Pragmatic and Principled Conservatism

These are some scattered responses to the comments under my post, Jonathan Krohn on Conservatism. There may be some inner contradictions in what I say, but that’s why my blog is called James’ Thoughts and Musings, or, for my WordPress friends, James’ Ramblings.

1. First of all, here’s a comment by my good friend Felix:

“Thank God you have a conscience. The Republicans need to embrace Mid-20th Century Classical Liberals (Roosevelt, Truman and the Kennedys—John and Bobby) and distingu[i]sh them from the tax and spend liberals today. If they can’t do that, they deserve to be irrelevant.”

To be honest, there is a strong part of me that can’t stand FDR. I get so sick of him being portrayed as a divine sort of figure! There are times when I want to throw my remote at my TV set when I’m watching the Waltons, but my hand is stayed by the incisive conservatism of Grandma Walton. On the other hand, her criticizing that one writer for having a government job somewhat disturbed me, since that was the only job he could find! It was either that or starvation. She should have been more considerate by realizing that we don’t always choose the options that are set before us.

FDR ordered farmers to burn their crops. He put people in jail for not charging the government-mandated prices. The man was on such a power trip, that he tried to pack the U.S. Supreme Court when it declared his policies unconstitutional. What got America out of the Great Depression was the war, not the New Deal. I used to read this in outside-of-the-mainstream conservative pamphlets, but now it’s in our political discourse, as Obama tries to become the second FDR (domestically speaking).

Felix’s use of the word “irrelevant” is important because it prompts the question: Why should we be conservatives? Jonathan Krohn said in his C-PAC speech that many people confuse conservative policies with conservative principles. I’m not about to suggest that Felix is confused about anything, but I do want to propose this thought: there is a difference between believing in conservatism because it’s pragmatically sound, and embracing it out of principle.

What is believing in conservatism because it’s pragmatically sound? On Sunday, I was watching This Week on ABC (I can’t spell George’s last name), and one of the pundits referred to an article by David Frum that said Reagan’s conservative policies (e.g., tax cuts, deregulation, spending cuts) worked in the 1980’s, but they’re not exactly the best medicine for today. That says we should implement policies based on how well they work. When Felix says that the Republicans risk becoming “irrelevant,” he’s saying that they’re not speaking in a way that resonates with most of today’s voters. Some may say that a balanced federal budget is fiscally responsible because it ensures that the next generation won’t have to pay for today’s extravagance, but one can have a balanced budget and an intrusive government. Many who believe in a balanced budget want government restraint because it’s pragmatically sound.  They’re perfectly willing for the government to interfere in certain areas, as long as it does so in a cost-efficient manner.

Conservatives out of principle, however, maintain that it’s morally wrong for the federal government to be involved in certain areas. As far as they’re concerned, the feds should protect life, liberty, and property, and that’s it! Any other interference is an assault on freedom. For such conservatives, the problem with, say, Medicare is not only that it spends a lot of money. It’s that the government shouldn’t be involved in this area in the first place! And if a such a message is irrelevant, these types of conservatives would say, “Oh well!” Freedom is morally right, period, whether it resonates with the electorate or not.

I think most Republicans talk like they’re conservatives out of principle, when actually they’re conservatives out of pragmatism (if they’re even that! Bush spent money like a sailor.) They may cut food stamps or Medicaid, but they don’t aim to do away with government interference in the domestic sphere. In 1996, Bob Dole liked to quote the Tenth Amendment, which says that the powers not assigned to the federal government by the Constitution are reserved to the states and the people. But I didn’t see him try to abolish Medicare as an unconstitutional federal usurping of power.

2. Now let’s turn to someone who strikes me as a conservative out of principle, Izgad. He writes:

“There is an important distinction to be made here between the government and the private sector. The government has the ability to point blank use physical force. If you do not wish to pay a government tax or follow the law, the government can physically put you in jail. The private sector does not have this power. So, almost by definition, the private sector can never be antagonistic to liberty; it does not have the means to. If I wish to pay my workers $3 an hour and they chose to accept such a deal than, as long as I did not send my goons out to ‘convince’ them, than no one’s liberty has been violated. If I decide that I do not want to hire people because they are black, gay or have the letter Q in their names I have not violated their liberties. They never had the right to work for me in the first place. Now when the government comes after me for violating the minimum wage law and for practicing discrimination than my liberties have been violated.”

I don’t want to put words in Izgad’s mouth, and I welcome his correction if I am wrong, but he seems to be criticizing the minimum wage and anti-discrimination laws. What I’m reading here is that businesses have a right to pay what they want, to whom they want, provided the employees agree to the wage (which they do by working).

Izgad is defining liberty in a libertarian manner, one that focuses on the government as an agent of force. I guess what I’m suggesting is that freedom can also mean having choices. When a person is deprived of opportunity because he’s African-American, then his choices are being restricted, as he is hindered from pursuing his full potential. When a worker’s only two options are to work for a low wage or to starve, is that really a legitimate choice? Sure, I guess that there technically is liberty, since the government isn’t interfering, but are people truly free in this sort of set-up? Conservatives have said that the government needs to get off people’s backs so they can pursue their full potential, but can all people actually do this in a laissezfaire society?

Of course, libertarians probably have good answers to my concerns, e.g., the government encourages monopoly and hinders competition. That should certainly be on the table, since the narratives we’re used to may not be telling us the full story.

Anyway, that’s all for today. I hope I haven’t offended anybody! Just remember that I am somewhat of a “conservative by pragmatism” myself, so I’m not using that term as an insult.

Have a good day!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
This entry was posted in Political Philosophy, Politics, Television, Waltons. Bookmark the permalink.