The first Republican debate and the onset of the 2016 presidential race have presented an opportune time for Americans to ask themselves serious questions about conservatism and its role in American politics. Several candidates have already discussed their views on conservatism at length, and almost all of the Republicans present conservatism as the core of their governing philosophy. Even in these early stages multiple candidates have already begun to criticize one another and to present their own candidacy as the true example of American conservatism at work. In such a context the primary voter is asked to judge results, and therefore it is up to us to determine the criteria of a successful candidate.
By what method or principles, then, should we as voters hold these candidates accountable? Already exchanges such as this one between Governor Chris Christie and Senator Rand Paul highlight seemingly opposite points of view over such general issues as the importance of personal privacy. Some candidates have espoused conservatism as a succinct ideal easy to grasp, while others have claimed for themselves the right to define conservatism and have done so on a basis more favorable to their background. And in almost sheer irony, current polling indicates that one candidate, who has been labeled by opponents as a “cancer to conservatism,” currently receives the majority of support from voters who themselves identify as conservative. With so much contention, whose definition of conservatism should properly inform our consciences and help us determine who is right and who is wrong? What does a legitimate conservative candidate even look like in today’s politics?
Solving these questions requires a thorough examination of American conservatism at the intellectual level; to know and recognize conservatism (and conservative candidates) we must first excavate conservatism as a governing philosophy and understand it down to its very roots. Such an examination is rare in the media world in which we typically experience the candidates, but it is nonetheless essential for judging those same candidates coherently and fairly. It is only on the basis of an examined worldview that we will see that behind many of these public disagreements lie dangerously imprecise definitions and misunderstandings concerning our country’s most cherished ideals. In reconciling these contradictions for ourselves, it is then possible that we may hold politicians to a coherent standard and reward them for adherence to a true and explicit conservatism.
In beginning such an excavation, it is prudent that we begin the work intently and directly. We should therefore begin by aiming for a thorough understanding of the deepest and most entrenched of conservative ideals: our concept of freedom. What we call freedom in a political context, often termed liberty, and our deep appreciation for it must be unearthed and inspected. We must look at political freedom squarely, examine its value and worth to us, and recognize its role and the extent to which it does and does not act as a solution for our affairs. For if we are ever to agree on a candidate, we must first agree on what we mean by freedom.
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The Roots of American Conservatism (Part 2): Libertarian Freedom and the Need to Reclaim a Conservative Understanding
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On the outset it may seem like heresy to even suggest that conservatives should reexamine their stance on freedom. What is American conservatism, after all, if not the defense of freedom itself? From the early days of the conservative movement to talking points and media output today, numerous leaders have sought to define American conservatism almost entirely if not expressly on the basis of freedom. Was it not for freedom’s sake that the founding fathers took up the struggle to establish a government independent of England? And should we not labor in defense of that same freedom as we judge the policies of American politicians today? To be conservative in America today is to answer ‘yes’ to these questions, and to be an unabashed defender of American freedom as the elixir to society's ills.
Problems arise, however, when one delves beyond rhetoric and asks what freedom truly means. This is because political freedom has been claimed as the central ideal of not only conservatives but also as that of an alternative political group known as libertarians. As I shall show, the freedom which libertarians defend is actually far more abstract than that which classical conservatives have upheld. Nonetheless, the present sharing of values under the same name of freedom causes tremendous ideological confusion in the American political landscape today.
This is because it is libertarians rather than conservatives who have done the most to build a working philosophical framework around freedom. It is libertarians who have taken conservatives’ love of freedom to what they argue is its logical extent and have applied it to as many situations as possible. And it is libertarians who claim cradle-to-grave consistency in their politics while many conservatives struggle in a seemingly endless and hypocritical maze of applying freedom in some situations and not others.
Libertarians going back to F. A. Hayek have even done much to define freedom in the way it is most often understood today – as a negative concept in the sense that it involves the absence of a particular obstacle. For Hayek and many libertarians, the particular obstacle which prevents freedom is known as coercion, defined as force utilized against an individual by another person, government, or system of control. Freedom is thus limited in any situation in which an individual is forced to act according to the plans or ends that are not of his or her own choice. The task that libertarians seek to accomplish is to limit coercion as much as possible while permitting a strictly limited use of government force. This force, they argue, is merely for safety’s sake and must be restrained along generally prescribed rules.
