Wednesday, November 09, 2011


"Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong!"
-Steven Decatur

Politically, I describe myself as a conservative: I'm for smaller, constitutional government embracing more traditional Judeo-Christian ethics and a desire for a strong, vital national defense and an economy characterized by free market capitalism. However, in discussions with other conservatives over the years, I find that I often don't fit in very well. I think the reason for this is that while I'm politically conservative, I'm a Christian foremost, and when there's any conflict between the two, conservatism loses.

There are some areas which conservatism often falls down in, not by philosophy or ideal, but by practice and the rhetoric of conservatives. In other words, what conservatism is supposed to be, as I understand it, often isn't what it ends up in practice.

Now, as always, these are generalizations. No one on earth is completely consistent - least of all myself - and no one is flawless in their ideology. We all have variations and differences so you can't pick any one philosophy and claim it applies equally to all of a given group. But too often I find these things to be true and have to claim a difference with many conservatives.

The first and most glaring of these is greed.

Greed is the driving force behind capitalism; greed and ambition. Greed makes people want more money, more good things, more happiness, and more comfort for themselves. Its why people work hard to get a better job so they can buy nicer stuff. Its also why people embezzle, cheat, defraud, and trick the system to get more money. Greed did drive the 80s, and the decades before that, because capitalism is essentially institutionalized and structured greed.

And that greed, unrestrained by any ethical boundaries, is what leads to excesses like Bernie Madoff and Rajat K Gupta using the system to enrich themselves at the expense of others. And while greed works - and is an inextricable part of sinful human nature - that doesn't make it good. Capitalism works because it doesn't try to ignore humanity's sinful tendencies, but instead tries to channel them in ways that benefit the greatest number of people. But that breaks down, and greed is damaging unless controlled by ethics and virtue within a society as well as laws to prevent excesses.

Which is why I have a problem with how pro-corporation many conservatives often seem to be. I have nothing but contempt for enormous megacorps who want to crush everything in their path to greater profits. I despise Citi and Goldman Sachs for their bailouts and cronyism and abuse of the government and market for their benefit. I see no reason to defend some CEO who gets multi-million dollar salaries for doing multi-thousand dollar work. That doesn't mean I think the government needs to restrict salaries, but I won't stand up and defend their idiotic pay and wasteful benefits packages.

Embracing the free market and capitalism actually means opposing certain enormous corporations and their behavior. Just because something is a business and not government, just because they are a private organization engaged in capitalism doesn't make what they do right or that we should leap to their defense. Damn both them and the government for cronyism.

So I'm not entirely opposed to regulations and laws to limit greed and how people behave. The market cannot be completely free or it would rapidly pile all the cash in the hands of those with the least scruples. There have to be laws to punish fraud and protect people from predators.

And while the market may be self-correcting, it isn't completely so, and rarely in time to help people. The market may eventually eliminate a monopoly which overcharges and abuses its customers, but it will only do so after decades, if not centuries, of time in which millions suffer without recourse or hope.

For example, say Standard Oil was still the only real oil company in America, and it easily could have been even to this day by destroying any competition. In time, alternative energy may replace petroleum as our primary energy source. But not yet, and not for over 100 years. Generations come and go in that much time. People needing gas would have to go to Standard Oil for their fuel and only that company. Heating your home, driving your car, building things out of plastic, pretty much the bulk of your economy would be controlled by this one company which could charge anything it wanted to.

And make no mistake, while people cut back on how much they drive based on the price of fuel they still drive. You still have to get to work. You still have to buy products which are shipped using fuel. You still have to buy items made of and packaged in plastic. There's no escaping gas prices and nobody could do anything about it. That would be a horrible situation for everyone in the country, possibly the world, and no one could escape it.

The only remedy for this is for government to deal with monopolies and abuses, for there to be a power, subject to the people, which can address the abuses and problems the market can result in. That means the free market requires a corrective force and cannot be completely free or it begins to impinge on liberty.

And that leads to the next point, which is government interference.

Generally speaking I believe that governments must be as small and intrude as little on its citizens as possible. Liberty is best enhanced by a minimal government which allows people as much freedom to do as they wish as possible. And I believe that the US federal Government must restrain its self to constitutional limits not simply because that's the law, but because it best serves liberty. As a conservative, I believe that liberty means people have to be allowed to do stupid things, and be allowed to fail, because to prevent either means reducing their freedom and the ability of people to achieve and accomplish, to produce and grow.

However, the limitations I demand and expect from the federal government apply to the federal government, not all government. As Alexis De Tocqueville wrote so eloquently in Democracy In America, the more local and smaller government becomes, the more responsive it is to the citizen, the more accountable, and the more liberty each enjoys. Each step of government from state to county to municipal to neighborhood in my opinion can be allowed a greater power over the citizen by slight degrees because it becomes more accountable to the people under it and less able to abuse its power. In other words, what I wouldn't want the state government to do I might tolerate from the county government.

