What Are “Conservatives?”

January 2nd, 2012

By Dan Miller

We have more agreements than disagreements and should make the most of our agreements.

Elephant in a hole

The label “Liberal” has been abused to the point that it no longer has the clear and rather inclusive meaning it once had, an open and reflective mind but not an empty head. The equally simple label “Conservative” has become increasingly amorphous but in different ways. It is common to be classifiable as one or more of the conservative species without being, or accepting the ideologies of, various of the others.  There are fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, religious conservatives, libertarian conservatives and enough other varieties to produce alliances in which both agreement and disagreement are common.

Even though conservatives are united in opposing the extension of President Obama’s time in office beyond January 20, 2013, dissension among conservative voters suggests at least a remote possibility that a significant third party candidate will emerge, likely should it happen to split the vote and substantially enhance President Obama’s chances of reelection.  Even discounting the possibility of a third party candidate, there appears to be no current Republican candidate yet popular enough to generate much enthusiasm for his election should he receive the Republican nomination. Unless one emerges before November, unified opposition to President Obama – the self anointed Warrior of the Working Class – alone may well be insufficient in a close election to ensure either the election of a conservative to replace him or of a conservative Congress.

True, following President Obama’s Christmas bounce he experienced a prompt decline.

A Gallup tracking poll released Thursday showed that Obama is once again underwater, plummeting to 41 percent approval and 50 percent disapproval, a sharp drop from earlier in the week.

The trend is encouraging but it nevertheless makes more sense to assume that there will be a tight race than to become overly confident of victory.

There currently appear to be only a few substantive issues as to which there is enough dissension to ease President Obama’s way to reelection.  None of those issues are sufficiently crucial to the well being of the nation to justify that result.  Many of us desire many things but are unlikely to get them all.  I would like to be healthy, happy, well to do and twenty years younger with no loss beyond the detriments of age of what I now enjoy.  If required to choose, I would prefer happiness first, good health second and a bit of material wealth third; I would concede that riches and finding the fountain of youth are highly unlikely and settle for only the first three in moderation. We have to make similar choices in politics and the Bill Buckley rule is a good one: select, support and vote for the most conservative candidate who is likely to win.  Even a modest conservative resurgence will be far better than continuing on the present steeply downward trajectory.

The Religious Right

Many (I don’t know how many) conservatives are to varying degrees affiliated with the religious right.  Within the religious right, some consider abortion an anathema to be prohibited in all circumstance; for some, it is the main issue and few of those now seem likely to vote for anyone who favors “freedom of choice” — no matter how limited his support may be and how tepidly he may support it. Any candidate who does not promise to do everything within his authority as the President, and even to go beyond that authority to prohibit all abortions, seems likely as things now stand to receive their cold shoulders rather than their votes.

An Agnostic, I obviously am not of the religious right. I think the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade and its progeny did as well on abortion and on the authority of the states to regulate it as could have been done without unconstitutionally and otherwise undesirably transforming itself into an ecclesiastical court. In an article suggesting that Herman Cain had mumbled too much about abortion in order to please his base, I offered my perceptions of Roe v. Wade and its progeny. I also suggested what the President has the authority to do, what he lacks the authority to do and contended that the focus should be on the former.

Without a constitutional amendment (or a successful Roosevelt-like threat to pack the Supreme Court) the Congress cannot successfully prohibit abortion and neither can the President. Within the constraints of Roe v. Wade and its progeny, the regulation of abortion is principally a matter for the states. Aside from using his “bully pulpit,” the President has nothing to do with whether there is to be a constitutional amendment.  However, the President, acting administratively through the various federal agencies, can drastically reduce federal funding for abortion. The Congress can act to eliminate it altogether and the President can sign such legislation.  I am unaware of any constitutional requirement that medical procedures — including abortion as to which there is in any event no national consensus — be federally funded. Consistently with our Federalist System, the states should fund abortion or not as their citizens decide and any federal legislation mandating or prohibiting such funding should be repealed. The President can encourage the passage of appropriate federal legislation and sign it when presented to him.  To elect a president based on claims that he will do things he cannot accomplish would be worse than merely foolish; that happened in 2008 and should not be repeated this year.

