from the speech that Reagan gave when he announced his candidacy. It was not the main theme but was certainly a part of it. This is the part that inspired many to vote for him.

Rose on June 1, 2008 at 6:55 PM

Yes, but what did he run on?

Well, you caould always read his speechs and see what he ran on, if you were not so terrified that you might find out.

His priority was not social conservatism as President.

Yes, it was.

flenser on June 1, 2008 at 10:55 PM

The above is an excerpt from the speech that Reagan gave when he announced his candidacy. It was not the main theme but was certainly a part of it. This is the part that inspired many to vote for him.

Rose

Yeah, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s basic conservatism. I don’t see much in the way of social conservatism in that speech. I see plenty of the back to basics conservatism Ed talked about.

Talking about God, or even a strong faith in God does not a socon make. Otherwise, um, Jimmy Carter is a socon. Yeah, so there’s that.

Krydor on June 1, 2008 at 10:56 PM

Yes, it was.

flenser

No, it wasn’t! Go to 2:02.

Look, an argument isn’t you saying ‘no it wasn’t’. Rose seems to have conceded the point that neither one of his terms was based on socon issues. You say they were so what did he do to forward the socon agenda in 8 years?

Krydor on June 1, 2008 at 11:00 PM

He never flaunted any sort of Mike Huckabee/George W. Bush social conservatism. That’s not who he was, and you know that. Name the social conservative things he implemented as President of the USA.

Name the social conservative things Bush implemented as President.

Let’s cut to the chase here -you’re just another in the long line of anti-Christian bigots here at Hot Air, and “social conservatism” for you means “Christianity”. When you say Reagan was not a social con, what you mean is that he did not invoke the Bible as much as Bush. So not only do you expose your bigotry, you expose your total cluenessness as to what social conservatism is.

But then, you are a Canadian liberal.

flenser on June 1, 2008 at 11:00 PM

No, it wasn’t!

Yes, it was!

See, I can “argue” with as much skill as you do.

Look, an argument isn’t you saying ‘no it wasn’t’.

Your brainless simpleton, you seem to think an argument is you saying whatever goofy thing tickles your fancy. I’ve quoted you Reagan expressing his own view of social conservatives.

Why are liberals always as smart as a box of rocks?

flenser on June 1, 2008 at 11:04 PM

You say they were so what did he do to forward the socon agenda in 8 years?

You brainless simpleton, tell me what you imagine the “socon agenda” to be.

flenser on June 1, 2008 at 11:05 PM

flenser,

Um, no, you see, you first. That’s how this works. Ever take a course in debate or logic? I asked you a question and then you answer it. When you answer it, I will respond to your question.

You, being the resident Ronnie expert, should be able to list off all his initiatives that were socially conservative. You’ve only got one, you know.

Krydor on June 1, 2008 at 11:05 PM

Flenser,

I said a strong faith in God does NOT a social conservative make.

Krydor on June 1, 2008 at 11:08 PM

I don’t see much in the way of social conservatism in that speech.

You would not recognise social conservatism if it bit you in your amply padded posterior.

Which is why we can sit here quoting Reagan to you from now till Doomsday and you’ll still be saying “That’s not social conservatism!”

And if by some chance you see something you can recognise as social conservatism, you’ll just shift your ground and say “But what legislation did he pass?”

Of course, you are a Canadian liberal, so perhaps we’re expecting too much of you.

flenser on June 1, 2008 at 11:10 PM

You, being the resident Ronnie expert, should be able to list off all his initiatives that were socially conservative. You’ve only got one, you know.

See, the problem here is that your knowledge of the term “social conservatism” ranks right up their with your understanding of the term “quantum mechanics”. Yet, you persist in attempting to give people lectures about it.

I’m pretty sure that what you just said was “The only social con issue Reagan spoke on was abortion”.

Which reveals your near total ignorance of both Reagan, and of conservatism.

flenser on June 1, 2008 at 11:14 PM

flenser on June 1, 2008\

Name the socially conservative issues forwarded by Ronald Wilson Reagan when he was President of the USA from Jan 1981 to Jan 1989.