With government thus limited, libertarians claim that the value of negative freedom may be realized. It consists, however, neither in the satisfaction of material wants nor desires, and not even in a possible benefit to the present majority. As Hayek explains in The Constitution of Liberty, “Our faith in freedom does not rest on the foreseeable results in particular circumstances but on the belief that it will, on balance, release more forces for the good than for the bad (p28).” Freedom is thus the prerequisite for civilization’s progress in the libertarian view despite whatever violence or unpleasant forces it may unleash in the short term. Libertarians argue that the presence of negative byproducts do not counteract the validity of the claim that freedom is the proper context in which the forces of individual experimentation, imitation, and education may flourish and spur societal evolution. It is thus individualism which lies at the heart of libertarian philosophy, the belief that a healthy society needs nothing more than to do as Frederic Bastiat argued many years earlier and “…leave people alone.”
The obvious and logical question that results from this state of affairs is whether or not this definition of freedom holds true for conservatives as well. If it does, and if the value of such freedom is worth defending, then why don’t conservatives share libertarians’ complete devotion to freedom? Why are there even separate conservative and libertarian movements at all? Why not fold all freedom-lovers into the same group, and thus become both more ideologically consistent and formidable against the planners, collectivists, and anti-individualists which Hayek vehemently opposes?
It is in relation to these questions that Edmund Burke, whose understanding of freedom I will review in the next part of this series, may help us most.
 Bastiat, Frederic. The Law. p75.
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Edmund Burke, the 18th century Irish-born politician most credited with establishing political conservatism, had much to say on the topic of freedom and its role in society. Burke saw liberty as a “treasure” and regarded the task of maintaining it by way of a “jealous, ever-waking vigilance” as his first and primary duty as a statesman. In doing so, however, Burke often articulated a view of freedom that included concepts somewhat foreign to the lips of conservatives today.
To begin with, the manner in which Burke spoke of freedom typically emphasized not only its individualism but also its relational nature. In responding to a letter in 1789, Burke described “the freedom that I love and that to which I think all men entitled” as follows:
“It is not solitary, unconnected, individual, selfish Liberty. As if ever Man was to
regulate the whole of his Conduct by his own will. The Liberty I mean is social
freedom. It is that state of things in which Liberty is secured by equality of
Restraint; A Constitution of things in which the liberty of no one Man and no body
of Men and no Number of men can find Means to trespass on the liberty of any
Person or any description of Persons in the Society.”
In defining freedom in this way Burke not only anticipated Hayek’s concept of negative freedom, he also echoed the relational aspect of freedom in a manner similar to Aristotle. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle recognized that every individual choice, including those made in privacy, has a consequential effect on the life of the person making it. Since we are born into relationship and therefore to some degree naturally relational, individual freedom should forever be linked to the context of relationship. As a result all of our choices, including those made in privacy, have at the very least an indirect effect on those who care about us.
According to Aristotle, recognition of this fact does not circumvent individualism but instead allows us to truly actualize it. This is due to the fact that individualism is predicated upon the presence of others to whom a person may distinguish himself or herself. By interacting with others people may fully express themselves, a process which facilitates the discovery of true distinctiveness. In this manner Aristotle’s arguments serve to actualize true individualism even as they blur what Hayek referred to as the “equally protected sphere” of every human person.
Burke echoes Aristotle when he argues that the presence of freedom necessitates a significant restraint upon individual will, not the mere following of it, and that this restraint should originate in the care, concern, and respect for others. To truly argue on behalf of freedom and promote individualism, then, is to recognize and defend not only individual will but also humanity’s relational nature, the social reality in which true individualism is actualized, and the degree to which individual will should be restrained.
Given this understanding of freedom, what are the implications for conservatives today? To what extent should Burke’s holistic viewpoint change the way we view modern politics and fight for freedom? For answers to these questions we shall look to my next post, one in which we shall investigate Burke’s methodology for approaching politics and extract his reasoning for our own use.
 Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France, Yale University Press. p46.
 Ibid, p217.
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As previously noted, Burke’s notion of freedom anticipates elements of the negative construct of liberty that Hayek describes in The Constitution of Liberty. The contrast for Burke, then, was not so much in the proposition of an opposing ideal as it was in the placement of that ideal within the reality and context of human life. Burke’s concept of freedom may therefore be seen not so much as antagonistic to libertarian freedom as more contextual, descriptive, and less abstract. Such placement of freedom, nonetheless, has strong implications for how we as conservatives should understand and defend freedom in politics today. These implications stem from an argument that Burke made often; namely, that the application of ideals in practice tends to be far more complex and difficult than in theory.
