Wow. Kudos to John Van Hecke for asking the question on MinnPost: “What’s our progressive message?” Liberals and conservatives both need to do more of that kind of soul searching from within their respective ranks.
Unfortunately, Van Hecke spends most of his commentary ignoring his question while analyzing conservatives, a subject that is apparently unfamiliar turf. Van Hecke confuses Gov. Tim Pawlenty and his Republican supporters with conservatism, menu conservatism with principled conservatism and slogans with substance. No wonder he gives “conservatives” more credit for consistency than they deserve.
First, in no way can one equate the Republican Party and Gov. Pawlenty with conservatism. Pawlenty exhibits the conservatism of an accountant – sometimes he balances the books on the backs of working class — sometimes by penalizing productivity — but he balances the books. There’s no conservative substance there that stops him from goring the economy with global warming-driven initiatives, infecting health care with more cancerous government intervention or supporting rail transit that limits mobility and whose only measure of success will be that the trains run on time.
So, if Pawlenty and, by extension, his Republican supporters are not “conservative,” who is?
A menu-driven approach
Van Hecke takes the menu-driven approach (as do many conservatives) to answer that question. “Everyone knows the conservative message,” he writes. “No taxes, no gay marriage, no immigration, and no abortions.”
In other words, Van Hecke (and again let me stress, many menu conservatives) renders conservatism as a list of issues; one is more or less a conservative depending on how many “no” boxes one checks. Conservatism, however, is a dynamic, not static, ideology. At its core, conservatism (or better “classical liberalism”) is a principled approach to governing.
Principled conservatism starts with the fundamental, self-evident truths of individual sovereignty, respect for private property and the rule of law. Add the concept of limited government and acceptance that in a free society one sometimes has to defend the rights of others to do things one might personally find offensive, morally reprehensible, self-destructive and even stupid. Finally, a principled conservative recognizes that freedom and a government-imposed collective vision are mutually exclusive, and the conservative opts for personal freedom.
Conservatism a litany of saying no? No way
Thus, it’s not a “no,” “no,” “no,” and “no” litany that defines conservatism. Not even one’s positions on issues adequately defines one as a “conservative.” Rather, a conservative is defined by the reasoning process from first principles that he uses to arrive at his position – regardless of his visceral reaction to the outcome. Liberty will never yield a perfect society, and the perfect society cannot allow the imperfections of liberty. Conservatives accept the former and withstand progressive attempts to impose the latter.
Unlike liberals, who are most dangerous when following their fundamental belief that nations and states should have goals and objectives and a collective vision of the common good, conservatives get in trouble when they depart from their fundamental belief in a limited government protecting individual sovereignty, respect for private property and the rule of law.
Losing their grip on the realities of conservative principle and adopting progressive thinking are what turn social conservatives into theocrats (a common vision of the perfect society), national defense conservatives into neocons (a single worldwide governing philosophy) and fiscal conservatives into anti-government ranters (the liberal solution is a bad solution, consequently there isn’t a problem worth bothering about).
The dilemma for conservatives is recognizing that just because liberals are offering ineffective and inefficient solutions to manufactured crises doesn’t mean there aren’t serious problems that need addressing.
The challenge for conservatives is packaging their principles into policies, proposals and legislation that address the real problems of real people. If conservatives don’t offer market-oriented solutions in health care, education, transportation and economic development and fight for them, progressives will fill the void with “universal” and “mandatory” programs that offer pseudo-security in exchange for sacrifices in individual choice and opportunity – and pay for it all with somebody else’s labor.
Conservatives cannot afford to be philosophically smug; they must hold to their principles, but they must also subject principle to policy. Conservatives must build a policy agenda on freedom and opportunity — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that enable all Americans to participate in the economy, build wealth and enjoy real security achieved through personal accomplishment.
Conservatives ought to leave to progressives the Orwellian task of messaging “mandates” as “choices,” “serving society” as “liberty” and “pursuing the common good” as “pursuing individual happiness.” According to Van Hecke, Minnesota 2020 is feverishly working on this.
Craig Westover is a contributing columnist to the St. Paul Pioneer Press Opinion page and a senior policy fellow at the Minnesota Free Market Institute.
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