Conservatives need to rediscover their core beliefs

Part I

Do you ever ask yourself if you are a Conservative? Do you think like a Conservative?

Many of us view ourselves as Conservatives because of our perspectives on taxes or the size of government. For example, if “I” am against raising taxes, I am probably a Conservative. If “I” am against expanding government, I am probably a Conservative.

But true Conservatives adhere to a very specific set of core principles that can be precisely delineated and from which other “conservative points of view “ originate. These same core beliefs reflect the thinking of our Founding Fathers as they carefully crafted a new Constitution for our young republic.

These are the core principles of Conservatism:

* A dedication to individual liberty and the primacy of the individual,
* A government dedicated to the rule of law (starting but not ending with strict interpretation of our Constitution based on the original intent of the Founders),
* A no-compromise stance in defense of our most fundamental rights with particular focus on our First and Second Amendment rights, and
* An insistence that government violations of our property rights be substantially reduced through a radical reform of our tax laws.

These four basic principles must serve as the rigorous foundation upon which decisions are made on other, less fundamental, but still important issues. Such matters dominate the daily political babble, but rarely are they coherently tied to essential principles. 

It is not news that Conservatives have failed to rein in the expansion of government power. In fact, they have been a major contributor to that expansion. Now, those who believe in the classical liberalism of our Founding Fathers need to re-build the Conservative movement from the ground up. Conservatives must either reach a consensus on core principles, or just splinter and go their own ways.

To fully embrace the first and most basic principle of Conservatism logically compels acceptance of the others that follow. Conservatives and Liberals break ranks on the first test:

1. Conservatives, first and foremost, believe in individual liberty.

This is a fundamental distinguishing characteristic. Liberals believe in the primacy of the state (it takes a village or a commune) while Conservatives believe that the only excuse for the existence of the state is to protect individual rights. The state is established to protect the individual, not to be our master.

When we speak of individual rights, the modifier “individual” is redundant. Only individuals have rights. When we say, “We have this right” or “We have that right,” we mean that we have those rights as individuals.

Members of groups such as “the poor,” or “the disabled,” or “immigrants,” or those of a particular race or gender or sexual preference, derive no additional rights because of their membership status. They have their rights as individuals, period.

Conservatives often debate the source of our rights. Religious Conservatives believe that our rights are God-given. In support of this position they quote scripture or religious statements made by our Founding Fathers.

I happen to think individuals have rights derived from our nature as human beings, independent of any religious explanation. But the fact is that the source of our rights, while an interesting intellectual topic, is not politically relevant. All that matters is whether we have them.

I am perfectly comfortable holding hands with religious Conservatives who share my belief in individual liberty, and they should feel just as comfortable with me. Whether our rights come from a bolt of lightning or from the nature of man, we can fight side-by-side to protect those rights. The next day I can go fishing while my religious brethren can go to church and pray. We are both free from the steel boot of government; that is all that matters politically.

So what is the next test of Conservatism?  It amounts to this: A Conservative’s belief in individual liberty must have substance.

You can’t claim to believe in individual liberty while supporting policies that let the government trample people’s rights. A necessary condition, if our rights are to be secure, is that we live in a society based on the rule of law.

Our Founding Fathers did a pretty good job of putting the necessary institutions in place to protect our liberties. They gave us a constitutional republic with limited powers having three branches of government. Each branch was assigned its own function (separation of powers), and checks and balances were put in place to ensure that one branch of government did not run roughshod over the others or the citizenry.

Unfortunately, our government routinely ignores the Constitution by assuming powers not granted and our Supreme Court not only ignores these transgressions, it becomes a partner in crime, literally, by legislating from the bench. Conservatives must insist that the rule of law start with obeying our highest law – the Constitution. Thus Conservatives insist that:

2. Judges appointed to the Supreme Court must be dedicated to upholding a strict interpretation of our Constitution as intended by our Founding Fathers.

While respect for previous decisions of the Supreme Court (stare decisis – to “stand by that which is decided”) is a good practice when previous decisions comport with the original intent of the Founders, decisions that directly contradict this intent should be overturned without any reservation.

