As yet another primary election season heats up, how do we cut through the rhetoric and evaluate candidates? One sure way is to have a measuring stick based on more than personal opinion.
One such standard is the word “conservative.” I hear candidates and elected officials use it all the time. What does it really mean? In my opinion, the late Russell Kirk spelled it out better than just about anyone. This all-but-forgotten man laid out ten principles of conservative thought many seem to have forgotten. See how many you recognize.
First, conservatives believe in an enduring moral order. This concept is much broader than religious dogma. Kirk said that human nature was a constant, and moral truths were permanent. That’s not surprising considering that 94% of Americans believe in God, according to pollster George Barna. Surprisingly, Kirk said that a society in which men and women are governed by an enduring belief in moral order—by a strong sense of right and wrong—and by personal convictions about justice and honor—that would be a good society, regardless of the political machinery. Politics do not determine the trajectory of a nation—the people do. Nancy Pearcy put it well when she said that politics is downstream from culture.
Second, tradition in a culture is important and should not be tossed out on a whim. Kirk actually calls this “continuity.” What he meant is that order and justice and freedom are the result of centuries of trials and reflections and sacrifice. Change should be gradual and calculated—never undoing traditions as a knee-jerk reaction. Often times, an election cycle bring cries for “change,” but true conservatives should always be wary of change. Wary doesn’t mean completely closed to some change though. It just means “slow change.” If you look at how our bi-cameral system of government loaded with checks and balances was designed, clearly our founders thought “slow” was good. For this reason, Presidential Executive Orders should be used sparingly.
Third, conservatives adhere to Edmund Burke’s mantra that the individual is foolish, but the species is wise. Using that advice, real conservatives stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before them and look to enduring wisdom. That means not only the Ronald Reagans, but other great thinkers and statesmen beyond our lifetime like T.S. Eliot, Adam Smith, Sir Walter Scott, and of course, Burke himself. Not sure you will see any of these authors on display as you walk in your local library.
Fourth, true conservatives look at the long-term consequences of laws and policies. I fear this principle frequently gets tossed in favor of reelection. Kirk said that rushing into legislation or policies without weighing the long-term consequences will actually create new abuses in the future. We should slow down and look as far as we can into the future.
Fifth, conservatives know good and well that you can’t totally level the economic playing field, and in fact, we should not aspire for it. Robbing one taxpayer to pay another truly violates conservative thought because it is not sustainable. In our society, we have tried to make charity the government’s job, and true conservatives have to take issue with that practice. Churches and non-profits should take serious their role in culture.
Sixth, mankind is messed-up. Kirk didn’t exactly quote the Bible, but conservatives believe that because man is flawed from birth that no perfect social order can ever be created. All that we can reasonably expect, Kirk said, is a tolerably ordered, just and free society, in which evil and suffering continue to lurk. Can morality be legislated? Kirk would say that all laws are an effort to legislate morality, and that is okay.
Seventh, conservatives know that great societies are built upon the foundation of private property. We see it in the Ten Commandments. Policies that seek to redistribute wealth and property should be an anathema to the real conservative. That is one of my issues with COP21, the Paris Agreement on the reduction of climate change, and the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. Both are a form of wealth redistribution. While getting rich should not be the conservative’s chief aim, the institution of private property has been a powerful instrument for teaching responsibility, shaping integrity, creating prosperity, and providing the opportunities for people to think and act. It is the opportunity to go from rags to riches. This opportunity has given us the Truett Cathys (of Chick-fil-a fame) and others who worked their way up from nothing.
Eighth, conservatives favor smaller government at a federal level, and champion small governments such as county commissions and city councils. Decisions most affecting the lives of citizens should be made locally, and as Kirk would say, voluntarily. That is how I got started. I ran a city council race for a friend. A strong, centralized, and distant federal government tends to be more hostile to human freedom and dignity.
Ninth, the conservative believes in flattening the power—or limiting government. Real conservatives know the danger of power being vested in just a few even it is called benevolent. Constitutional restrictions are necessary, political checks and balance a must, and enforcement of the law a must—all the while balancing the claims of authority with the claims of liberty.
Finally, conservatives should be slow to change. Any thinking conservative would be resistant to hastily throwing out the old way of doing something in favor of something completely new—even in the name of “positive change.” Progress, or change, is important—for Kirk said a society would stagnate without it. Change has to be reconciled with the permanent though, and both are important.
When Kirk revised these ten principles in 1993 before his death in 1994, he said that the word “conservative” was being abused. If alive today, he probably wouldn’t be surprised that the distortion has not stopped.