Gender related issues are also important to many conservatives for religious reasons as well as to protect and promote traditional national values. The issue seems to be that although they themselves are and desire to be at liberty to behave in accordance with the religious and traditional values they hold dear, they desire legal compulsion of others disinclined to behave in the same ways.  There are some homosexual conservatives who desire to live their lives as homosexuals and for others to be free to do as they choose. In this respect at least they seem inclined toward some aspects of libertarian conservatism, dealt with below.

Some on the religious right also want voluntary prayer, most likely Christian prayer, revived in the public schools and in other public venues where now absent. They and others, not necessarily of the religious right, are also upset at the efforts of some Atheists and Agnostics to emasculate the religious significance of Christmas in public celebrations.  As I have contended here, here and elsewhere, none of our various governments, from federal to local, have a proper role in diminishing the place in Christmas of the being, real or mythical, in whose name it has historically been celebrated.  Neither of these concerns seems likely to produce many one-issue voters at the national level. Indeed, aside from abortion and gender related issues, conservative unity as to substantive matters appears to be widespread.

Social and Fiscal Conservatives

Fiscal conservatives insist that government spending be cut.  They demand real cuts, rather than paper cuts based on accounting fictions; most of the “cuts” we have seen in recent years have been in the accounting fiction category and even they have been unduly modest.  Conservatives of all stripes seem to agree that we spend far more money on government than is necessary for it to meet its legitimate responsibilities. The national debt is the highest in our history and will soon increase by another $1.2 trillion.

The Treasury Department put out word [on December 27th] … that by the close of business on [December 30] … President Obama will have certified to Congress that the National Debt is within $100 billion of the debt limit and must be raised again: up $1.2 trillion to $16.394 trillion – the highest in U.S. history.

Today’s numbers show that since the debt limit was last raised less than five months ago on August 2nd, the National Debt has soared another $648 billion.

Others, generally not conservatives, argue that instead of cuts in spending the “rich” should be taxed more.  A Democrat demand for a surtax on “millionaires and billionaires” was dropped during recent negotiations over the two month extension of a reduction in  social security withholdings from employees’ paychecks. However, the demand seems likely to be revived when the fight resumes over a full year’s extension — not necessarily because it makes economic sense but because the theater of expanded “class warfare” seems politically desirable.

[P]olls show that there’s been a clear shift in public attitudes towards tax fairness. Pew recently found that 57 percent of Americans now say the wealthy don’t pay enough in taxes, and 55 percent say the tax system is unfair. Whether that’s because of Occupy Wall Street, Obama’s jobs push, or the payroll tax cut fight, or some combination of them, is open to debate, but a shift has in fact taken place.

So another round of “class warfare” might be advisable for Dems to venture. After all, Republicans won’t hesitate from starting from a position that’s unacceptable to Democrats — more spending cuts and conditions attached to unemployment insurance, to name two. Republicans are now on record insisting that a full year extension is a must, and they’ve insisted that it be paid for. So why shouldn’t Dems stake out a hard line of their own?

Class warfare and ideology aside, perhaps some of the undeserving rich should be taxed more, even though it seems clear that any resulting increases in tax payments would be insufficient to compensate for the increasing costs of government, much less to diminish the burgeoning increases in our national debt.  There might even be consequent reductions in tax receipts to the extent that higher effective tax rates would further retard the economy and also as the “rich” manage to lower their own marginal tax rates further by additional reliance on available tax avoidance methods.

Some who have incomes of $1 million per year or more (and, of course, many who earn significantly less) do take advantage of various “loopholes” and we need substantially to reform the entire federal tax code and IRS regulations — something that has never been done comprehensively — to deal with deductions, credits and other assorted “loopholes,” business as well as individual.  Some have been in existence for far too long and have outlived whatever usefulness to the national economy they may once have had.  It will be an enormous job. The tax code merely takes up a few hard bound volumes.  The IRS regulations, not entirely based on the code, promulgated not by the Congress but by Internal Revenue Service personnel and having the force of law, consume many more volumes.  The regulations are generally in paperback form, intended to be replaced and discarded when changes are made, as often occurs, generally through accretion rather than reduction.  They required an entire bookshelf when I last looked at them more than fifteen years ago and then weighed enough that I would have had great difficulty lifting them all at once. I suspect that they have “growed like Topsy” ever since.