To begin with, freedom as Burke understood it demands a responsibility to its nature, a disposition which Burke called maturity. Without this recognition, freedom may actually be far more dangerous than helpful. As Burke wrote in 1789, “Men must have a certain fund of natural moderation to qualify them for Freedom, else it become noxious to themselves and a perfect Nuisance to everybody else.” Burke again took up this train of thought in his work Reflections on the Revolution in France by asking, “But what is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint.” Thus a population with high temperaments of self-respect and esteem for others is one in which individual freedom is widely sustainable and helpful; inversely, where widespread self-destruction and hate lurk just below the surface, the move to induce freedom is an invitation to chaos.
For Burke the task of deciding precisely how mature a society is, and thus how much freedom should be permitted, is a highly difficult and complex process that should never be left up to government alone. Instead it requires a continual interplay between the people and their elected officials. Generally prescribed rules aid in this endeavor but do not fully resolve it, for as Burke argued before Parliament, “All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter. We balance inconveniences; we give and take; we remit some rights, that we may enjoy others; and we choose rater to be happy citizens, than subtle disputants.” Achieving the proper balance of rights is thus no simple or straightforward matter. It forever requires the time and persistent effort of conservative politicians as well as the informed, active electorate who would hold them accountable.
Given Burke’s understanding of descriptive freedom and its eternally unsettled nature in political affairs, what tools does Burke offer to help conservatives in the “compromise and barter” of safeguarding freedom? What virtues should facilitate and govern the ethical interplay between the members of a civilized society and their government? To ask such questions is to invite the recognition that there is more than a single root of conservatism, that individual freedom exists and grows best when it is accompanied and respected by other virtues. Fortunately, Burke provides much in the way of identifying those virtues and explaining precisely what they mean. Examining these additional roots, as we shall do in my next post, allows us to envision the full complexity of an intellectually robust, ethically sound, and politically formidable conservatism – precisely the type that should inform our politicians and voters today.
 Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France, pxix.
 Ibid, p208.
 Burke, Edmund. “Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies.” Liberty Fund, Select Works of Edmund Burke: Vol 1.
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Burke explains the nature of true statesmanship in Reflections on the Revolution in France by defining the impulse which should motivate conservatives in political affairs: “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections.” For Burke, patriotism begins with appreciation for one’s community in the sense of attachment and loyalty to one’s origins. From there local ties grow into affection for country and find their fullest expression in an obligation and love for humanity.
According to Burke, this patriotic impulse is essential for the survival of society. It breeds feelings of attachment and allows government institutions, such as law enforcement and the military, to function properly. As Burke claimed in 1775, “It is the love of the people; it is their attachment to their government, from the sense of the deep stake they have in such a glorious institution—which gives you your army and your navy, and infuses into both that liberal obedience, without which your army would be a base rabble, and your navy nothing but rotten timber.” Burke argued that politicians should also share in this patriotism rather than seek self-promotion or their own gain. As he said before Parliament, “We out to elevate our minds to the greatness of that trust to which the order of Providence has called us.”
In order to serve well, Burke argued that conservatives must add a proper education to their patriotism. Determining what is best for others is no easy task; it requires a thorough understanding of the nature of reality and its moral structure. Burke often invoked this understanding, which he referred to as natural law, when calling for the prosecution of corrupt officials. He claimed that “[we] are all born--high as well as low, governors as well as governed--in subjection to one great, immutable, pre-existing law, a law prior to all our devices and conspiracies, paramount to our feelings, by which we are connected in the eternal frame of the universe, and out of which we cannot stir.” By studying natural law, the conservative gains a healthy respect for the moral framework in which humans live and develops the ability to discern right from wrong.
To explore this morality fully, Burke argued, the conservative must dive deeply into both history and culture. “In history,” he argued, “a great volume is unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind.” The sum of these lessons, what Burke called experience, varies widely across cultures which makes close study of anthropology essential. When informed, the conservative may observe causality at work as the consequences of human choices play out over time.
Burke believed that such observation would demonstrate that many long-standing institutions contain the inherited wisdom of multiple generations. He argued that conservatives should utilize prudence and alter such institutions gradually rather than discarding them at will. In this manner innovation is encouraged when it builds upon the lessons of history and advances society; it is likewise discouraged when it repeats previously accounted failures and ignores the experience of the past. Such development Burke called prescription, the linking of past and present generations in the common goal of discovering what is good.
