“[S]olutions do not adhere neatly to liberal or conservative agendas. The left has, in the past, overemphasised the ability of the government to achieve change. The right, mistrustful of state intervention and too convinced that a free market will automatically bring universal well-being, has done little creative thinking.” The best way to eradicate poverty in America is to focus on children The Economist, September 26, 2019
“Donald Trump is not a conservative. He’s not a traditionalist, institutionalist, or incrementalist. He’s not a free-trader. He’s openly hostile to meritocracy, accountability, and the rule of law. He does not advocate for smaller government or smaller deficits. His views on free expression, privacy, and due process are frighteningly authoritarian…I think it’s still an open question of whether Republicans will bring ideas back to politics…” George Will quoted in George Will: Conservatives Would Win if Trump Loses by Scott Porch/ The Daily Beast, September 22, 2019
By no mean are American conservatives a monolithic lot, but as a whole they do tend to appreciate the following principles:
Liberty: “the exercise of the natural rights of every man or woman has no bounds other than those that guarantee other members of society the enjoyment of these same rights” (Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen). The principle of liberty leads directly to the ideal of limited government.
Equality: “wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another” (John Locke, Second Treatise of Government). According to the principle of equality, each person must be treated equally before the law and everyone is subject to the same laws of justice, including due process. The focus here is on the person as an individual, not as member of a group.
Spirit of Community: The spirit of community establishes a moral obligation linking the individual to the community. The community exists on multiple levels, from church to town to country, but the basic attitude is the same: we’re all in this together.
Institutionalism: an affection for long-established social institutions, which keeps in check humanity’s anarchic impulse. From an institutionalist point of view, calls for “structural change” are an invitation to chaos followed by authoritarian measures to maintain order.
Incrementalism: Order, justice and freedom are “products of a long social experience, the result of centuries of trial and reflection and sacrifice”. Necessary change “ought to be gradual and discriminatory, never unfixing old interests at once…The conservative declares that he acts only after sufficient reflection, having weighed the consequences. Sudden and slashing reforms are as perilous as sudden and slashing surgery.” (Russell Kirk, Ten Conservative Principles)
Problem is, an abundance of caution often leads to an excess of timidity and inaction. Sometimes sudden surgery is just what the patient needs. But good surgeons aren’t reckless: they cut with care. They use surgical checklists to avoid medical errors and achieve the best outcomes. They constantly monitor the patient’s condition, adjusting their movements and procedures as necessary. In other words, good surgeons aren’t hostage to their initial assumptions and plans. They are open to new information, make sure they have safeguards in place to avoid mistakes, and self-correct as needed.
Likewise, good policymakers. Mindful of costs, trade-offs, and the possibility of unintended consequences, good policymakers establish procedures to closely monitor policy outcomes and are willing to change course should those outcomes disappoint. They don’t approach policies as the “right thing to do” but as a possible means to achieve specific goals. They make sure what they’re trying to achieve is quantifiable so that progress can be measured and tracked. Good policymakers consider the political implications of policies and avoid policies that would be hard to “walk back” due to the resistance of powerful interest groups.
There is no reason conservatives can’t embrace goals like universal healthcare, affordable housing, elimination of poverty, or increased social mobility. With the above safeguards in place, they may go forth and advance bold policy initiatives without violating their core principles.
Adult Student Basic Income! Housing for the Homeless! Affordable Universal Healthcare! Parental Leave! These may not have been doable or desirable in the 18th century, but times have changed. Time for conservatives to update their algorithms.