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True Conservatism Must Be Grounded in Reality

As conservatives and as constitutionalists, we have a strong bias in favor of freedom.

Freedom produces more wealth, produces innovation. It’s great to live in freedom.

But what if freedom didn’t work? What if every time we tried freedom, it failed — and produced more poverty and misery?
As fact-based, reality-based conservatives, we would have to adjust our philosophy, our worldview, our principles.

Fortunately, this is not the case. It’s actually socialism that has failed so dismally.  It’s actually freedom that works, for the most part.

But the free-market clearly does not work on its own in all areas.  The free market could not work at all without government, without rules.

You can’t have a football game without rules.

You can’t hold an NFL football game without infrastructure. You need stadiums. And you need a governing body to set the rules.

The same is true for a civil society.

An ordered civil society is more than just whatever makes the economy work best.

People also want things that the free-market can’t provide.

People want clean air and clean water. We need rules to make sure that happens.

For the stock market and the economy to run well, we need transparent reporting requirements for publicly traded companies. We need an SEC to enforce these rules. Building codes are a good idea. I certainly want to know the house I’m buying isn’t going to collapse due to shoddy construction.

The Hoover Dam was a great idea. It worked. It made life better for tens of millions of people.
There are lots of things I want government to do.

Conservatives believe in ordered liberty.

This is why I’m a conservative, not a libertarian. I am biased in favor of freedom. I have a strong presumption toward freedom. But I also want law and order and a strong national defense.

I don’t want a weak government.  I want a very strong government where government is supposed to be strong.

I want a government that is strong enough to hunt down and kill terrorists.

The Patriot Act certainly infringes on my liberties, but I’m willing to put up with it because there are real threats out there. I don’t mind the TSA security system at the airports, as libertarians complain about.  I don’t find it all that intrusive to have to take my shoes off and go through the scanners.  I really don’t care if some government official sees my naked body in all its glory to make sure I’m not carrying a bomb on the plane.

The world is a dangerous place.

Video surveillance of the streets is fine by me if that helps us catch terrorists and criminals.

Libertarian concerns about that make little sense.

Conservatives believe in freedom, but make adjustments based on reality.

I’d also like to get back to having a JFK-style space program again. Why haven’t we landed a team on Mars yet — a half century after we landed on the moon?

And most Americans don’t want to see people starving on the street — won’t stand for it.

When I go to Third World countries, I see people starving on the streets. We don’t see that often in America.  We see it some, but we’re shocked when we see it.

We pride ourselves in being a prosperous, civilized country where that doesn’t happen, or shouldn’t happen.

When we see a homeless person freezing and starving, we want to take action. We want to help.

What’s the libertarian answer to that?

Rely on private charities to step in?  Churches?

Sure, these institutions have their role.  But that’s not the scale of the solution Americans are looking for.

Conservatives make a mistake by sounding sometimes like they want to scrap the welfare state.
We certainly want to scrap or redo large sections of the current welfare state because it’s clearly not working and is counter-productive. It’s also being abused by politicians who are using expansion of the welfare state as a vote buying scheme. But we don’t want to sound like we are opposed to a social safety net.

That’s a losing proposition. We’ll never win elections standing for that.

Yes, people want freedom, want opportunity. But they also want safety. They want to know if they fall on hard times, if they fall through the cracks, someone or some system is there to ensure they don’t starve, freeze, or die of some easily-cured illness.

The question is not whether we should have a safety net. We certainly need one. The question is: what does this social safety net look like? Conservatives want a social safety net that works because fact-based conservatives want results, not just good intentions.

Conservatives also point out other considerations that limit what we might want to do — such as the $16.5 TRILLION national debt that threatens to collapse our economic system.

We can only do what we can afford to do. I might want a nicer car, but if I can’t afford it, I don’t buy it.

Politicians in Washington aren’t constrained by that common-sense rule.

