Modern usage of “conservative” usually connotes support for a particular set of political positions, most of which are pillars of GOP platforms. I support many of them: decentralized power, ending racial preferences, entitlement reform, federalism, free enterprise, personal responsibility, and strong national defense.
However, I also support abolishing the death penalty, abortion rights, legal status for illegal immigrants, Common Core education standards, de-criminalizing marijuana, gay marriage, gun control, tax increases and universal healthcare. So how can I call myself conservative and why do I?
Conservatism is more of an approach to or attitude about government and how to balance goals like liberty and order to produce the best society realistically possible. This kind of conservatism’s intellectual pedigree begins with Plato, Aristotle, Cicero and St. Thomas Aquinas. It continues through Edmund Burke, John Adams and Alexis de Tocqueville, among others.
In his classic 1953 book “The Conservative Mind,” Russell Kirk distilled conservatism’s essence down to six “first principles.” Among them, “conservatives generally believe that there exists a transcendent moral order,” and they “uphold the principle of social continuity” because “order, justice and freedom … are the artificial products of a long and painful social experience, the results of centuries of trial and reflection and sacrifice.”
Changes should be adopted with “prudence,” and “any public measure ought to be gaged by its probable long-run consequences, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity.”
Because our differences are a strength, Kirk wrote, conservatives “feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life.” The preservation of healthy societal diversity may require “orders and classes, differences in material condition, and many sorts of inequality.”
And because humans are imperfect, conservatives believe “no perfect social order can ever be created” and “to aim for utopia is to end in disaster.”
Burke acknowledged prudent change as the means of societal preservation. So one can self-identify as a conservative in this sense while taking policy positions that sometimes depart from what is considered current conservative orthodoxy.
The death penalty may not be immoral or unconstitutional, but as a practical matter it does not deter, is incredibly expensive, can be discriminatory, and risks executing innocent people.
The Supreme Court made a big mistake in creating a constitutional right to abortion, but letting the states handle the issue differently and having limits even where abortion is legal make sense.
Amnesty short of citizenship for illegal immigrants may be an appropriate part of an approach that first secures the borders, expands e-verify, truly tracks visas, and really reforms legal immigration.
Obamacare is a bad and bureaucratic path, but universal healthcare is a worthy goal.
The Common Core education standards are not curricula, were created by the states (although the Obama administration tainted the effort by offering federal money to encourage their adoption), and are better than the erratic, ineffective and weak state standards that preceded them.
De-criminalization of marijuana makes sense given our alcohol laws, limited law enforcement resources, and prison populations.
Gay marriage as a product of democratic processes rather than judicial imposition is fair and will help preserve the institution of marriage.
Tougher gun laws and more mental health options are absolute necessities to tackle the carnage that has become commonplace.
A well-conceived carbon tax could make environmental, fiscal and public health sense.
Some tax increases coupled with entitlement reform as proposed in the Bowles-Simpson plan could be a commonsense compromise for responsibly dealing with the country’s deficit and debt death spiral.
None of these positions is inherently “un-conservative” in the Burke/Kirk sense of the word.
John David Dyche is a commentator for WDRB.com.