Original artwork by Marisa Draeger
“The conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions.” Russell Kirk – Ten Conservative Principles
For much of human history the only glue that held societies together was the ever-present threat that those who sowed discord risked simplistic, excessive punishment from the ruling tyrant or, having escaped that, eternal damnation of their soul in the afterlife. Subversion was dealt with in ways we would today describe as barbaric, sickening, and needlessly violent.
Yet apart from these drastic measures societies often descend into anarchy in which the weak fell prey to the strong. And anarchy—the least tolerable of all possible societies—doesn’t last long as the masses seek a ruler who, at the very least, offer something better than The Walking Dead meets reality TV. The dilemma for those who would seek to throw off the shackles of an oppressive government then is how to remove the oppressive constrains of government without falling victim to the uninhibited and unleashed appetites of your fellow citizens.
The twin villains of Anarchy Man and the Dr Despot took turns plaguing humanity until Captain Conservative bravely arrived on the scene to save the day. Using classical liberal ideas from the Enlightenment, coupled with a culture held in check by its Judeo-Christian heritage, Captain Conservative maintained what had previously never held together for long: a society of both liberty and order.
Captain Conservative had three weapons at his disposal to vanquish Anarchy Man and Dr Despot. And while societies and humans change so that these weapons need upgrading from time to time, the basic nuts and bolts of the weapons are just as much the same. Foremost in Captain Conservative’s arsenal was his trusty Limitation Ray.
As we saw in Part 3, the conservative wants a limited government, not a weak government. But what does it mean for a government to be limited? It means that the government is only empowered to preform the functions that are appropriate for a government to perform, and no more. If it’s appropriate for a government to regulate widgets, the conservative says the government should be adequately funded and empowered to optimally regulate widgets. But if that’s not an appropriate function of government, then no funding or authorization should be provided whatsoever.
This, of course, begs a further question: what are the appropriate functions of government? And here is where there is much disagreement not only between competing worldviews, but within the ranks of those who would call themselves conservatives. (And for this reason, I am only going to present some general guidelines in the remainder of the post. For though I may have my own personal opinions about what is or is not an appropriate function of government, these posts are chiefly about what conservatives believe, not what Josh believes.)
The preamble to the United States Constitution begins thusly:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
While conservatives may differ on the nuances of phrases like “promote the general Welfare” they generally hold that the appropriate function of government—or at least the Federal government—is outlined in this single sentence. The ending of the original Constitution provides further clarification: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Strict constitutionalists have interpreted this to mean that the Federal government should only do the things explicitly mentioned in the Constitution.
However, the notion that government is best which governs least isn’t true for the conservative in an absolute sense. Captain Conservative’s Limitation Ray is designed to limit government, not liquidate it, and conservative politics are chiefly about prudence and circumstance, not radical ideology and philosophy. There is no perfect formula for precisely what a government should be doing; which explains, in part, why even our Constitution offers seemingly vague guidance on the matter. One gets a sense reading over the preamble that the Federal government is to be limited, but the details are left to future legislators to mull over and debate.
A more conservative standard might be something like that government is best which governs least under the circumstances of national stability, foreign threats, civic character, etcetera. What Captain Conservative lacks in pithy comebacks he makes up for in the politics of practicality.
The more government is limited to its core functions, the more accountable it becomes and the more liberty can flourish. “The Conservative looks upon politics as the art of achieving the maximum amount of freedom for individuals that is consistent with the maintenance of social order: it is impossible for one man to be free if another is able to deny him the exercise of his freedom,” wrote Barry Goldwater in The Conscience of a Conservative. “The legitimate functions of government are actually conducive to freedom. Maintaining internal order, keeping foreign foes at bay, administering justice, removing obstacles to the free interchange of goods—the exercise of these powers makes it possible for men to follow their chosen pursuits with maximum freedom.”