In addition to reforming the tax code and IRS regulations to squeeze more from the fifty-three percent who now pay all of our federal income taxes, perhaps the “undeserving poor” among the forty-seven percent who pay none should pay a bit as well.  Those who pay nothing toward the costs of running the federal government seem to have little if any interest in reducing those costs and (along with those seeking their votes every few years) insist on more “entitlements.” We already have more than enough “entitlements” and class envy.

Social and fiscal conservatives generally oppose expanding, bloating and increasingly inefficient welfare systems and other “entitlement” programs (federal and state) and want to see them diminished — fiscal conservatives qua fiscal conservatives because we can’t afford them and social conservatives qua social conservatives because they exacerbate dependence on government at all levels — individually, permanently and generationally.

Poem to welfare state

Nevertheless, according to this study few of the various Republican presidential candidates have specific proposals to cut spending.

All Republicans running for president say they want to cut federal spending.

But a study the libertarian Cato Institute conducted by analyzing the candidates’ websites showed that most of them are light on details about specific cuts they would insist on as president.

The study’s author, Tad DeHaven, wrote in his “Guide to the Presidential Candidates’ Proposals to Cut Spending” that Texas Rep. Ron Paul stands out the most.

“When it comes to proposing specific spending cuts and identifying the dollars amounts, Paul’s website is unrivaled,” DeHaven explained.

It is quite unfortunate if Dr. Paul is in fact the only candidate actually to have articulated detailed and specific proposals to reduce federal spending, because he is very contentious and is generally considered a bad choice. Discounting him, we are left with little more than hope for fiscal change unless the others soon get up to speed.

Ron Paul in a padded room

Victor Davis Hanson, one of our best conservative writers and versed in ancient and modern history, observed here that our welfare systems help governments to retain and increase their powers by “revving up [counterproductive] anger at the better-off.”

In the last three years, we have become so numb to Obama’s monotonous invective that it is now part of the national DNA: spread the wealth, fair share, fat cat, punish enemies, corporate jet owners, Super Bowl and Vegas junketeers, 1%, raise the bar, Grinch, millionaires and billionaires, at some point you’ve made enough money, no time for profit, and on and on. The subtext is always the same: the reason why, say, an orthodontist makes more than a Wal-Mart clerk is due to some sort of race, class, or gender discrimination, unfair advantage, or fatal flaw in the capitalist system, and only a technocratic elite in government retains the wisdom and morality to rectify that resulting inequality. One’s salary, then, is not quite his own, but more the collective’s — given that the professional’s good fortune results from an insidious system of exploitation from the moment he was born to the last bill he sent out for services rendered.

There have been unfortunate economic consequences.

Sometime about mid-2009 America began changing psychologically. True, to the naked eye, America retained the old hustle and bustle, but in an insidious fashion it began to think a bit differently. And that change in mentality explains in part why a year-and-a-half recession that officially ended in summer 2009 seems never to have ended at all.

In short, a sizable fraction of the upper-incomes is hesitant, defensive, unsure — and to such a degree that for a while longer it is not hiring, buying, or investing in the old way. It believes not only that there is no certainty in the tax code, the cost of new entitlements, or our national finance, but that even if there were their own successes would be suspect and earn antipathy rather than praise.

In mirror-image fashion, those of the lower incomes are likewise hesitant to take risks — unsure that the rewards of work in the private sector are all that much better than what government can offer through subsidies. The former group fears government will grow; the latter that it will not. The one suspects that Obama will confiscate more earnings; the other hopes that it will. Either way, there are fewer enterprising employers and fewer self-motivated galvanized workers.

The result of this two-front war is that America has been slowing down.

Other conservative issues

Many conservatives oppose ballooning federal interference in general with daily life, from ObamaCare to eliminating the incandescent light bulb to restrictions on school bake sales to efforts to eliminate schoolyard bullying to the taking of private property to enhance wildlife migration and many others. These initiatives, with ObamaCare at the top of the list (the Supreme Court may dispose of it but there can be no assurances that it will), are costly and will become more so as time passes unless we can change current political paradigms.

As Scott Johnson observes at Power Line,

Professor Rahe’s book Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect is one of two contemporary books that are key to understanding the Age of Obama. The other is William Voegeli’s Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State….