You say he ran and governed as social conservative. I say he didn’t. I base my opinion on his actual record and his actual campaigns. On what do you base your opinion?

Krydor on June 1, 2008 at 11:14 PM

Flenser.

pssst… “just say no!”

Krydor on June 1, 2008 at 11:16 PM

Um, no, you see, you first. That’s how this works.

I’ll tell you how this works, my young liberal friend. How this works is that you attempt to find out the first thing about conservatism before attempting to give lectures on it.

You are tossing words and terms around here whose meaning is completely obscure to you.

flenser on June 1, 2008 at 11:17 PM

I never conceded anything. Gay rights were not a big issue at the time, especially not gay marriage. Abortion was the biggest issue and he was pro life. Value voters were looking for someone who was not hostile towards those of religious faith. They found that in Reagan. Another quote from a campaign stop in New Jersey.
“But restoring the American dream requires more than restoring a sound, productive economy, vitally important as that is. It requires a return to spiritual and moral values, values so deeply held by those who came here to build a new life. We need to restore those values in our daily life, in our neighborhoods and in our government’s dealings with the other nations of the world.”
When Carter did the interview with Playboy, he lost much of his Christian support. People no longer saw him as a strong Christian, not so much because of what he said, but because of the magazine he chose to say it in.

Rose on June 1, 2008 at 11:18 PM

You say he ran and governed as social conservative. I say he didn’t. I base my opinion on his actual record and his actual campaigns.

Then you should have no problem citing his actual words, something only your opponents have done here so far. Why is that?

“just say no!”

Fine. So now you acknowledge that he was an anti-drug warrior, and that this was part of his social conservatism.

I can’t see that falling in line with either you or Morriseys goal of getting the government out of the “social issues”. You mentioned Prohibition upthread in the same vein as the war on drugs. You realise that you are saying Reagan was a Prohibitionist?

flenser on June 1, 2008 at 11:25 PM

I’ll tell you how this works, my young liberal friend. How this works is that you attempt to find out the first thing about conservatism before attempting to give lectures on it.

You are tossing words and terms around here whose meaning is completely obscure to you.

flenser

I guess lesson one in “how to be a conservative by Flenser” is “logic and cohesive arguments are not for you!”

If you can’t answer the question, then I will assume I’ve won the debate. You’ve been asked more than once. You have called me names and intentionally misread and misquoted me.

Good day to you. Call me from the wilderness.

Krydor on June 1, 2008 at 11:25 PM

How was Reagan a social conservative?

1) He was a law-and-order anti-crime conservative. It’s forgotten now, but back in the day that was a radical and daring “social conservative” position.

2) As part of (1), Ragan was a big anti-drug warrior, probably more than any President, ever.

3) Reagan was a staunch foe of abortion.

4) Reagan was a firm believer in the existence of something called “the American people”, a concept the modern non-socially conservative GOP sneers at.

5) Reagan was a firm opponent of busing, which was a big “social conservative” issue at the time.

The fact that he opposed the Soviet Union abroad (on strict social conservative grounds) and high taxes at home, does not detract from his social conservatism as you seem to want to believe.

Something else for you not to read. It’s the 1980 Republican Party platform, and it’s packed with social conservatism.

Of course, your reaction will be “Sure, but that was just to trick the stoopid socons into voting for them”. That’s if you even bother to open the link, something you’ve never managed to do before.

flenser on June 1, 2008 at 11:37 PM

If you can’t answer the question, then I will assume I’ve won the debate.

We can’t have a debate if you don’t know what words mean.

Your Big Idea is that social cons are a trivial minority who the GOP for some reason you just can’t fathom, keeps catering to.

I pointed out to you that the liberal state of California voted against gay marriage, and you still persist with your bizarre fantasy that “socons” are made up of a few rednecks chewing tobacco down in Arkansas.

