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Book Review of Weyrich and Lind, The Next Conservatism
Paul M. Weyrich & William S. Lind, The Next Conservatism (South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 2009)
In a column he wrote on the day he died at the age of 66 in December, 2008, Paul Weyrich wrote, “It is the worst of times because conservatives appear lost and without a serious agenda or a means of explaining such an agenda to the Public. It is the best of times because … the Next Conservatism .. should ignite a meaningful debate about the future.” This review joins that debate.
The simplest way to define conservatism is that it is the policy of preserving institutions and policies that are good and resisting changes that are bad. Some environmentalists consider themselves conservatives, wanting to retain nature in its pristine form wherever it can. At the same time, they want to roll back man’s intrusions into that pristine environment. There is cultural conservatism that wants to preserve Judeo-Christian religious values and beliefs and rejects challenges that weaken such values and beliefs. Then there is political conservatism which wants to preserve the policies that have made the U.S. powerful, our constitution and the free market that have enabled our economy to innovate and create the highest living standards in the world.
The “next conservatism” includes most of the social and political positions of the old conservatism. It opposes abortion but the authors would not make abortion illegal. It supports traditional marriage. It advocates lower marginal tax rates and reduced government spending and a balanced budget. It advocates a strong national defense. It wants better control of our borders and wants English to be the only official language. These old goals remain important but there are new challenges, they believe, that require changes which they call the “next conservatism.”
The “next conservatism” must deal not only with dangers by the state but dangers to the state. The dangers by the state, we agree, are constant. The continuing growth of government and weakening of the constitutional restraints on government’s growing intervention in the economy require strong action by conservatives. But we disagree fighting terrorists poses a threat to our liberties. They ask, “What indignities will we have to undergo to get on an airplane after the first terrorist employs an explosive suppository.” [How prescient!] But we believe the greater danger is from those who want to extend our civil rights to enemy terrorists and try them in our civil courts. In our view, they should have no right to trial or release until the war is over; in this case, the war on terror. As for invasion of our privacy and civil liberties believed by the government to be necessary to expose and fight terrorism, conservatives can argue against the abuse of the information collected, i.e., using it for purposes other than the war on terror.
The authors rightly ascribe many societal ills to multi-culturalism which equates good cultures and bad ones. It equates a culture based on Judea-Christian values with voodooism; it equates an economy that brought hundreds of millions of people out of poverty with one with communist-fascist values that murdered tens of millions and impoverished hundreds of millions on its way to failure. They believe there is a need for “retroculture,” restoration of Judeo-Christian culture to counteract cultural conservatism. Conservatism they write is a way of life, not ideology. We believe that conservatism is essential both to progress and stability.
They argue that we need to substitute conservation for environmentalism, conservatives should support family farms, farmers’ markets, and organic farming, that conservatives should be against autos and favor trolleys. We believe that none of the foregoing are a matter of conservatism. All of these have to justify themselves. Conservatives should ask, “Do these require a government subsidy to sustain themselves?” If so, there have to be other reasons why taxpayers should support them. We do not see a conservative position on conservation versus environmentalism. Any government policy must justify itself by an evaluation of all its benefits and costs. These need not be monetary, but social benefits should not be overvalued.
They argue against foreign wars and adventures. They write that we cannot force democracy on the rest of the world. But there are some just wars, World War II for example. They argue that our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were wrong. Some of those advancing that argument approved of our invasion of Kosovo and the bombardment of Bosnia. These are all political, not conservative decisions. The conservative position is don’t go to war unless you can win it at a justifiable cost and your reason for going must meet the test of the first conservative principle: conserve what is good and be careful about what you change.
They reject the national security state, as represented by the Patriot Act enacted after 9-11which increased the ability of law enforcement agencies to search telephone, e-mail communications, and financial records and gave law enforcement authorities the power to detain immigrants suspected of terrorism-related acts. How far the state should go domestically in fighting its foreign and domestic enemies is a policy issue that has to do with survival. We believe that this is not a conservative vs. leftist issue.
The ACLU position appears to be that even terrorists are entitled to civil rights. The authors do not go that far but believe conservatives should oppose invasion of the privacy of Americans. Pres. Lincoln suspended the right of habeas corpus. His action is still being debated. Fortunately for him (and the country), the Union won the war. What if we lose the war on terror? We would lose all our rights, including the right to speak English!
They appear to be for term limits, for referendum, initiative, and recall, and a level playing field for elections. In our opinion, these often run counter to conservative values. Sometimes, they achieve results that conservatives support. But they are not intrinsically conservative values. We believe that the essence of government in the U.S. is that it is a republic, that our representatives make the laws.
They believe our failure to achieve conservative values may force conservatives to secede and create our own homogenous islands like the home-schoolers, the Amish, and so on. We understand homeschoolers wanting to avoid the brain-washing of the multi-culturists and the Amish wanting to preserve their culture, but that is no solution to the national need to promote conservative values for the preservation of the United States.
We are in full agreement with their position on international trade. They write:
If economic efficiency means, for example, that America should send all its manufacturing jobs overseas, as free trade seems to demand, the next conservatism should not say, “Oh, well, I guess we have to go along with it.” Better we toss our sabots into free trade’s grinding gears. Economic security requires that people be able to get good-paying jobs, which means manufacturing jobs.
As economists, we maintain that nothing in economic theory justifies the foolish unilateral free trade policy we’ve followed the past three decades which cost millions of industrial workers their good-paying jobs, caused the wages of American workers to stagnate, worsened the distribution of income, and contributed to the current recession. That is the case we made in our book, Trading Away Our Future (Pittsburgh, PA., Ideal Taxes Association, 2008)
On the other hand, we take exception to their approval of “a new infrastructure of bus routes, streetcar line, electric interurban railways,” as a means of freeing America from dependence on foreign oil. The environmental extremists say the same but they are not conservatives. Let the free market and freely fluctuating prices decide which mode of transportation is most efficient and let American households and businesses decide for themselves. The authors are on a slippery slope here.
We believe we have plenty of domestic energy resources but the man-made climate change environmentalists have been successful in preventing the successful exploitation of our oil and gas reserves and nuclear energy production. Eventually we shall begin to run-out of fossil fuels and the ensuing rise in prices will encourage the exploitation of alternative fuel sources. But to do it prematurely is like building an apartment building and keeping it vacant for fifty years.
They argue for tort reform and so do we, and not only because it increases the cost of health care. Our opposition is based on the fact that juries are awarding punitive damages to plaintiffs. But punishment should be decided in a criminal proceeding with the fine paid into the government treasury, not into the pockets of the plaintiff. Civil proceedings should be based upon the principle of fairness, and should not involve punishment.
Weyrich and Lind have opened a debate that should be joined by all who consider themselves conservatives. They have put forward a number of arguments that conservatism has to change to meet the changing conditions that our country faces. They have suggested changes they call the “next conservatism.” Some are true conservative principles but others are policy issues that need to be evaluated based upon a careful analysis of the costs and benefits.
True conservatism never changes. It is the system of thought that tells us that the past has much to teach us about the present. It is the study of the good forces that have contributed to human well-being and of the bad forces that have been harmful. Conservatism doesn't provide all of the answers. Often we must engage in a careful analysis of the costs and benefits of a policy action, including the unintended consequences. But conservatism allows us to conserve what is good in the world, and fight what it is evil.
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