What is an American Conservative?

To really flatter someone, tell him exactly what he thinks of himself. I understand that will be the case here. But there are so many people describing me and my sort, that I thought it might be a good idea to get my own thoughts on record.

Dictionary definitions are too narrow to be helpful. Conservatism is different at different times and places. Free markets and strong anti-Communism defined conservatism in the U.S. Yet as communism crumbled, free market - Ronald Reagan loving reformers were called liberals while those hanging onto communism were called conservatives. They were conserving the earlier system, but the earlier system they were conserving was not conservative. So what about American conservatism?

The Heritage Foundation defines it mission promoting the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense. The American Enterprise Institute is dedicated to preserving and strengthening the foundations of freedom--limited government, private enterprise, vital cultural and political institutions, and a strong foreign policy and national defense. On the more libertarian wing, Cato advocates traditional American principles of limited government, individual liberty, free markets and peace. You begin to see the core values.

Such values would not describe conservatives in most other places or times. America never had a feudal system or the hereditary elite that goes with it. This helps account for the anomaly that "old money", which is conservative most places is often liberal in the U.S. The free market threatens established interests, (Look at the list of the ten richest Americans and you will see how little established interests mean) and their support of the free market, and the continuous change it engenders, means American conservatives differ from a standard definition.

In keeping with the free market theme, conservatives tend to describe individual liberty as freedom from government. If government action is not NECESSARY, it is necessary for the government NOT to take action. Liberals often define rights positively in that government should guarantee certain things that make life more just or fair. Conservatives are not much interested in equal outcomes only equal opportunities.

The biggest departure of conservatives and liberals has been in the field of individual versus group rights. Conservatives have the moral high ground, but the liberals hold a rhetorical advantage. Groups have no rights. All that matters is individual behavior. If the group is over or underrepresented among those benefiting or suffering from a particular policy, assuming it is a good policy and individual rights are protected, I don't care. Liberals tend to disagree. This is the problem with affirmative action. We have the concept of individual rights conflicting with group identity.

Finally in foreign policy, conservatives believe in a more muscular stance. There are bad guys out there - violent men who need to be subdued by violent means, but I am running up against my 500-word policy, and maybe we should leave this to a future discussion.

Posted by Jack at June 22, 2005 11:46 AM