If you ever feel like actually engaging the facts, feel free to get back to me. The facts are that America is a socially conservative country, and the ONLY remotely popular part of the GOP agenda these days is the socially conservative part.

flenser on June 1, 2008 at 11:43 PM

Name the socially conservative issues forwarded by Ronald Wilson Reagan when he was President of the USA from Jan 1981 to Jan 1989.

See my 11:37 for a partial list. You can add opposition to affirmative action to that.

flenser on June 1, 2008 at 11:45 PM

Sorry, gay rights was an issue for the democrats, that was the year that it was added to their platform. I do not specifically remember it being addressed in the debates, but it may have.

Rose on June 1, 2008 at 11:47 PM

My above comments was in reference to my earlier post stating that gay rights was not part of the 1980 campaign.

Rose on June 1, 2008 at 11:51 PM

Kydor

I love how I interpret something differently, and suddenly there is no way I could have even been born.

You were ten years old and in a different country when we were electing Reagan. I see you think of yourself as scientific. Science starts with the admisssion of ignorance. Admit you don’t know something and it’s possible to learn. Your lectures to us about what Reagan said, when he said those things while you were waiting for puberty to begin, are both ignorant and arrogant.

flenser on June 1, 2008 at 11:56 PM

Society has always regarded marital love as a sacred expression of the bond between a man and a woman. It is the means by which families are created and society itself is extended into the future. In the Judeo-Christian tradition it is the means by which husband and wife participate with God in the creation of a new human life. It is for these reasons, among others, that our society has always sought to protect this unique relationship. In part the erosion of these values has given way to a celebration of forms of expression most reject. We will resist the efforts of some to obtain government endorsement of homosexuality.–Ronald Reagan, July 12, 1984.

I’m sure Krydor has some weasely excuse for why this means nothing. No doubt it was all part of RR’s cunning plan to fool the foolish socons.

flenser on June 2, 2008 at 12:01 AM

Thank you flenser for finding that. I didn’t remember the issue being that prevalent at the time, but apparently it was. I just remember that Reagan was the socially conservative candidate and that is why I voted for him.

Rose on June 2, 2008 at 12:11 AM

amr::

I’m pleased to see that the New American Conservative Party has dropped the religious test for membership. Very pleased. I’ll give them another look.

snopercod on June 2, 2008 at 11:46 AM

1) He was a law-and-order anti-crime conservative. It’s forgotten now, but back in the day that was a radical and daring “social conservative” position.

Really? That was ‘daring’? If you insist.

2) As part of (1), Ragan was a big anti-drug warrior, probably more than any President, ever.

‘Cept for Bush 1. Yeah, the DEA got huge under Bush 1. But don’t let your revisionism get in the way of the facts.

3) Reagan was a staunch foe of abortion.

Which is why he managed to ban it. Oh, wait a second. Abortion is still legal.

4) Reagan was a firm believer in the existence of something called “the American people”, a concept the modern non-socially conservative GOP sneers at.

Hello, my name is flenser. I majored in ‘grasping at straws’ and Bob Jones university. You really want that to be a point? Well, good on you. It is not, you know.

5) Reagan was a firm opponent of busing, which was a big “social conservative” issue at the time.

Busing, like abortion, was stopped under Reagan… Wait, no? Hang on a second… So his personal social conservative views (which I have not denied) had little to do with his actions as president. WOW. None of this was a eureka moment for you?

Seems to me that he based his domestic policy on getting the country back to work because of Jimmy Carter. His foreign policy was based on fighting commies.

Well, it’s unlikely you’ll read this. Nevertheless, it’s important that a reply is given, lest you think you won something.

Krydor on June 2, 2008 at 12:48 PM

Reagan ran on a platform of social conservatism which is evident from his campaign speeches. What he was able to accomplish was hindered by a democrat congress. But you really need to worry about your own country, you have no understanding of ours. I don’t see anyone here meddling in your politics.

Rose on June 2, 2008 at 10:32 PM

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