While the Limitation Ray works to shrink a monstrous government, there is a point at which too small a government allows others monsters to frolic fearlessly such as the exploitation of individuals and resources, public discord, and mass confusion. Economist Thomas Sowell used the lowly mud flap to illustrate this point:
“Even if everyone agrees that the benefits of mud flaps greatly exceed their costs, there is no feasible way of buying these benefits in a free market, since you receive no benefits from the mud flaps that you buy and put on your own car, but only from mud flaps that other people buy and put on their cars and trucks…it is possible to obtain collectively through government what cannot be obtained individually through the marketplace, simply by having laws passed requiring all cars and trucks to have mud flaps on them…There are things that government can do more effectively than individuals because external costs or external benefits make individual decisions, based on individual interests, a less effective way of weighing costs and benefits to the whole society.”
The balancing act between individual liberty and the greater good is much like balancing our broccoli and chocolate intake: both can be beneficial for you in certain quantities and harmful at excessive quantities. But we rarely need reminding about the side effects of overindulging in broccoli, whereas entire support groups exist for those struggling with chocolate addiction. The momentum is always bent towards demanding government involvement for the visible greater good and not the barely visible and widely dispersed liberties of the individual.
“While externalities are a serious consideration in determining the role of government, they do not simply provide a blanket justification or a magic word which automatically allows economics to be ignored and politically attractive goals to be pursued without further ado.” Sowell later warns, “Both the incentives of the market and the incentives of politics must be weighed when choosing between them on any particular issue.”
Captain Conservative shudders when a populist nemesis such as the more radical elements of the Tea Party or Trumplicans apply their Simplistic Shrinker to the government. For the populist looks for the most simplistic answers in governing, which tend towards the easier route of more government (even as the populists claims they’ve shrunk government.) True statecraft requires diligent work and tremendous practical wisdom to carefully limit the role of government to a safe yet effective level.
Perhaps no where is this more certain than in foreign policy. Political commentator Irving Kristol observed a lack of coherent policies that could eternally be relied upon when it came to the nation’s foreign affairs:
“Western political thought has very little to say about foreign policy. From Thucydides to our own time, political philosophy has seen foreign affairs so radically affected by contingency, fortune, and fate as to leave little room for speculative enlightenment. John Locke was fertile in suggestions for the establishment and maintenance of good government, but when it came to foreign affairs he pretty much threw up his hands: ‘What is to be done in reference to foreigners, depending much upon their actions and the variation of designs and interests, must be left in great part to the prudence of those who have this power committed to them, to be managed by the best of their skill for the advantage of the Commonwealth.’”
Captain Conservative isn’t nearly as “purist” about how things were done back in the day as some libertarians and others on the Right. As this spirited debate between William F Buckley and Ron Paul shows, the conservative view is that changing circumstance must always be considered when considering the proper role of covert operations against a foreign threat. If a proper function of government is to defend and protect, that role will naturally expand or contract based on the perceived level and type of threats.
Traditionally, the Federal government was responsible for the military, interstate commerce, foreign relations, the money supply, and a few sundry items we won’t be delving into here. This bare minimum has been greatly expanded upon through the centuries to arrive at the point the Federal government has a say in the light bulbs you use.
Government is in the business of forcing people to do what they otherwise wouldn’t do. And that is a powerful and potentially pernicious force that should be used sparingly. Russell Kirk admonished that “government is intended to provide for our wants and enforce our duties. It is not a toy to manipulate according to our vanities and ambitions.” While it is true that time and circumstance may alter what level of governmental authority is appropriate, it is also true that changes in government tend to only move in one direction; that is, governments are fairly easy to grow and extremely difficult to shrink.
One of the biggest reasons for this is that the moment government expands its reach, it immediately and inadvertently creates a special interest dedicated to the preservation of the government’s new authority. With each added layer of bureaucracy comes added governmental employees, legislative and executive overseers, business contractors, lobbyists, and sympathetic citizens armed to the teeth with charts and graphs and data and testimonials about what terrible, awful things would happen if their authority were suddenly limited.
Captain Conservative’s Limitation Ray isn’t always popular, but it is a powerful weapon against government abuses. But this is only the first of three weapons in Captain Conservative’s arsenal. In Part 5 we’ll turn to the second.