Modern day conservatism and liberalism have several contradictions which make it difficult to forge pragmatic policy based logically on either theory. Today I’ll look at the contradictions of the conservative philosophy.
Conservatism emphasizes individual freedom in a pro-forma manner but the philosophy particularly targets individual economic freedom. Conservatism professes a support for moral freedom but herein lies one of many contradictions in the philosophy. Advocating for tradition and the nuclear family, conservatives all too often prescribe moral values as part of their philosophy. Politicians in the social conservative camp thus propose laws which aim to enforce certain moral choices – in effect, curtailing moral freedom.
Conservatism champions free market capitalism as the economic structure which will give the most individual economic freedom. The haphazard to and fro of the marketplace does not promote social equality or deliver restorative justice and conservatives contend that government has no business intruding on an individual’s economic freedom in order to accomplish either of these goals. Thus conservatism maintains that all government income redistribution schemes are baseless. Here conservatism reveals its utopian roots. While liberal philosophy has utopian aims, conservatism has utopian means. In principle, free market capitalism is a sum of individual choices. In practice, the participants in a free market try to gain an economic advantage through legal or political access, thus compromising the freedom of other individuals to make choices in their own self interest. This inevitable contamination of the pure utopian model of capitalism transforms it to some degree into an income redistribution scheme.
Conservatives argue for limited government at the federal level but steadfastly propose a strong national defense, which requires more spending, more taxes and an increased intrusion by the federal government on both individuals and the separate states. Despite their professed support for individual freedom, many conservatives have supported a military draft during the past century. In addition to government’s role to protect its citizens from external threats, conservatism advocates a strong role for government to maintain an internal order. Thus, conservatives support a strong police presence, a well funded judicial administration and penal system to dissuade and punish those who make moral choices which threaten the moral and social order. Conservatives deny that any social benefits programs help maintain an internal civil order and so argue that the federal government should have no role in social welfare programs.
Who shall determine the proper moral and social order? Conservatism’s answer is majority rule but there lies another contradiction – a support for a populism which is antithetical to the founding principles of this country. Conservatives hold a well deserved regard for the original text of the Constitution as they interpret it. Yet the politicians who wrote the Constitution of this country were afraid of majority rule, regarding it as mob rule, and one of the most dangerous threats to a free people. Accordingly, they enacted political institutions and processes designed to mitigate the danger of majority rule, creating a republican form of democracy.
As an economic and political philosophy, conservatism is pro-forma anti-statist. However, the practice of conservatism requires an intrusive statist framework to enforce traditional values. In the U.S., these traditional values are based on Christian moral values as set forth in the Bible. Since the Bible contains a set of rich, all-encompassing and deeply contradictory values subject to centuries of competing interpretations, it is not surprising that any politico-economic philosophy that embraces the Bible should embody contradictory aims.
These contradictions ensure disagreement not only between conservatives and liberals but also within the ranks of conservatives.