The fact that we live in times of deep polarization in our country is well-known by everybody. Today it seems as if half of our country cannot even speak to the other half—this is unfortunate.
This past summer I served as a policy intern at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a leading conservative think tank aiming “to promote and defend liberty, personal responsibility, and free enterprise in Texas and the nation.” Here I had the opportunity to be exposed to deep, genuine conservative thought, which I found to be extremely profound and deeply rooted in many of the things valued by the Founding Fathers. I realized that there are principles conservatives are guided by that can be incredibly useful to anyone, regardless of political stances.
In this piece, I intend to share some of the lessons I learned from conservative intellectuals hoping it can be useful to whoever decides to read this and that it can serve as an encouragement for people to listen to those with whom you might have a disagreement—you have nothing to lose, but everything to gain.
Conservatives believe that there is an enduring moral order. As conservative thinker Russell Kirk says, “moral truths are permanent.” These truths are guided, both by religious faith and by philosophical principles, and are to a certain degree analogous to Plato’s Forms—abstractions of universal ideals.
The Founding Fathers implemented these truths in our political framework and upheld “the four truths” of the American Theory of Justice: all men are created equal; because they are created equal, they are endowed with inalienable rights (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and more); because these inalienable rights are precious, governments are created to protect them; therefore, it is possible to replace these governments when they fail to fulfill this duty.
These moral underpinnings are linked to the following conservative principle: be humble and recognize human imperfection. This insightful recognition really contrasts conservatives from many others. Radical groups try to discriminate between the good and the evil, for they believe that the good society will be achieved as long as the “bad guys” are neutralized. Conservatives, however, are not as prone for these simplistic assumptions of reality; they are humbled by the words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Russian novelist and Nobel laureate: “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” Nobody is immune to this fact, “even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an uprooted small corner of evil.”
Acknowledgment of the human condition’s imperfections was widespread and debated on during the very founding of America. Alexander Hamilton, however, recognized this with a twist—if humans are flawed, he would state, they should therefore be governed by the best and brightest, through an active, centralized government with greater powers over economic policy. To this argument, Thomas Jefferson would famously respond, “where do these angels come from?”
This is at the heart of conservatives’ calls for limited government. Government officials must adhere to the four truths promoted by our Founders but even the best of us can be corrupted and blinded to moral truth. To give an example, conservatives see the ever-expanding government debt not only as financially irresponsible, but most importantly as deeply immoral, for it places a heavy burden on posterity; it essentially mortgages the future for short-term gain. John Taylor of Caroline, a Jeffersonian Democrat and close friend of Thomas Jefferson, explained this moral issue simply—increasing the present public debt “taxes and enslaves future ages to enrich itself.”
As Russell Kirk stated, “we are not made for perfect things. All that we reasonably can expect is a tolerably ordered, just, and free society, in which some evils, maladjustments, and suffering will continue to lurk.”
American conservatives therefore believe in free markets and reject calls for egalitarianism. Solzhenitsyn wrote, “Human beings are born with different capacities. If they are free, they are not equal. And if they are equal they are not free.” Conservatives, like the Founding Fathers, believe in equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome. They also hold capitalism above any other economic system because of the moral requirements it places on individuals. Kirk states it best:
“For the institution of several property—that is, private property—has been a powerful instrument for teaching men and women responsibility, for providing motives to integrity, for supporting general culture, for raising mankind above the level of mere drudgery, for affording leisure to think and freedom to act. To be able to retain the fruits of one’s labor; to be able to see one’s work made permanent; to be able to bequeath one’s property to one’s posterity; to be able to rise from the natural condition of grinding poverty to the security of enduring accomplishment; to have something that is really one’s own—these are advantages difficult to deny.”
Once one has begun to understand the brilliance behind the American founding, it is hard to argue against the next conservative principle: adhere to custom, abide by precedent, be wary of change, and guide reform with prudence when change is needed. Everything new is not necessarily superior to everything old. There are valuable things our ancestors fought for in the past that are worth conserving. There is a reason America is “a beacon of freedom”— it did not come magically.
When we think about our nation’s roots, we see that the United States was really the first republic to be founded under a philosophical doctrine, which flipped the thinking behind the mainstream political systems of the time. Government, it was thought, had an innate power and could grant some of it to its people—Jefferson, Madison, and the other authors of the American system had the radical idea that it was the people who had innate power, and it was the people who would grant power to their democratically elected government.
Conservatives agree with the famous words of Sir Isaac Newton, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” They acknowledge the principles of liberty, justice, and equality before the law upheld by the founders and are guided by their successes. And when they find it necessary to depart from what was believed in the past, they seek change with caution, because when society is deemed to be “progressing” it is likely declining in other valuable aspects. As John Randolph of Roanoke claimed, “Providence moves slowly, but the devil always hurries.”
If I could sum up what I have learned from conservatives, our most important aim should be to strengthen character in the individual. Character is an imperative precondition for a free society to flourish; Lawrence W. Reed, president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) holds, “If you do not govern yourself, you will be governed,” because “liberty is built upon the ability of a society to govern itself, without government intervention.” This ability is built upon individual character.
Reed continues, “one of the strongest arguments for liberty … is the fact that it is the only social/political/economic arrangement that demands high character.” He claims that for a people to be truly free, “they must live by the highest standards of character”—namely, the universal moral truths mentioned earlier, which conservatives strive to uphold.
Therefore, regardless of political belief, conservatives can provide profound lessons for everyone to live by. We should always think about the morality of our actions, be humble about our human capabilities, learn from both the successes and failures of our ancestors, promote individual freedom, and be citizens of character.
This last point should be emphasized—we must strengthen our individual character. Part of this process requires seeking the truth, which is not possible if we do not listen to those we disagree with. Once we have a citizenry with character, we will very likely have a government that reflects it. As Reed said, “Though everyone complains about politicians who pander, perhaps they do it because we are increasingly a pander-able people.”