George Kennan gave us the doctrine of containment to hold off the imperial ambitions of the Soviet Union and Communism. We need the equivalent to hold off the imperial ambitions of the welfare state and Obamunism.  And then we need to move from containment to rollback, which is the prescription necessary to ward off Obamacare.

Note the last sentence: first containment, followed by a rollback. That bifurcated process seems to offer more realistic hopes for success than trying to do both simultaneously and immediately. Writing legislation in competent fashion takes time.

Freedom is in at least one important respect a zero sum affair: the more freedom governments have to control how we live our lives the more they control them. In consequence we, the individuals trying to live them, retain only diminishing control over our lives. The Federal Government should be forced to disgorge the freedom it has increasingly usurped to interfere with our lives where interfering is a proper function of the states; the states should use their freedoms to interfere only where what we do interferes perniciously with the abilities of others to do as they please.  I assume this to be rather a libertarian view, not universally accepted within the conservative community, some members of which desire governmental prohibition of actions not persuasively shown to harm anyone other than those engaging in them.  As I contended here, our forty year old, immensely costly, unsuccessful and counterproductive war on drugs is one example.  Some conservatives oppose some gay and lesbian freedoms.  While the institution of heterosexual marriage seems to have declined in recent years, there have been many causes having nothing to do with gay and lesbian freedoms and I am unaware of any credible evidence of declines on account of increases in such freedoms.

Only where an individual’s activities intersect perniciously with the activities of others do we need governmental intervention: if A tries to murder B, it is a proper function of government to prevent and to punish it.  These things should not be done in the silly and pernicious ways they sometimes are. The roles of federal, state and local Governments should be no greater than necessary and, at most, minimal.

There at least appears to be substantial conservative convergence in opposing crony capitalism whereby governments select and shove along toward solvency at taxpayer expense business enterprises such as Solyndra and others, the proponents of which contribute to and otherwise support the political parties currently in positions to help them.  Often, politically favored enterprises meet with little or no commercial success because technologically unsuitable and/or because the market sooner or later decides not to cooperate.  Unfortunately, the process may well continue even if President Obama leaves office in 2013. Willie Sutton robbed banks because that’s where the money was and others still rob banks for the same reason. Crony capitalism, more politely and usually without the inconvenience of criminal prosecution, takes similar paths because that’s where the money is. Still, we must find ways to diminish and perhaps even to eliminate the practice and to free the economy from its adverse consequences.

Excessive federal regulation of business in other respects is also a sore point generally, most notably expensive and economically disastrous efforts of late to limit the production and use of the carbon-based fuels upon which the national economy depends and long must. The cost of coal has increased dramatically as a result and so has the cost of electricity. Much of the regulation is based more on the religion of man-caused global climate change (previously referred to as global warming) as promoted by such Hell, fire and brimstone preachers as Al Gore and scientists hungry for grants, rather than based on economic reality and scientific facts. “Climate skeptics” are disparaged, Climate Change believers have done quite well at least until recently. Air quality per se has become merely an ancillary consideration.  “Belief” is a religious phenomenon, having no legitimate place in science or in governmental action. Belief will not even make the wind blow.

There are also widespread conservative objections to attempts by the Federal Government to diminish the rights of the states to deal with problems, recently such as immigration prohibited by federal law, as to which the Federal Government has essentially abdicated its responsibilities — often doing so with little basis in fact (as distinguished from perceptions of political advantage), to prevent state actions locally deemed necessary to deal with local problems which those temporarily in charge of the Federal Government would prefer not to have addressed meaningfully.

Foreign policy? That’s an even worse mess and fortunately beyond the scope of this already too long article. However, conservatives in general (with the exception of some of Dr. Paul’s followers) seem to agree more there than on various issues of domestic policy.

Our country has many domestic problems sufficiently serious to make the Augean stable Hercules was once called upon to muck out seem insignificant in comparison. Removing the muck and doing away with the consequences of its long accumulation and putrification will take more than one or even a few presidential terms. If we can at least begin now to focus on the long rather than short term and work together toward resolution of the worst problems first, many may be curable or at least containable. If, on the other hand,

Business as usual

we continue with “business as usual” the ultimate result will be a sad end to our once great nation.