Given Burke’s arguments we may now succinctly outline his definition of conservatism. The conservative, according to Burke, is a person who is motivated by love of family, community, and country to serve others. He or she is a person who is deeply educated in history, culture, and ethics. From this the conservative demonstrates a deep appreciation for the mystical nature of the universe and the moral and epistemological complexities surrounding politics. Practically, the conservative seeks to utilize prudence and prescription when making decisions that affect others. The conservative is thus largely a reformer by trade, one who seeks to smoothly bridge what is best in the past with the most promising innovations of the future. As Burke himself wrote in Reflections, “A disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman.”
The final question of this outline and series, then, is does anyone in our current political climate fit Burke’s criteria of a conservative? Does anyone today truly exemplify “a disposition to preserve” and “an ability to improve?” Do you?
 Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France. p.40.
 Burke, Edmund. Select Words of Edmund Burke: Vol 1. p.288.
 Ibid. p289.
 The Speeches of the Rt. Hon. Edmund Burke (1816). p.357-358.
 Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France. p.119.
 Ibid. p.133.
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The field of Republican candidates for the 2016 presidential nomination has already been noted as formidable, but do any of the candidacies actually reflect notions of a Burkean conservatism? In previous posts I have outlined Burke’s definition of conservatism but also noted that few if any conservative leaders pay homage to his ideas or principles in modern American politics. Thus far the same has held true in the 2016 presidential race with no candidate routinely mentioning Burke as a key influence. Nonetheless, several of the Republican candidates have taken positions and articulated principles which coincide with Burke’s criteria of conservatism. In this post I shall outline several examples of this at work with my primary goal being to connect theory to politics rather than to influence anyone’s vote in the upcoming elections.
In terms of Burke’s definition of freedom—which includes an emphasis on social relationships, restraint, and mutual respect—the clearest articulation in the campaign cycle thus far occurred during this exchange between actress Ellen Page and Senator Ted Cruz. What is striking about the confrontation is not that Senator Cruz predictably defended the religious liberty of evangelicals, but that he also argued on behalf of the LGBT community. At the 3:10 mark Senator Cruz claims that, “No one has the right to force someone to abandon their faith or their conscience.” In this vein Senator Cruz calls for a limitation on the public will of members of his own faith. Freedom as Senator Cruz articulates it requires that evangelicals restrain themselves and expect limitations on their commercial rights in order to enjoy their own religious expression. Such principled restraint echoes the Aristotelian freedom staunchly defended by Burke.
While each candidate has publicly discussed their definition of patriotism, perhaps no candidate has made love of community and country more a center of their campaign than Dr. Ben Carson. Through his speeches and books, Dr. Carson has articulated a profound and resonating love of country which draws upon his own experiences growing up amid poverty and racism. The patriotism which Dr. Carson expresses is not simply unbridled nationalism but an examined and personal loyalty which recognizes not only the virtues of American culture but also its defects. Much like Burke, Dr. Carson connects his patriotism to education, as he explains in his famous National Prayer Breakfast Speech that it was his mother’s encouragement to self-educate which gave him control over his own destiny and the ability to overcome bitterness.
In a similar mindset, Senator Marco Rubio has routinely cited his family's experience with Cuban communism as reason to believe in America’s promise as well as “certain unalienable truths.” Key among these truths for Senator Rubio is the claim that human rights are gifts of God rather than products of human invention, a conviction which closely mirror’s Burke’s belief in natural law. Like Dr. Carson, Senator Rubio draws critical lessons both from his own life as well as American history as he argues that the country’s future can be guided from lessons of the past.
In terms of prudence, perhaps no candidate has applied Burke’s perspective better than businesswoman Carly Fiorina in this interview. Rather than dismissing the existence of climate change, Ms. Fiorina shifts the focus to the nature of America’s public response to the issue. She criticizes the Obama administration’s ability to manage regulation while calling for a standard of innovation which will cause less disruption to existing livelihoods. In this manner, Ms. Fiorina intertwines innovation with a Burkean responsibility to preserve what is best in present society.
Examples such as these substantiate the hope that Burkean conservatism is alive in Republican politics, even if it is primarily subconscious and operating below the surface. The full promise of Burkean conservatism offers more than these examples, however, as I have shown that the principles Burke espoused constitute a comprehensive view of statesmanship. Were they articulated properly and publicly, Burke's views could inform not only isolated political positions but America’s entire view of conservatism and the path our country should follow.
We simply need a leader bold enough to claim him.
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