Initially, our Constitution’s function was restricted to granting a set of limited powers to our new federal government. It was implicitly understood that any powers not specifically granted were retained by the states or the people.

The historically justified fear that government would exceed its legitimate authority led to the insistence that our most precious rights be explicitly spelled out. The Bill of Rights lists these critical rights (the first eight amendments), establishes the fact that this list is not exhaustive (the Ninth Amendment), and ensures that powers not specifically delegated to the federal government are reserved to the states and the people (the Tenth Amendment).

Maintaining these rights for ourselves and future generations is fundamental to the preservation of liberty. Therefore:

3. Conservatives must vigorously protect our rights with special attention to those outlined in the Bill of Rights and not let them be diminished or eroded at any cost.

Our First and Second Amendment rights deserve focused attention because they represent our two most important civil rights: the right to express ideas (alone and with the voluntary participation of others) and the right to defend ourselves. Only by guaranteeing open intellectual debate and the sharing of ideas through free speech can our rights be secured and the need for violent confrontation avoided.

These rights should be considered sacrosanct and never be abridged for any reason – certainly not for anything as silly as “campaign finance reform.”   

The Second Amendment represents our right to defend our liberties when our government fails to protect them. Only by reserving to individuals the right to use force to defend themselves and their families can individuals be assured that those rights are truly protected. Having a right to life when the police find you murdered hardly constitutes a right.

Speaking of a right to life, your life cannot be secured without the right to property. Property rights are a logical consequence of any claim to a right to life. If you have no right to property, your means of sustaining your life can be taken from you. If you can’t gather and utilize the necessities of life, you can be deprived of the right to life.


 4. Conservatives must be ardent supporters of property rights.

A right to property is the right to determine how that property is to be used, the right to any proceeds derived from that property, and the right to trade that property or its proceeds with others, based on mutual consent without interference.

Individuals earn the right to property through trade with others, either trading labor or intellectual property, or by exchanging other property or rights. Having the right to property means that neither the government nor another individual can be permitted to take away your property by force or impose restrictions, with the exception of outlawing fraud, on your exchange of that property.

If strictly observed, individual property rights would prohibit all taxation and the taking of property by eminent domain. While I would welcome this conclusion, such a strict prohibition might leave me in a political movement of a few thousand people and not the millions needed to be successful. While the risks of philosophical compromise are substantial, under the present circumstances some relaxation of this principle is necessary.

The more practical test for Conservatives is to ensure that there is agreement on the direction of new policy initiatives. The common goal should be crystal clear: everything possible must be done to substantially reduce the infringement of our property rights by government.

First and foremost, this means a dramatic reduction in the taking of private property through taxation. In the process of implementing such a policy, every effort should be made to minimize any infringement of individual liberties.

This goal cannot be accomplished by tweaking the current tax code. Proposed reforms must involve total elimination of the current tax system and its replacement with a revenue generating mechanism that is substantially simpler and less intrusive. Obvious candidates are the flat tax or the national sales tax that would replace the federal income tax – including abolishing the income tax amendment to the Constitution.

Note that current flat tax and sales tax proposals are designed to be revenue neutral. This constraint must be vehemently rejected. Not to do so is to ratify the destruction of liberty championed by liberal politicians over the last 100 years. Instead, the goal of Conservatives must be to substantially reduce the government’s taking of private property.

Unfortunately, this leaves room for both good ideas and bad ideas. But, if “substantially reduce” is taken seriously (e.g., cut in half or more), even bad ideas would be far better than the current state of affairs.

To sum up, these are the core beliefs that truly define Conservatives and the Conservative movement. They are as important and relevant today as they were 200 years ago when some brilliant individuals gathered together to form a new nation based on individual liberty and the rule of law.

Next month, in Part II, I will connect these basic Conservative principles to the day-to-day issues that currently dominate political debate.

Dr. Ormsby is a member of the North  Andover School Committee. He is a graduate of Cornell and has a doctorate from MIT. You can contact Dr. Ormsby via email: ccormsby@comcast.net


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(C) copyright, Valley Patriot, Inc., 2008

March '08 Edition

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