I almost forgot. Have a Happy New Year full of more than just wishes for a better future.

NOTE: The opinions expressed herein are mine; no sane or responsible person should be blamed for them. Perhaps, however, I can claim at least some slight inspiration from articles such as this.

(This article was also posted at Dan Miller’s Blog.)

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5 Responses to “What Are “Conservatives?””

  1. larry |

    Dapper Dan, a fine article to say the least.
    I enjoyed it immensely. It was entertaining while being educational as well. My kind of conservatism is what I suppose would be the old school type. The current practice of buying into certain parts of conservatism while avoiding the rest is troubling to me. A good conservative is a complete conservative.

  2. Dan Miller |

    Many thanks, Larry. I enjoyed writing it.

  3. Tom Carter |

    Excellent piece, Dan. Doctrinaire, uncompromising conservatives are their own worst enemy these days. They cost the Republicans two or three Senate seats (including the Majority Leader) in 2010, and they’re perfectly capable of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory this year, too.

    If religion-dominated extremists on the far right succeed in nominating someone like Santorum, in all likelihood Obama will win re-election. If they show a little political intelligence and flexibility and nominate Romney, there’s a good chance he can beat Obama. Sacrificing victory on the alter of ideological purity is, at best, dumb.

    I can’t understand the view that one must adhere to every last tenet of a political philosophy — or any other philosophy, for that matter. That means that they’ve given up thinking. When asked what their view is on any issue, all they have to do is consult a list of approved positions. Why can’t a conservative be pro-choice or favor gun control or tolerate gay marriage? Why can’t a liberal favor lower taxes and spending, the death penalty, or traditional views of marriage? Thinking people work their way through issues and candidates and make informed choices. When did that go out of fashion?

  4. Dan Miller |

    Thanks, Tom

    You ask, rhetorically I assume, Why can’t a conservative be pro-choice or favor gun control or tolerate gay marriage? It all depends what you mean by those labels.

    Pro-choice? The authority of the states to regulate abortion and the limits of that regulation are pretty clear except at the margins from Roe v. Wade and its progeny. They make sense to me. The different states, within the parameters established by the Supreme Court, limit choice differently and that’s fine. Within those parameters, it should be up to the states to do as their citizens decide. Federal funding seems to be a big issue in this area. I can’t think of any requirement for such funding; if the citizens of some states want to fund abortions, that should be up to them and to those states.

    Gun-control? The Constitution requires that the right to bear arms not be abridged. The case law on what that means could likely fill volumes and the meaning is contentious. I recently read that the sale of firearms during the Christmas buying splurge set records; many who own or want them seem to feel that they need them to defend themselves, their families and property. Some gun control “nuts” would probably like to ban them altogether. Obviously, we can’t have six year old kids going to nursery school with loaded machine guns. Where is the line to be drawn, constitutionally, sensibly and amicably? Beats me.

    Gay marriage? Aside from tax and similar federal implications (and I’d like to see those implications vanish), I’d think that the authority of the states to legislate on domestic relations matters such as marriage should preempt federal legislation. However, Article IV of the Constitution requires that full faith and credit “be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State.” That appears to make a marriage lawful in state A lawful and recognizable as well in state B. The Fourteenth Amendment, under which state laws prohibiting interracial marriage have been held unconstitutional, also gets in the way. My present view is that an adult human who wants to be married to one other consenting adult human should be permitted to be so; if they can find a clergyman willing to perform the ceremony they should be able to have him perform it. Otherwise, a civil ceremony should have to suffice. Those who don’t want to associate with gay couples should not have to do so. As noted in the article, I suppose that’s pretty much a libertarian view, but so be it.

  5. Tom Carter |

    We agree on states’ rights in the broader sense — the federal government should butt out of what are clearly state prerogatives. Abortion is certainly one of those areas.

    Justice O’Connor had to reach deep into the well of rationalization to come up with a previously undiscovered right to privacy in the Constitution, then to define it as applying to abortion decisions.

    Issues like abortion and gay marriage belong to the states, to the extent that they should be subject to legislative control. It will be interesting to see how the constitutionality of DOMA is finally decided. If it’s unconstitutional, as it would seem to be, then how will those against gay marriage and in favor of states’ rights react?

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