Neo-, paleo-, theo-, crunchy, compassionate, fiscal, social. . . in modern America there are almost as many brands of conservatism as there are conservatives. To truly understand what a conservative believes, though, it is often more instructive to simply ask what it is they want to conserve.
In his new book, The Great Debate, Yuval Levin explores the birth of America’s Left and Right by contrasting the views of Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke. I’ve written previously on his chapter on choice vs. obligation, and in a recent appearance on EconTalk, Levin joins economist Russell Roberts to discuss these tensions further, addressing the implications for libertarians and conservatives a bit more directly.
It should first be noted that Roberts and Levin offer a dream pairing when it comes to such discussions. Roberts, a self-professed libertarian and classical liberal, offers each guest a unique level of intellectual empathy, meeting even the most vigorous intellectual opponents at their best and brightest arguments (see his discussions with Jeffrey Sachs). Likewise, Levin, while a true-and-through conservative, is not prone to the variety of anti-libertarian caricatures that predominate the Right. If we hope to uncover the actual distinctions between the two, these men are up to the task, and the historical context makes it all the more meaty. Listen to the whole thing here.
About halfway through (36:39), Roberts asks Levin directly how a libertarian might discern between Burke and Paine, admitting sympathies for both sides. Levin answers with a lengthy response, noting, first, how libertarians typically take a more Burkean approach to centralized knowledge and power:
There is a strong and important strand of libertarianism that is very Burkean, because it emphasizes especially the limits of our knowledge and the kind of skepticism about the uses of power. And so ultimately believes that power needs to be restrained because there are permanent limits on what we can do…And it inclines many libertarians to market economics and to restraints on the role of government and the power of government. And in that sense aligns them with a lot of Conservatives who think more like Burke. (more…)
From the fiscal to the familial, conservatives have the right answers, says Kevin D. Williamson:
The conservative hesitancy to put the issue of poverty at the center of our domestic economic agenda, rather than tax rates or middle-class jobs, is misguided — politically as well as substantively. Any analysis of the so-called War on Poverty, officially at the half-century mark this year, will find that the numbers are very strongly on the side of the conservative critique of the welfare state: We spend a great deal of money, achieve very little in the way of measurable positive good, and inflict a great deal of destruction on families and communities in the process. Addressing poverty in a meaningful and robust way calls for a response from every part of the conservative coalition, because we have a generation’s worth of social-science research documenting that poverty is only partially an economic phenomenon. Poverty is complexly intertwined with marriage and family, with childbearing habits, and with the prevailing norms in local communities. The cause-and-effect relationships here can be complicated, and they operate at the community level as well as the individual level: For example, poor children with married parents experience better long-term economic outcomes than do those with single parents, but the more significant variable, according to a fascinating Harvard study on the subject, is the prevalence of marriage in their communities. It matters whether a poor child has married parents, that is, but it matters even more how many of his friends and classmates have married parents. The free market is part of the solution here, but it is only a part of the solution. But whether the question is the organization of our families, the organization of our tax code, or the organization of our schools, conservatives are well-positioned to step in and do something about the mess the Left has made of things, if only conservative leaders — and, especially, Republican elected officials — were more inclined to do so.
A “liberal” then, would be a person who is open-minded, ready to listen to another point of view. “I’m not bound to any traditions; I’m open-minded. I am liberal.”
Yet, recently, liberals are showing they are as close-minded as the “conservatives” they claim have it all wrong.
For instance, Mozilla’s Brendan Eich was forced out as the company’s leader (despite the company’s strong stance on tolerance) because he had contributed to a pro-traditional marriage movement in California a few years back.
There’s more. At Swarthmore College (a liberal arts college that prides itself on its “diversity of perspectives“), a student complained about a political debate between Dr. Robert P. George, a conservative, and Dr. Cornel West, a liberal, who also happen to be friends.
In reaction to the debate, one student told the student newspaper that she was “really bothered” with “the whole idea … that at a liberal arts college we need to be hearing a diversity of opinion.”
We read the same Bible and follow the same Jesus. We go to the same churches and even agree on the same social issues. So why then do liberal and conservative evangelicals tend to disagree so often about economic issues?
To explore that question I recently wrote a series of posts explaining “What Liberal Evangelicals Should Know About the Economic Views of Conservative Evangelicals.” The posts covered 12 principles that generally drive the thinking of conservative evangelicals when it comes to economics:
1. Good intentions are often trumped by unintended consequences.
2. Our current economic and historical context must be taken into account when applying Biblical principles
3. To exploit the poor, the rich need the help of the government.
4. We love economic growth because we love babies.
5. The economy is not a zero sum game.
6. Inequality and poverty in America is more often a matter of personal choice than structural injustice.
7. The best way to compensate for structural injustice is to increase individual freedom.
8. Saddling future generations with crippling debt is immoral.
9. Social mobility — specifically getting people out of poverty — is infinitely more important than income inequality.
10. Jobs that lead to human flourishing are the most important part of a moral economy.
11. Free markets are information systems designed for virtuous people
12. Free markets are the best way to serve free people.
To make it easier to read, I’ve compiled the entire series into a single essay, which can be downloaded in PDF or text format here.
What we oppose is “the Revolution,” by which we mean the political and social system embodied in the French Revolution… What we combat, on principle and without compromise, is the attempt to totally change how a person thinks and how he lives, to change his head and his heart, his home and his country—to create a state of affairs the very opposite of what has always been believed, cherished, and confessed, and so to lead us to a complete emancipation from the sovereign claims of Almighty God.
The French Revolution was the first and most brazen attempt of this kind. Thus, like Edmund Burke, we do not hesitate to focus our attack on this monstrous Revolution. To forestall any misunderstanding, I ask only of my readers, be they adherents or opponents, to bear in mind that the enduring power of an idea is different from its fleeting expression in that one event.
As an idea, the Revolution turns everything topsy-turvy, such that what was at the bottom rises to the top and what was at the very top now moves to the bottom. In this way it severs the ties that bind us to God and his Word, in order to subject both to human criticism. Once you undermine the family by replacing it with self-chosen (often sinful) relationships, once you embrace a whole new set of ideas, rearrange your notions of morality, allow your heart to follow a new direction—once you do this the Encyclopedists will be followed by the Jacobins, the theory by the practice, because “the new humanity” requires a new world. What the philosophers, whose guilt is greater, did to your minds and hearts with pen and compass and scalpel (and would like even more boldly to do to your children) will be carried out by the heroes of the barricades with dagger, torch, and crowbar. (more…)