The U.S. government today borrows 46 cents of every dollar it spends. We can’t continue long at this rate of borrowing and spending..

Every baby born today owes $55,000 on the national debt. Conservatives worry about this. Liberals, not so much.

Has the American economy performed better or worse as we’ve been adding all this new government spending and debt?

Answer: worse.

A reality-based conservative looks at the last 70 years or so and asks: When was America doing best?

Well, it looks like America was doing best from about 1944 through 2000 when federal spending as a percentage of GDP hovered in the 18 to 20 percent range.

Today, federal spending has spiked up to 26 percent of GDP. That is, federal spending is about 33 percent higher as a percentage of GDP than at the end of Bill Clinton’s term as President.

The economy was doing very well then, very poorly now. So let’s return federal spending to the level it was in 2000 — 18 percent of GDP.

And let’s have a law (preferably a Constitutional Amendment) that says federal spending must be capped at a maximum of 18 percent of GDP moving forward. I could even live with capping federal spending at 20 percent of GDP. Fine.

That’s what a reality-based conservative does.

We look at the facts. We look at history. We look at what has worked and what hasn’t worked. We then make proposals based on that, not ideology.

That’s what most Americans want. Most Americans are not ideological, not especially political.
Most Americans just want the country to work.

Most Americans know the country is not working well now.

If conservatives propose practical solutions to obvious problems that people sense and see, we can get back to winning elections again.

Ronald Reagan was great conservative. He was also a practical politician.  Liberals accused him of being a war-monger, too quick to pull the trigger, a saber-rattler. But when a terrorist truck bomb blew up that Marine barracks in Beirut killing 299 American Marines, Reagan’s response was not to launch a war, as some might have expected. Instead, his response was to reassess why we had a Marine barracks there in the first place. His response was to pull back our military presence in the area because he did not see our presence there serving any practical purpose.

Reagan was a pragmatist, a realist — as true conservatives are.

Conservatives are not ideologues. Conservatives are anti-ideology.

Ideologues persist in their ideology even when the facts prove their ideology to be wrong.
Conservatives subscribe to a set of principles — principles mostly derived from historical experience– that is, by looking at what’s worked and what hasn’t worked. But these principles can and must be adjusted by facts as we meet them — just as a scientist starts with a hypothesis, then tests that hypothesis, then adjusts the hypothesis in accordance with the facts.

This is why libertarianism is such a flawed ideology. This is why I’m a conservative, not a libertarian.

That’s why I sometimes describe my views as “utilitarian tempered by the Bill of Rights.”

Like most Americans, I just want America to work well.

That’s what patriotism is.  Patriots want what’s best for the country as whole.

The goal of government is exactly what the Constitution says: to “secure the blessings of liberty,” “provide for the common defence,” “insure domestic tranquility,” and to “promote the general welfare.”

Not to use government power to steal from one group of people to give to another group; not to redistribute wealth; not to punish one group of people; not to use the federal treasury to buy votes or reward donors to political campaigns — but to secure liberty and make life better for the people as a whole.

We believe in equal treatment of all American citizens under the laws. We believe in the unalienable right to pursue happiness, as our Declaration of Independence says, not to be happy.

America’s Founders had principles, had strong beliefs. They were also practical statesmen who built a nation that worked — that allowed America to quickly emerge as the freest, most prosperous nation in human history. The American Civil War showed that what they built had to be tweaked some, had to be adjusted. The Civil War demonstrated a need for a stronger federal authority.

But America’s founders got a lot right.

Click here for Part I of the series, Why I’m a Conservative, Not a Libertarian

Click here for Part II of the series, We Do Need a Social Safety Net

Click here for Part III of the series, What a Conservative Social Safety Net Would Look Like

Click here for Part IV of the series, The Guiding Theme of American Conservatism

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If This Is Conservatism

I want no part of it. The more I read this latest installment the more incredulous I became. This is conservatism? No this is progressive lite and not so lite at that.