And that leads into the next point: I'm not completely opposed to every conceivable social program.

When discussing welfare with a leftist, I often will bring up the fact that federally-run welfare is horribly inefficient, prone to fraud, and poorly serves those it is meant to help. In other words, if their real interest is in helping the needy, they should oppose federal welfare, not defend it. And I'm not arguing this as a clever way to get welfare out of the federal government. I mean it.

That means that I'm not opposed to state- or local- run welfare. I think it needs to be very heavily limited and specific, that it needs to only go to the needy and only as long as they truly need it, and there must be mechanisms such as shame, time limits, and work requirements which pressure people off the system. But I believe that while federal welfare is unconstitutional and inefficient, it isn't totally wrong in concept for the state to help the absolute most needy.

For instance, it is true that the free market provides jobs and if the government would lower taxes and back off in regulations, then the economy would explode, jobs would be created, prices would lower, and inflation would be staved off. That would result in greater economic well being and opportunity for most people, meaning they wouldn't need welfare, and could stand on their own two feet.

But that doesn't work for everyone. Some people are, for various reasons, unable to enter the free market, and have no infrastructure of family and friends to rely on. Take my mom for instance. She has no job, she gets a trickle of money from her family, but none of us are wealthy and we just can't help her enough for her to survive. Without the benefits of Social Security and Veteran's administration (which she doesn't get any longer), she would not be able to make it. Or consider someone who is a paraplegic. There are many people in this sort of situation.

While the church and local charities, family, and friends can provide a safety net, that always will let people fall through. Not everyone has a church nearby, not everyone has family, not everyone can be helped by those they know. Those systems would be able to (and would) do enormously more, if the government would stop taking so much away in taxes, but the truth is, they couldn't help everyone. So limited, more local assistance is needed as a sort of coop: everyone gives in a little to help neighbors in need.

This is a basic principle of the social contract, where you sacrifice some of your liberty and resources to the community to assist everyone and in the process benefit yourself in greater security, stability, and opportunity. The problem is, the social contract only works as long as it is local. The bigger that's expected to be, the more broad and spread out it is, the poorer it works and the greater liberty you must relinquish to gain any real benefit.

So it has to be as local and small as possible to achieve any real goals with a minimum of excess liberty lost, fraud, and inefficiency. That sets me apart from conservatives who wholly and without exception totally reject any welfare or social spending at any level.

Another area I differ from many conservatives in practice at least is federalism.

This takes a variety of forms, but the most common is the use of the federal government to achieve goals. For example, I am a strong proponent of tort reform, where lawsuits and use of the court for personal monetary gain is destroying justice and the free market. Yet since most tort law is at the state level, using the federal government to implement or limit lawsuits is unconstitutional and an improper use of federal power. It has to happen at the state level.

That's not to say that the federal government can do nothing, for example class action lawsuits are usually inter-state, which involves the feds. And there are changes to federal level law that apply to lawsuits which can be addressed, but the US Congress has no legal or constitutional power to tell states how to run their courts.

I think taking drugs is idiotic and self destructive: I've seen very well and up close how it destroys lives and affects people. I have no problem in principle with outlawing particular drugs, but not at the federal level. It is unconstitutional for the federal government to - without a constitutional amendment - ban or restrict drugs used within states. They can ban, restrict, or regulate the shipping of drugs between states, but they have absolutely no power over what goes on within individual states. So if California wants to legalize PCP, they're free to do something that stupid.

And there's the idea of legislating morality. I'm not completely opposed to this concept, since almost every law on the books is based on some moral judgment. The problem with legislating morality is that you cannot legislate people into acting more moral. There is no law which will result in better people, only people who fear or are careful about committing certain acts. In fact, the more laws a society has, the more likely it is to have become immoral.

I oppose laws against sinful behavior in many cases, such as divorce, adultery, lying, homosexual behavior, disrespecting parents, blasphemy, and so on. I think its horrible for people to cheat on their spouse, but not legally actionable. I think its ethically wrong to blaspheme, but not anything the secular government has the slightest place in punishing. There are some cases which people consider morality such as abortion which is different; an unborn baby is a helpless, innocent (in terms of the law) human being and it is one of the most fundamental tasks of any and all governments to protect innocent human beings. The 14th amendment plainly states that one may not take away someone's life without legal basis.

But for the most part, many of the well-meaning social conservative ideas of new laws to stop bad behavior are wrong, ill-conceived, and destroy liberty. The way to address those problems is through a fundamental change in worldview and culture, not law.

And another problem I have with conservatives is that too often you will see a certain sort of bigotry.

I don't mean racism, although there are some on the right who are racists, but a viewpoint of life and politics which leads people to presume poorly of groups and identities. That means the presumption that anyone who is poor is that way because they're lazy. Maybe, perhaps even likely, but not always and perhaps not even often.

