Conservatism For the 21st Century
In one of his more famous speeches, Ronald Reagan said “Government is not the solution to our problems, government is the problem”; a quote that quite aptly sums up both his philosophy of governance and the great political struggle of the twentieth century. It’s a mantra that has often been repeated by his political heirs not only in America but across the Western world (or at least the Anglo-Saxon portion of it). The path to greater prosperity coincides with the path of greater liberty and freedom for all, the stalwart proponents of the conservative movement fiercely proclaim as a general antidote to whatever maladies afflict society as they have done in virtually every election since the Great Communicator first rode it to the White House over three decades ago.
It’s a mantra that fewer people seem keen to listen to, however. The Republicans have now decisively lost the last two elections, and only won the national popular vote outright in one of the last six. Of the current crop of contenders vying for the right to bear the party mantle into the 2016 contest, the most outspoken champion of the cause of liberty, Rand Paul, is currently polling somewhere between two percent and nowhere. Here in Canada, a near decade of Tory rule has been brought to a crashing end at the hands of a new Liberal Party that campaigned largely on a pledge to restore a more activist, heavy handed governing style; too be honest even the Harper government’s great appeal to voters was more to the tune of a boring, plodding chorus of competent management than any great serenade for individual freedom and personal license for all. It would seem that the idea of less government and more freedom as a solution to our problems is one of less and less currency amongst the populace of the world.
This should not be taken as a reproach to the principle of individual freedom; I certainly will agree with the contention that most people are perfectly able to manage their own affairs as they see fit without either the help or oversight of the state. Instead, one should look again to the above quote by Ronald Reagan, and an often overlooked and much less cited first part that “In our time [emphasis mine], government is not the solution to our problems, government is the problem”. And back in the 1980s, when Reagan first spoke those words, he was right. When you look to the great problems of that time, whether it was lines for gasoline that stretched around the block, tax rates that stretched into the 90% range, militant gravedigger unions leaving bodies unburied or uncompetitive state industries serving as a drag on the economy, an overly heavy handed approach to governance could be found at the root of many of them. By rolling back the weight of the state and freeing the individual to do as he would and reap the benefits of it, the great conservative resurgence of that time did manage to solve much of what was wrong and usher in a new age of growth and prosperity for many.
The problem, however, is that while true in the 20th century this seems much less the case in the 21st. When we survey the problems of our day and age, be they precarious employment or the looming demographic crunch or terror and instability on the world stage, it is hard to see precisely how too much government is the root cause of any of it. These are the great issues people are crying out for answers on, younger generations especially, and the public is not stupid. It is hard to imagine how greater personal liberty will do much to reverse the greying of our population and the resulting economic and fiscal problems that have accompanied it. When instead of solutions they’re simply presented with clichés and parables that bear no real connection to the challenges facing them it should surprise no one when the people turn up their nose and say “No thank you”.
That is not to argue that the progressive’s solution of ever more government is the solution. It most certainly isn’t. The danger for the right, however, is that it could easily become like any number of past-their-prime megastars simply playing the same old hits from years ago out of sheer laziness and a lack of desire to compose anything new to an ever dwindling crowd of nostalgic fans. Those looking for something else than the umpteenth re-release of the “Liberty Album: Best Hits” might very well find themselves lured over to the side of the left and big government simply because it is something different than the tried and true offerings of the right that seem to hold no relevance anymore and in doing so we risk ceding the philosophical ground to the progressives entirely.
This is not a call for moderation, but rather reinvention. The way forward for conservatism does not require a surrender of the old victories, but rather an examination of the new battles yet to be faced and a genuine attempt to develop new tactics and policies to confront them. Personal liberty under law is one very key part of the heritage and birthright of the Western world, one that conservatism has proudly championed, but still only one part of a vastly greater whole. Through the promotion of policy that embody such values as family, faith, tradition, and community the right can begin to offer solutions to the questions confronting us in the new century that stand in contrast to those of the left which essentially devolve down into the standard old fare of “government knows best” that was rejected, rightly so, all those decades ago.
Indeed, if one is looking for real life examples of such an approach look no further than the record of the late conservative government here in Canada which has increasingly been referred to by the term “ordered liberty”. Essentially, through a policy of tax credits and other positive reinforcements, this policy sought to promote behaviors and activities that would be beneficial to society as a whole while still
maximizing personal liberty and leaving the individual free to make his own choices. This light handed tactic of incentives and gentle prodding in the right direction proved to be much more effective than the old left-wing tactics of central planning and nationalization, and manages to still harness the power of both individual creativity and ingenuity and the free market.
One of the great myths about conservatism is that it is a philosophy of rigid resistance to any and all change, and that is simply untrue. From the very first days of Edmund Burke, conservatism has always accepted the inevitability, and indeed necessity, of change. Civilization is but a covenant between generations past, present and yet to be born and of course the particulars of that civilization will always evolve with time. The conservative mind, however, recognizes that change is best when allowed to form organically through the collective choices of the community as a whole and is not dictated from on high according to some a priori conception of how things should be. A conservative renaissance, which properly adjusts to face the new challenges of the time we live in, could prove to be just as monumental as the one of the preceding century. All that is needed is both the willingness and the intellectual rigor to begin developing one.