My wife and I are re-watching The West Wing for the first time since Trump took office. It’s been…revelatory, to see those people and those controversies again, after the last four years. To imagine (again) a White House whose biggest scandal might be some harsh words said to a fundamentalist on television, a White House where a single lie to the Press Core can occupy a character’s arc for a whole episode.
A White House that might hire Ainsley Hayes.
If you’re not familiar with the show, Hayes is a young Republican that out-debates a high-level member of the President’s staff on a political talk show. When the President finds out, he decides to hire her to work in the White House Counsel’s office. She refuses, at first, to come work for a Democrat. But after seeing them working in the White House (as part of being there to turn the job down) the Chief of Staff summons her sense of duty, and she accepts.
I love the Ainsley Hayes character. She’s an excellent counter-weight to the arrogance of the other staff members, she’s smart and witty and optimistic amidst the daily hustle and bustle of the administration. And she faithfully represents the Republican position on issues circa 2000, right down to her objections to the Equal Rights Amendment.
It’s during an episode where she has a casual debate with another staffer on the ERA that she articulates the Republican governing philosophy:
I believe that every time the federal government hands down a new law, it leaves for the rest of us a little less freedom. So I say, let’s just stick to the ones we absolutely need to have water come out of the faucet and our cars not stolen.
This is an absolutely accurate summation of what Republicans believed (and many still believe).
The problem is, it’s not a conservative stance. It’s a libertarian one.
Libertarians want to roll back the role of government to what it was in the pre-industrial period: foreign defense, a little bit of property law, and that’s it. That’s why the Libertarian Party wants to legalize all drugs: the War on Drugs is not in service of either of those goals.
Which is all well and good, but neither is Social Security. Or the fire department. Or public schools.
If you believe that more law means less freedom, then you have no interest in making good laws. Because the only good law is the law that never gets passed.
This stance has been masquerading as conservatism in the United States for the last few decades, but it is not conservative.
To try to recover the conservative position, let’s turn to the writer considered the progenitor of the movement, Edmund Burke:
Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.
Hmm. Doesn’t sound like he thinks fewer laws means more freedom.
Nothing turns out to be so oppressive and unjust as a feeble government.
Oh? He doesn’t want to make government so small he can “drown it in the bathtub”?
Two more quotes, both of which, I believe, sum up the actual conservative position:
A state without the means of some change, is without the means of its own conservation.
The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse.
In other words: Modern Conservatism is opposition to radical change
That may sound like a small philosophy, but it turns out to be a big one. Burke was writing (from the safety of England) during the French Revolution, forming his philosophy out of opposition to the Terror.
He opposed both the refusal of the French aristocracy to change and the radical changes being made by Robespierre et al.
The conservatism of Burke fully believes in the power of government to do good. But it acknowledges the potential for government — like any powerful organization — to do evil.
It’s a combination of a skeptical view of the nature of people — government being necessary, in part, to protect us from our worse instincts — and a skeptical view of power wielded without check.
So while Burke might have opposed something like the ERA in his own time, someone like Burke dropped into the US of the 1970s, where women had been voting and going to college and having careers for decades, would have seen no issue with enshrining their equal status in law. In fact, he would have (rightly) seen it as a preservation of liberty against backsliding by the state.
Okay, one more quote:
The people never give up their liberties but under some delusion.
For a true conservative, one of the purposes of law is to firmly entrench the rights and liberties of the people. Thus more law can and does mean more freedom, if those laws are written correctly.
Also note that for Burke, liberty is not the freedom to do as we please. Burke believed that we could not be free unless we tamed our passions; that only a people with their emotions in check could be said to be free.
To take a more modern example, freedom does not mean the freedom to go without wearing a mask. Public health fits squarely in the realm of government, and those who defy laws written to preserve public health are not exercising their liberty, but inciting anarchy. That’s a true conservative viewpoint.
It’s difficult to see, after decades of the Republican party trying to put their stance into practice, but they are not conservatives. They’re radicals, shading into libertarians, wrapping themselves in a tradition they no longer follow.