Book of the Fortnight: The Conscience of a Conservative

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Another selection from the OB&B Book List, The Conscience of a Conservative was ghostwritten for Barry Goldwater by his former speechwriter L. Brent Bozell, who also happened to be William F. Buckley’s brother-in-law, and was originally published in 1960. While much of the material is dated, there are a number of surprisingly current themes throughout the book that go to show the more things change, the more they stay the same. This makes The Conscience of a Conservative an interesting read today in a way it couldn’t be when it was initially published and makes for a valuable history lesson for younger politicos.

Before the book truly starts, in the preface, Goldwater/Bozell place the blame for the Conservative movement’s failures on Conservatives themselves saying they, “sit by impotently while Congress seeks to improvise solutions to problems that are not the real problems facing the country,” and arguing Conservatives don’t properly demonstrate how Conservative principles apply to today’s issues. Far from reading as though it’s 50+ years old, it rather reinforces the point that conservatives have yet to properly demonstrate their principles into today.

Goldwater/Bozell go on to point out some of the historical principles that underscore the modern conservative such as limited government. “The true Conservative was sympathetic with the plight of the hapless peasant under the tyranny of the French monarchy. And he was equally revolted at the attempt to solve that problem by a mob tyranny that paraded under the banner of egalitarianism.” Apparently, true Conservatives are repulsed by Rousseau. Goldwater/Bozell continue elaborating on these principles by adding, “that the Conservative looks upon politics as the art of achieving the maximum amount of freedom for individuals that is consistent with the maintenance of social order,” and concluding, “for the American Conservative, there is no difficulty in identifying the day’s overriding political challenge: it is to preserve and extend freedom.”

In the next chapter, Goldwater/Bozell elaborate on the nature of power, noting the Constitution is a document designed to restrict the power of the federal government. It is, “a system of restraints against the natural tendency of government to expand in the direction of absolutism.” This flows well into the next chapter on State’s Rights where Goldwater/Bozell make two important points. The first point is that when states fail to do their duties the sovereign power is the people of that state, not the federal government. The second point (and this is a key point, imo ) is that the 10th Amendment prevents the accumulation of power into one central government far removed from the people. There is not only a balance of power in the federal government between the executive, legislative and judicial branches, but also between the federal government, the state governments and the people, or at least it was designed that way.

Goldwater/Bozell go on to tackle some of the issues of the day by applying conservatism, and this is where the book serves well as a history lesson. Laws and statutes from the 1930s to the 1950s are discussed, many of which are likely new information for the reader. One of the points raised by Goldwater/Bozell I found most striking was the notion of a Constitutional amendment to return control of education back to the states. This is an idea I’ve never seen floated on the right, despite the continued clamoring to shut down the Department of Education. Pursuing a constitutional amendment would, at the minimum, expand the conversation about our educational needs in this country, and yet this idea isn’t discussed in major right-wing circles.

In discussing agriculture, Goldwater/Bozell make a point more relevant to today’s discussions on all entitlement reform noting a decision from the Supreme Court which says, “the power to confer or withhold unlimited benefits is the power to coerce or destroy.” Discussing labor unions, Goldwater/Bozell point out our right to freely associate, and therefore unions are an extension of men and women exercising that right, but they go on to point out that this right is perverted if membership is forced. They point out these give unfair advantages not to unions, but to the union’s leadership, an important distinction, and some fair points are raised about unions and their political activity, wrapping up the chapter by saying, “the enemy of freedom is unrestrained power.” Important words to remember, imo.

On taxes, Goldwater/Bozell state that we have a right to the fruits of our labors, but there is likewise an obligation on citizens to contribute their fair share to the legitimate functions of government. Of course, the argument then becomes what is or is not a legitimate function of government? On a point I very much agree with, the authors state that, “as a practical matter, spending cuts must come before tax cuts. If we reduce taxes before firm, principled decisions are made about expenditures, we will court deficit spending and the inflationary effects that invariably follows.” Of course, we never did listen to Goldwater on this point, and more than 50 years later, we’re all wondering how we got here. In my opinion, the spendoholic republicans of the Bush era should never be allowed to call themselves “conservatives” nor should any other “conservative” be allowed to use such a title if they don’t support spending cuts more than tax cuts. I don’t expect the misapplication of this label to stop anytime soon, if ever, however. As this chapter shows, big spending republicans have always been in the party, and republican administration have been big spenders, so the issue isn’t conservative policies being enacted, but rather that they’re not. Goldwater/Bozell propose a yearly 10% spending reduction in areas where the federal government should yield control back to the states, thus restoring state’s rights and reducing federal spending. Again – another proposal no one on the right discusses these days.

The book concludes with chapters on education, welfare and the Soviet Union that offer some insight into these issues in 1960, and there is certainly some food for thought, among them being that removing the need for an individual to meet their own needs removes their will to be free; that schools need to “tax the talents and stir the ambitions of our best students,” and train the mind of future generations; and while most of the chapter on the Soviet menace is irrelevant, there are still important points raised, such as maintaining a technological edge to our military capability.

It’s interesting to note the founder of the modern conservative movement didn’t feel compelled to discuss social issues and never once suggests the federal government should be promoting social mores more in line with a religious institution. Barry Goldwater would likely be labeled a “RINO” in today’s political environment. The Conscience of a Conservative is a short, but thought provoking read that more on the right, and the middle, should read to learn more about conservative principles that at least some still subscribe to.

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