Conservatives are very patriotic, but sometimes they take it a bit too far. America has done some terrible things in the past and to this day does things around the world I find wrong or reprehensible. America isn't the greatest place on earth, and it isn't God's promised land. I love my country and would prefer to live her over anywhere else. I think that there are many aspects of the United States which are superior to any other country, but there are aspects of other nations I wish the US was more like.

Further, the things about other nations which annoy me don't necessarily apply to everyone in that nation or everywhere in it. France, for instance, is often very annoying, but that is primarily the government of France and big cities, such as Paris. I wouldn't want French people to judge my home town by San Francisco or Manhattan. In my limited experience of traveling to other nations, I've found the people warm, friendly, and decent, just folks like back home.

And the final area I differ from many conservatives is that I have been raised to be more environmentally conscious. I got our church to start recycling paper, I clean up trash I find when I travel around in Oregon and in town. I think alternative energy would be great - when it works. I want to cut back pollution and clean up where we live. I love parks and public lands, I love wilderness areas. And too often conservatives can act as if the environment is something we trash on the road to riches, mocking recycling and ignoring pollution to the point of celebrating it as prosperity.

I know a lot of this is done as an exasperated response to leftist extremes, such as a love of SUVs and deliberately not separating trash. I know that not every conservative is as strong on issues when they get into an argument as they can sound - nor is every leftist for that matter. But there are some subtle differences in conservatism from where they sit and where I do, and it seemed prudent to me to make those clear.

*UPDATE: Oh yeah one more thing: Republicans. Conservatives tend to complain about how lousy Republicans are and yet vote for them as a solid bloc. They'll push the GOP candidate no matter who so a Democrat won't win. They'll vote for the Republican no matter how ugly and awful, promote and even donate to them just to get an R in that office, even if they aren't really any different than a Democrat.

Now sometimes I'll push for that (for example, I pushed hard for President Bush in 2004, because we were in the middle of a war and Kerry would mess it all up), and I'll tend to vote Republican, but only if the R is superior to the D. Generally speaking a conservative will tend to side with a Republican far more often than a Democrat, but not always, and if a Republican is just not conservative, why support them simply because they're not a Democrat? I've voted Democrat, libertarian, and other parties in the past over the Republican because he's been too much a bozo or too leftist to support.

**UPDATE: Israel. That's another divide between me and some, if not many conservatives. I sympathize with Israel's plight, a sliver of a nation surrounded by enemies sworn to their destruction. They seem to have no friends anywhere these days.

The problem is, the US Constitution does not permit the government to send money to other nations. It doesn't matter why the money goes there. It doesn't matter where the money goes. It is unconstitutional to take taxpayer funds and hand it to another country, for any reason, under any circumstances, in any situation. Ever. I think Israel is worth helping, but the federal government is powerless to do so.

That's up to private citizens, even states if they choose. And that's how it should be, because the federal government of the United States is to protect and serve its own citizens. Taking people's property away for other nations is a basic violation of the right to property enshrined in the declaration of independence. And its not just Israel, its any nation. If Tuvalu is washed out to sea by a Tsunami, that's a horrible tragedy, and the people of the United States are free to send as much aid as they can but the federal government is not allowed to do so. Using military for aid is another matter, but just pouring money into them - even through the UN - is simply unconstitutional.

Don't like it? Get an amendment going. Don't just ignore the constitution.


Eric said...

In spite of my more libertarian leanings, we're really not so far apart.

Although, I'm fairly libertarian at the local level as well... I recently was asked by our city council if I'd be interested in being on the local zoning commission. I told them I'd be happy to be on the zoning board but they should know I was never in a million years going to vote to fine somebody for building any kind of structure they wanted on their own property, no matter how godawful ugly it may be, even if they didn't ask permission first, as long as it didn't endanger their neighbors. Surprisingly I never heard back from them after that.

Our Founding Truth said...


Law does precisely that. It makes people obey the law. Only faith in Jesus Christ's work on the Cross that atones for our sins can truly give peace in the heart, to abide in the Law and Gospel.

Since the Dem platform is blatantly pro-homosexual and pro-murder by abortion, Christians should not go near it.

Our Founding Truth said...

I would like you to post on my blog. Let me know what you think.

In the Lord

MlR said...

This is a very thoughtful post Christopher.

Frankly, I think many of your positions used to be fairly standard American interpretations of the constitution and capitalism. Frankly, the Conservative movement's gone wayward from its legacy just as America as a whole has over the past century.

And speaking as a libertarian, the decline in the traditional American view of federalism and the decreased focus on local rule caused incredible harm to both American politics and the anti-progressive coalition, in the sense that it crippled the ability for a country that holds many diverse views to live peacefully alongside each other under different, but nevertheless locally accepted moral and political orders. A re-emphasis on true federalism would also greatly relax again many of the supposed contradictions in the conservative movement. But I doubt it will happen because politicians in both parties are perfectly happy lording over the rest of the country from Washington.