Conservatism is a negative philosophy. I don’t mean “negative” in that it proposes something undesirable, but negative in that it has always sought to negate the more objectionable aspects of the human condition. Man has a propensity for evil. This means that men must be restrained in some fashion, which is precisely why conservatives have typically stressed religion, conventional morality, humility, etc.
But conservatives have also stressed that any government designed to be powerful enough to restrain men will also be run by men, whose collective propensity for evil is to be feared even more. Conservatives have never argued that man should not be governed — only that there is far more to fear from “the state” than from the inherent and inevitable shortfalls of individual men.
Our Founding Fathers were unabashedly conservative in their attitudes toward the state. President George Washington said, “Government is not reason. It is not eloquence. Government is force; like fire, it is a dangerous servant — and a fearful master.” James Madison noted, “The essence of government is power, and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.” Thomas Jefferson was even blunter about the danger of centralizing state power: “Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.”
From the Founders to the 21st century, critiquing the modern state, or what we today call “big government,” has always been the heart of American conservatism. “Mr. Republican” Sen. Robert Taft led conservatives in their battles against President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, while President Calvin Coolidge was a harsh critic of statism. President Ronald Reagan, who greatly admired Coolidge, would later sum up the point of view held by conservatives quite nicely: “Government is not a solution to our problem. Government is the problem.”
This brief history of the American conservative tradition is necessary to demonstrate how it has now become history. The election of Reagan in 1980 was revolutionary in that it popularized the term “conservative” like never before, and it was tragic in that the word’s widespread use severely devalued its philosophical meaning. Today, virtually every Republican — including relatively liberal leaders like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham — calls himself “conservative.” But do they mean it in the same way the Founders did — or Reagan? Do they mean it in any substantive way at all?
Much of what passes for conservatism today involves Republicans tinkering with the current system, not rejecting it outright. Too many of today’s self-described conservatives don’t necessarily want to get rid of big government; they simply want to “fix” it. They may offer catchy slogans or promote cheap gimmicks, which do absolutely nothing to actually reduce spending or downsize the state.
Compare such chicanery with the philosophy of Sen. Barry Goldwater, for many the ultimate standard bearer of American conservatism: “I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them. It is not to inaugurate new programs, but to cancel old ones that do violence to the Constitution, or that have failed their purpose, or that impose on the people an unwarranted financial burden. I will not attempt to discover whether legislation is ‘needed’ before I have first determined whether it is constitutionally permissible.”
This is particularly interesting, or depressing, at a time when the grassroots Right is more open and energized for pure conservative philosophy than at any other time in recent political memory — in all its unadulterated anti-government, anti-state bravado. The big government the Founders warned us about, and what Coolidge, Taft, Goldwater, and Reagan tried to fight, is now with us today at a colossal degree and arguably without precedent in human history. It is hard to fathom the concept of “big government” being any bigger than our current federal government.
And we’re simply going to “fix” it? Good luck with that — and goodbye to conservatism.
Jack Hunter is the official campaign blogger for GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul, and he co-wrote Rand Paul’s The Tea Party Goes to Washington. You can hear Southern Avenger commentaries on The Morning Buzz with Richard Todd on 1250 WTMA. Diehard Jack Hunter fans can also visit southernavenger.com to watch his commentary videos and read his blog.